Five Awesome Games from PAX Prime 2011

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While the cosplay memories of the 2011 Penny Arcade Expo may fade, the glimpses of great games to come will keep gamers warm for many nights. Coming right at the cusp of the end-of-year holiday rush, PAX Prime seems to be serving as a last peek into the crazy months of September and December, as well as planting seeds of awareness for games that might impress in the next calendar year.

(PHOTOS: Who Are You Supposed to Be?: Cosplay at PAX Prime 2011)

Here are five games—most of them from small independent development teams—that excited me at this year’s fanfest.

Quantum Conundrum

Maybe the biggest surprise at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo was the announcement of this new game from Kim Swift, the co-creator of Portal. Developed by Airtight Games, Quantum Conundrum‘s a physics-based first-person puzzle game to rescue quirky inventor uncle Professor Fitz Quadwrangle. This uncle’s a famous scientist who’s disappeared and you’ll need to visit rooms in his sprawling mansion and shift them into various dimensions, like the Fluffy Dimension where heavy things become much lighter. QC‘s going to be a downloadable title that’s out early next year for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

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Indie games enthusiasts have been waiting a long time—five years, to be exact—for Fez. The creation of solo designer Phil Fish and  Renaud Bédard puts players in charge of Gomez, a slightly blobby-looking creatureperson searching for pieces of a mysterious golden cube in a gorgeous, pixelated world. Before it exploded into the pieces called bits, the talking cube gave Gomez titular headwear which lets him rotate the 2D world around a 3D axis. This head-spinning gimmick adds a clever freshness to the kind of old-school platforming challenges we’ve all played a million times before. Fez is due out before the end of this year, so we’ll all get the chance to see if it’s worth the wait.

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Skulls of the Shogun

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Think of Haunted Temple Studios’ first game as high-speed chess. With undead samurai, of course. The game’s main character is a deceased general named Akamoto. Just as he’s on the verge of winning a major victory that would make him shogun in feudal Japan, he gets stabbed in the back and dies. Akamoto goes to the afterlife and meets a giant queue of dead soldiers waiting to get into their promised paradise. The dead general decides that waiting’s not for him and recruits other samurai to cut the line, too. SotS updates the real-time strategy genre from the model seen in games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Advance Wars. The ubiquitous grid seen in older, tactics-style games is gone and you can steer your units freely to engage with the enemy as you see fit. The chess analogy comes in because each unit—cavalry, archers or infantry—all have special abilities and moves that control how they traverse the battlefield. Archers obviously have long-range attacks and cavalry can cross the terrain faster. The whole thing unfolds like a gorgeous bit of puppetry with a ton of humorous charm and a soundtrack that could’ve been lifted from a classic Wu-Tang album. The buzz on Skulls has been high and looks justified based on what I saw at PAX 2011. Expect to play it in the first few months of 2012.

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Not only is the Trapdoor dev studio partnering with Phil Fish to co-publish Fez, the indie gamemakers have also been cooking up their own game that’s due out next year. Warp puts players in the role of Zero, a cute, captured alien trapped in a giant underwater research facility. However, the scientists and soldiers who captured the antenna-sporting extraterrestrial don’t know that he can teleport and Zero uses that ability to outwit his captors.

As anyone who’s read X-Men comics with Nightcrawler or watched Star Trek: There’s always a cautionary caveat that accompanies the miracle of teleportation. You don’t want to materialize into something else. Someone could get hurt. In Warp, someone does get hurt by doing exactly that. But it’s not Zero. The little alien can teleport inside of organic and inorganic matter and, with vigorous wiggling of the left analog stick, explode it from within. So, yes: Zero can teleport inside of enemy soldiers and burst them open from the inside out. The gory yet clever mechanic also has stealth uses, too, so that you can bring a soldier close to exploding and then teleport out, leaving him stunned enough for you to sneak away. Using this strategy, you can finish the game without actually killing anyone, a challenge that should make an already promising game even more fun. Warp‘s due out next year on various platforms.

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Prey 2

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In the last game that developers Human Head put out with Prey in the title, players were the hunted entity. Prey 2 switches things up by making players the ones in pursuit. This new game lets you play as Killian Samuels, a police officer abducted by the aliens from Prey 1. That abduction dumps Samuels on a planet called Exodus. Killian’s managed to become a bounty hunter on Exodus, but he’s got amnesia at the beginning of the game. That means having to relearn what exactly he’s been doing on Exodus, as well as relearning how to use all his clever cosmic weapons.

Those weapons are where Prey 2 shows a lot of promise. Killian’s stash will grow to include cool stuff like a DNA tracker that has the ability to pick up on the movement of targets who have slipped away, or anti-gravity grenades that explode into gravity wells that pull anyone inside into the air. Being the only human on a planet full of extraterrestrial ne’er-do-wells means that you’ll have a lot of hunting to do when Prey 2 comes out in 2012.

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Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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