PAX East 2020: Can Focus Home Interactive Top Themselves?

2019 was a record year for French publishers Focus Home Interactive, both in terms of sales and acclaim. Titles such as A Plague Tale: Innocence, GreedFall and The Surge 2 ended up winning over many gamers, exceeding expectations in the process. And so when visiting them at PAX East this year, there was only two real questions on my mind: is Focus feeling any pressure to live up to this level of quality again and will they be able to do so? The answer that I got to the first question was that of course, they feel some of the the pressure. After all, like anyone dealing in great entertainment, they always want to do better and up the ante. And heck, what they were showing off at PAX East is apparently only a portion of what they have in store. And as for the second question…well, the games themselves answered that.

Things started out simple with Curse of the Dead Gods, the new roguelike from Passtech Games. You play as someone who wants money and power, here’s a labyrinthine temple filled with money and power, go and explore said temple while avoiding traps and fighting monsters in order to gain money and power. So this is achieved through classic isometric hack-and-slash action, and unsurprisingly for the genre, it’s rather brutal action as well. You have to deal with massive mobs of enemies, quickly dodge to escape various traps like spiked floors and deal with some rather hefty doses of darkness that can make things a bit difficult. It’s tough but fun.

In all honesty, though, I can’t say that Curse of the Dead Gods is that particularly innovative when it comes to roguelikes such as this. There is a greater emphasis on light and using a torch, be it keeping areas visible, igniting cannons or other benefits, some “greed”-based bonuses depending on certain kills, and the corruption system that can lead to curses which affect your character are neat touches. But as others have noted, as a whole you won’t find much here at its core that you can’t find in other action-based dungeon crawlers like Hades. Run, die, run again, choose path with blessings to find, die, run again, choose path with weapons or relics, die, repeat.

But what I can say is that while Curse of the Dead Gods may not do anything groundbreaking, everything else that it does, it does really, really well. Combat is nice and fun, the art style is attractive (the crisp, bold visuals give it a nice comic book-style feel), the controls are fine, and the challenge level appears to be just right. Plus, as my run was only a quick demo, it’s more than likely deeper runs of the game (especially in later versions) will reveal their own unique twists, especially when it comes to any gold you hoard. And it is indeed in Early Access right now, so you can check that out for yourself, which I recommend (heck, I’ll probably be spending more time with it myself later).

Othercide, a tactical RPG from Lightbulb Crew, is another title that may give off familiar vibes at first. Namely, vibes of XCOM, but with a more supernatural bent. You control copies of the world’s greatest warrior, known as “daughters,” born and trained to battle the otherworldly forces of the Others and the Suffering. The first thing that jumps out at you when you look at Othercide should be be the art style. Everything is depicted in monochrome, save for a few splashes of red in areas like scarves, health bars, or of course, blood.

It creates striking visuals, and more importantly, nicely plays into the themes of horror. The creature designs are creepy as well, being menacing without feeling over the top. And the characters are well-animated when on the battlefield as well. Speaking of which, the turn-based combat is nice and easy to get a hang of, and the use of a dynamic timeline that you can monitor at the bottom of the screen is well-implemented. The key is to plan out just where on the timeline you want each character to end up after their turn, with the action points used determining their position.

So managing the three different characters that were on the field was relatively simple, as was quickly getting used to their classes and specific skills (melee, long range, defense, etc). Using the timeline to also set up combos such as stunning one enemy to knock them back on the timeline so that another nearby daughter now has a better chance at taking them out was something else to learn and it made for some nice strategic elements. The hardest call to make, though, actually happened after the end of the battle.

The cultists we were facing had been wiped out and now we had the ability to buff the current daughters up with new abilities via memories earned and create new daughters. At least one of my daughters had taken significant damage during the battle, however, and there’s only way to heal them. That way being to sacrifice another daughter. So, do you kill off that freshly-made daughter to heal the veteran, or use the rookie instead, hoping they can still do the job? Oh and any buff from a sacrificed daughter are gone forever, of course. And that’s not even getting into changes in personality traits that can affect daughters based on how you handle them in the field. It looks to be some tricky and gruesome stuff to deal with in Othercide, but it also looks to be highly rewarding.

The big title showcased here, though, was clearly Hardspace: Shipbreaker. Not that surprising, considering that it’s coming from the developers of the upcoming Homeworld 3, Blackbird Interactive. What is surprising is how Blackbird have been able to take a seemingly menial task and turn it into what could easily be one of the year’s most entertaining games. You play as a salvager in debt, disassembling spaceships and bringing the parts in for cash. You have tools like a laser cutter and a tether that can grab objects and bring them to you or fling them away, which should assist you. Sounds easy, right?

Well, my journey as a salvager started out simple. A ship came in and I was given a list of specific parts to salvage for more money. So after getting used to flying around first-person in space (which can always be a bit tricky at first, but you quickly get the hang of it), I began by using the cutter to take off the antenna, as well as a few other parts on the hull, sending them to the barge. Then after using a few scans to identify the valuable parts inside, I decided to go after the reactor. Since this is an extremely hazardous part of the ship, once I entered, I decided to cut off a few portions inside in order to make some room to get the reactor out. Okay, doing fine so far! I have the reactor and…you know, maybe I should take out one more part on the inside, just to be safe and…uh-oh.

The next few moments are kind of a blur, mostly consisting of flames, debris and me panicking. Needless to say, I had made a wrong cut and now the reactor was ruined, along with several other parts, as evidenced by the now-gaping hole in the ship with scraps of metal floating by it. This is where the game showcased its challenge level in requiring precision extraction at times, and unsurprisingly, this is also where the game gets to show off some impressive-looking physics. And after ogling the weird beauty of my wreckage for a moment, I decided to get back to salvaging. Thankfully, high-value parts are only one thing you can salvage. Various ship parts made of precious metals can be sent to a processor, while parts with more common metals can go into a furnace.

Much like other games revolving around labor, mining and/or experimentation, there’s just this sort of welcome zen-like feeling that comes from playing Hardspace: Shipbreaker as you get into the rhythm of cutting, grabbing and flinging parts towards their appropriate areas. Not that you should feel too relaxed, of course. You have electrical hazards and fire hazards to deal with and oxygen to manage, among other things. But don’t worry about dying, because the corporation you work for has provided you with state-of-the-art cloning technology to help revive you!…at a cost, of course. And oxygen doesn’t come cheap, either, nor do upgrades. Indeed, there appears to be a bit of corporate satire here, like with The Outer Worlds or Journey to the Savage Planet, and it’s welcome.

In the end, I was still able to turn a profit from my current salvaging gig, in spite of a few mishaps. And be it the campaign or sandbox mode, I can see Hardspace: Shipbreaker becoming a big hit when it enters Early Access this Summer. All three of these games actually have elements that can guarantee success, though, be it tried-and-true roguelike action, a splendid mix of horror and strategy, or a unique bit of sci-fi deconstruction and mayhem. So if all of the cards are played right, it looks like Focus may indeed have another great year ahead of them.