It must be tough being an indie developer and trying to make something of a trip to Japan. Not only are you pushed into an entirely different building than the one where Square Enix, SEGA and so on set up (though it is the same building where the merchandise is, so it’s not like there’s no foot traffic down there), but you’re also competing with a lot of other indies these days. Dozens and dozens of them. Actually making your game stand out and be memorable when you’re running a humble little stand with a few controllers set up isn’t easy.
But some indies did indeed catch my eye. Here are a bunch that I played at TGS this year that I recommend you stay tuned to, because they all have the potential to be something different and interesting when they release.
Three Kingdoms Zhao Yun
Apparently, this game is going to be released in September, according to the person working the booth. As there are only five days left in September, I’m not sure there weren’t wires crossed, but regardless, keep a close eye on this one, wishlist it and all the rest, because from the brief time I had with it, this is shaping up to be one of my favourite Diablo clones since Titan Quest. As the name suggests it’s a Three Kingdoms-themed top-down crawler, and the developers have really nailed the appeal of clicking on things until they fall over dead. Naturally with this genre balance is everything so I’ll need to spend a lot more time with it to get a full feel for it, but as a gorgeous and apparently genuine effort to do the Three Kingdoms justice, I’m fully on board with it.
The latest project from Cherrymochi, the team behind the brilliant Tokyo Dark (read our review of that game here), is Exit Veil, and I say this with no exaggeration. I don’t think I have played anything quite like this before. Aesthetically and, apparently, thematically, the game’s like a mind-bleep with added acid, and it’s a dark trip at that. Exit Veil has a hauntingly surreal and sublime ambience to it, and it’s going to be fascinating to delve deeper into just what the game will say about that, knowing how in tune the developer is with writing smart and interrogative narratives. The card-based combat seems to have been done in an interesting way, too, given that it uses a tarot deck as its basis. Without a doubt, Exit Veil is the indie game I am most keen on right now, even though there’s quite a wait for the full release.
Snufkin – Melody of Moominvalley
Moomin is one of those iconic pieces of childhood fantasy that continues to live on because it offers something real for adult fans too. It’s like Sweden’s Peter Rabbit, or Dayan the Cat and Wachifield’s World. Moomin has shown up in all kinds of books, animated films, and more, but from memory, there has never been a Moomin video game. Snufkin seems to be in a good place to deliver for fans. It’s a simple point-and-click adventure game, and the difficulty does seem to be set low – there are puzzles, but they’re easy to solve (at least, from the section I played). What helps the game stand out is that it has the dry and very European humour of Moomin captured beautifully, and the aesthetics are just gorgeous. It’s like stepping into a Moomin picture book, and that’s a wonderful concept.
I wanted to highlight Bar Island, by Taiwan’s Game Nobility, not because I thought it was a particularly special or innovative game – it’s not, really – but it it’s a sweet and cute take on the kind of mixology gameplay that the mighty VA-11 Hall-A pioneered. Basically, you’ve got these really cute little animal-like critters that come wandering into your bar, and they have drinks that they want to order. You need to mix them up, and if you do a good job, you get paid nicely. You also get to decorate your bar, and hear little stories as you go. Don’t expect anything of the probing intellect of VA-11 Hall-A, of course, but it should help you connect to a game world that really is drawn beautifully. And with the tagline “mixing drinks ain’t hard, anyone can become a home bartender,” you just know that this game could become your next commute-killing obsession.
Harma caught my eye because it combined the dark fantasy vibe of say, Elden Ring, but in a black-and-white pixel art aesthetic that will remind you most of the Final Fantasy Legend games. And then the world map, where you move from battle or event to battle or event, looks strikingly similar to the overworlds of Super Mario Bros. 3. Being frank here, we’ve all played a lot of roguelikes with card battle combat systems by this point. Harma doesn’t seem to be any different mechanically – you have played this before. But the atmosphere really is spot on, and it looks set to be a challenging (and hopefully) rewarding mesh of nostalgic and dark fantasy aesthetics.
Shinonome Escape From Haunted House
This one has been in Early Access for quite some time now. I have no idea how it’s grown from when it was first taken live, but what I can say is that this has a lot of potential for people who like to challenge themselves with difficult games where brute force isn’t the answer. In Shinonome, you need to make your way through a series of rooms in a haunted house, top-down style, in an effort to try and exorcise the entire building. The problem is that there are a lot of Yokai down there, looking for a quick meal. Levels are randomised, so that no two tours are the same, and you are massively underequipped for the threats that you’ll be up against. You need to pay attention to your surroundings, learn patterns of enemies, and be able to beat a hasty retreat, as you try and make your way to the heart of the level to purify it. Again, we’ve seen this in some form or another elsewhere, but this is playing nicely and has a good aesthetic and theme to it, so it should be able to find an audience.
Finally, I’d like to call out School Girlfriend, which has an exactly zero chance of getting a release out west. It is exactly as the name suggests – a dating game where you get to bat eyelashes at a virtual girl, and the best way to describe it is if you took Konami’s classic (and far classier than its reputation would have you believe) Love Plus, and made it un-classy by really upping the fan service. These kinds of games are an increasing rarity, even in Japan. It was nice to see a big booth there promoting a blast from the TGS’ of the past.