One of the nicest features of the annual Tokyo Game Show is the co-mingling of blockbuster AAA video game franchises and small projects made by small teams or even solitary individuals. For years, TGS has dedicated floor space to universities, pavilions from nations around the world, and independent developers of all sizes.
With the show returning to an in-person event in 2022, getting a chance to see these up-and-coming titles and meet the people behind them was one of the things I enjoyed most about returning to TGS. Here are my favorite finds:
Most mobile games in my experience aim towards the lighter side of the medium, featuring bright colors, chipper music, and offer players a breezy means to pass the time while waiting for the bus. Shambles delivers the exact opposite of that across the board, offering gloomy shades of gray and brown, muted tunes, and a demanding combination of story-based decision making and deck-building combat.
Shambles, as the name suggests, is a post-apocalyptic tale set 500 years after war devastated human society. Players build a character, RPG-style, assigning stat points to determine their abilities, navigating a complex skill tree as they level up, and equipping weapons, armor, and items to build their strength. As they scroll through the story, which is largely text-based with limited animations, players make choices regarding their next move. Should you search that dead body, or leave it be? Is it safe to approach that stranger, or should you hide?
When the time comes to fight for your life, the turn-based battle system deals a random selection of cards from a deck of available actions. Each action requires stamina, and players only have so many available points per turn before they must yield the floor to the enemy. By customizing their deck outside of combat and carefully managing the cards they’re dealt in combat, players navigate the world and try to survive.
Shambles is the work of Studio Exlix, a small team based in South Korea. Woo-hyun Yang and Jeong-Jun Hyeop told me the project has been in the works for about one year, and came about because they wanted to combine the otherwise disparate genres of deck-building games and choice-driven story-based games. The build at TGS only offered Korean or Japanese languages, but they hope to launch Shambles on iOS, Android, and PC with English text as well.
I can’t say much about the story or setting of Animal Well beyond the fact that the protagonist, a “little blob” in the words of solo developer Billy Basso, wakes up inside a giant subterranean flower and must make its way… well, I don’t actually know where it’s going. What I do know is Animal Well features gorgeous pixel art that eschews the usual primary colors for shimmering teals and purples, while also using dramatic lighting to make its caverns feel decidedly otherworldly.
If Metroidvanias live or die on the strengths of their environments, I’m completely sold on Animal Well already. The game kept taking my surprise as I scrolled to the next screen, and I quickly learned I had no idea what might lurk around the next corner. Exploration-heavy games already contain a layer of intrigue, as every out-of-reach item or locked door invites speculation, but in Animal Well this goes hand in hand with massive statues and mysterious animals casually living their lives unaware of the player.
Basso said he’s spent the last five years making Animal Well by himself, and he designed his Metroidvania around exploration rather than combat, with a little survival horror thrown in. The blob has no weapons; I was able to find some firecrackers in the demo, but these served as a distraction more than anything else. When I picked up what I thought was an important item, a ghostly cat appeared and pursued me relentlessly, even onto other screens. When I compared the cat to Phanto, the enemy from Super Mario Bros 2 who chases the player whenever they pick up a key, Basso said that was one of his favorite Mario games, and imagining an open-world version of that world and its “uncanny weirdness” helped inform his project.
Animal Well has already been announced for Steam and PlayStation 5, and Basso hopes to launch on other platforms as well, possibly as early as 2023 but admits the game will be done when it is done.
I wonder if the simultaneous rise in popularity of indie Metroidvanias and nostalgia for the Game Boy Advance are coincidental; after all, I’d argue that the move to Nintendo’s handheld system came to define the Castlevania series as one of exploration and RPG-elements, especially considering that some of the best games in the entire franchise came out on the GBA or Nintendo DS. Still, I seldom encounter developers who explicitly draw such a connection, which makes the story of Rystel all the more interesting to me.
Produced by a six-person team called RelicSquare, Rystel bills itself as a “2D action-adventure” game, though I’d underline the word action. The protagonist starts the demo with two distinct power sets, and each one has unique attacks, both short and long-range. Players can switch these on the fly with the left and right trigger buttons, and attacks have little in the way of cooldown. The protagonist is also quite agile, both thanks to his double-jump ability and the added mobility features of his attacks. Slashing with a sword in mid-air gives him an extra lift before hitting the ground, while other attacks allow him to air dash.
The game’s director, who introduced himself as “sart,” told me that he was a big fan of the Game Boy Advance, specifically citing the Mega Man Zero series as a personal favorite. Other major titles that inspired him to make Rystel include Cave Story and Odinsphere, though with its color-based block-breaking attacks, it also reminded me a lot of Guacamelee.
sart told me that his team has spent the last three or four years putting Rystel together, mostly on weekends while they all worked day jobs. He hopes the game will appeal to fans of JRPG-style stories, as he said he deliberately designed the game to be on the easy side to help inexperienced players reach the end, and the monsters the player encounters are quite cute instead of threatening. That said, the demo includes a boss battle that was no cakewalk, so the challenge is there. Rystel already has a Steam listing, and sart said he hopes to launch a demo in the near future that supports Japanese, Chinese, and English.
With all the emphasis video games place on graphics, I seldom see titles that actively restrict what the player can and cannot see, but Rhodopsins is hardly a normal video game, as its unusual title suggests. Named for “a light-sensitive receptor protein involved in visual phototransduction” (thank you Wikipedia), Rhodopsins features three-player platforming action with a sensory twist, as players wear colored sunglasses that are red, green, or blue. The lenses erase on-screen objects and even enemies that feature the corresponding colors, meaning that no one player can see everything at once. The fun comes from coordinating every jump with your teammates to ensure that everyone can reach the goal.
Developed by a group of seniors at Sapporo City University over the course of only three months, Rhodopsins is as much an artistic experiment as it is a video game. Director Wataru Ishizaki, a media arts major, admitted that with all its necessary peripherals and the fact that solo play would be nigh impossible, the game likely has no commercial potential. That said, he and his team do hope to share it with a larger audience somehow.
Dr. Kobushi’s Labyrinthine Laboratory
Do you like your puzzle games hard? How about “PhD in cryptography” hard? Symbolic Software’s Nadim Kobeissi told me about his academic background and that his studio started out specializing in cryptography consulting before trying their hands at video game development.
In Dr. Kobushi’s Labyrinthine Laboratory, players must crack over 100 single-screen levels by guiding the protagonist, Ayla, to the exit. Beyond the usual traps, locks, and barriers, the puzzles also contain enemies who move as Ayla moves, trying to stop her from reaching her goal. While Ayla has no weapons, she can lure the enemies into the same traps that block her path, and can take advantage of their primitive pathfinding to get them stuck behind walls or locked doors.
Kobeissi told me he wanted to make a puzzle game that he himself would enjoy, especially one with on-screen characters adding flavor to the experience. He cited Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine as a personal favorite, also mentioning films like The Mask and Beetlejuice as far as influences on his sense of humor. Dr. Kobushi’s Labyrinthine Laboratory launched on Steam a few days ago, but Kobeissi tells me he doesn’t think anyone has completed the entire game just yet. I can believe it; after completing the tutorial, I nearly got stuck on the very next screen, and only got the exit after Kobeissi gave me a hint.