While nearly all of my demo appointments at PAX required me to absorb information about new games at blinding speed, the XNA Dream-Build-Play Finalists booth demo tasked me with getting a feel for six games in just under an hour. It would be difficult for me to develop any kind of deep analyses on these brief gameplay slivers -- instead, I've collected my initial, hastily acquired thoughts about the games after the jump.
Here's the short version: They're all pretty fun, but Dust: An Elysian Tail is clearly the leader of the pack.
Dust: An Elysian Tail
Listen, I was a member of the camp who instantly dismissed this game due to its inclusion of anthropomorphic, talking animals, and the unease that said inclusion instilled in my heart. However, while playing it, my mind wasn't addled with this discomfort -- instead, it was preoccupied with wondering how the very first project from a film school graduate named Dean Dodrill could be so impossibly good.
The reasons why Dust: An Elysian Tail was recently crowned the winner of the Dream-Build-Play competition (and rewarded $40,000 and the chance to get the XBLA treatment) are evident within the first few minutes of playing. The visual design and character animations are stunning. The combat, which incorporates a spinning fan blade attack allowing for infinite enemy juggling, is incredibly satisfying. The few chunks of writing I saw, though spoken through unsettling, fur-covered mouths, were pretty clever.
It felt like a project developed by a small, experienced indie studio. To think that someone who's never toiled over game development before could craft something of this caliber using only their persistence (and a bit of XNA training) isn't just the makings of a success story -- it's a damn miracle.
Watch: Dust: An Elysian Tail trailer
Sol Survivor is a tower defense game which -- hey, get back here! We know there's been a glut of tower defense titles that have been released in the last few months, but Sol Survivor incorporates a neat element not present in its competitors. Yes, you can build the weaponized installations which characterizes the genre, but you can also eliminate enemies using support abilities -- direct attacks the player can unleash upon the hordes of ever-marching attackers.
These support abilities, which range from orbital lasers to temporary boosts for your towers, help keep the action fresh, deftly avoiding the "set it and forget it" mentality that plagues other entries in the genre. With unlockable characters (each of which brings their own support abilities into action) and a lengthy campaign, Sol Survivor looks to be a pretty robust XNA offering.
Watch: Sol Survivor trailer
Hurricane X2 Evolution
Hurricane X2 Evolution is a simple 3D beat-em-up which, much like Dust, contained an unreal amount of polish for an XNA title. The gameplay is fairly straightforward -- each level is a closed-off, rectangular area which floods with enemies you have to dispatch. The occasional power-up and health boost helps you stave off the reaper, but you'll mostly be relying on stylish combos and well-timed evasion techniques.
My ten minutes with the game were enjoyable, but I'm not sure how well the experience will keep over a prolonged period of time. If the game includes some kind of character progression -- or at least new enemies and level designs as the game goes on, then it could potentially capture my transient attention.
Watch: Hurricane X2 Evolution trailer
Following the punch-fest the previous game invited me to, Kaleidoscope was a refreshing, artsy platformer. In it, you play Tint, an inhabitant of the world of Kaleidoscope, which has recently been plagued by a "desaturation outbreak." To restore the planet, you make your way across black-and-white environments, collecting color orbs which restore the area's hue and also enable you to use special abilities.
It's a pretty little game, and while it may lack the extreme production values of Dust, it has an undeniable adorability which charmed my pants off.
Watch: Kaleidoscope trailer
At first, I was bitter towards this game for stealing the moniker which I'd planned on applying to my firstborn child. However, Max Blastronaut's fast-paced, arcadey gameplay quickly won me over. Basically, while planetside, the game is a beat-em-up on a spherical plane. However, after collecting enough jet fuel, the player can orbit the planet on a jetpack, picking off enemies with all manner of ranged weaponry.
I enjoyed my time with Max -- though like all good beat-em-ups, I imagine it's optimally played with three of your friends (or at least three fellow jetpack enthusiasts).
Watch: Max Blastronaut trailer
Rotor'scope - The Secret of the Endless Energy
I'm pretty terrible at puzzle games that aren't Tetris Attack -- especially when those puzzle games incorporate new elements to the genre. Rotor'scope does just that with a unique twist on the block-aligning puzzle archetype -- multicolored blocks are placed on a grid which must be rotated in order to align said blocks into straight lines. If it sounds easy, I've described it poorly -- it's Rubik's Cube-esque in its capacity for brain teasing.
Much like the exploits of the Good Professor, these puzzles are incorporated into an animated overarching story, which involves cracking the mystery surrounding a missing colleague. However, the puzzles can also be played outside of story mode -- and overly creative players can even make their own puzzles, which they can then share with their Xbox Live friends. A lot of work went into Rotor'scope, and it definitely shows.
Watch: Rotor'scope - The Secret of the Endless Energy trailer