With its debut in 2013, this year indie game festival BitSummit celebrates a full decade of operation in Kyoto, Japan. That first show, a one-day invite-only event, bears little resemblance to the spectacle that BitSummit has become, one that filled the first floor of the Miyako Messe convention center and drew thousands of paying visitors.
As a longtime resident of nearby Osaka, I look forward to BitSummit each year for my chance to play new games and meet new developers in my proverbial neighborhood, an event that still maintains its independent spirit even as it seems poised to outgrow its primary venue. I saw so many exciting and unusual projects in Kyoto this past weekend that it was a genuine challenge to whittle my list down to just 10 games; feel free to check out my Twitter feed for a look at everything I played over the three days of BitSummit Let's Go.
Artificial intelligence has graduated from the pages of science-fiction to the cusp of modern society, sparking debate as we must decide what tasks we can ethically remove from human hands and assign to machines. Thankfully, Algolemeth presents an unambiguously positive set of circumstances for using AI, as it tasks players with programming a party to fight their way through a dungeon.
Solo developer Tomohiro Iizuka explained to me that Algolemeth is a portmanteau of "algorithm," "golem," and "emeth," the latter word infusing golems with life in Jewish folklore. Algolemeth completely automates what we usually consider the primary draw of the genre: Turn-based combat against underworld creatures. By default, your four adventurers march forward and attack whatever they face, inevitably falling to stronger, more prepared monsters. Iizuka told me the full version will incorporate a risk/reward mechanic, requiring players to decide when to withdraw their heroes to collect spoils from battle. Each victory earns you more nodes with which to enhance your automatons' behavior. As you receive commands from defeated enemies, you repurpose their skills for your own crew.
Before long, I was able to program my healer to restore their allies' HP while my mage raised their attack prowess. More advanced nodes also introduce conditional logic; the healer will only spend their MP if a party member's health drops below 50%. Otherwise, they attack. These upgrades let my crew proceed further into the depths, earning more rewards and opening up even more complex processes, demanding I forge more advanced flowcharts to strengthen my squad. I never learned advanced computer programming but deciphering the logic of these processes held my attention more than the usual "fight/magic/item/run" grind of most dungeon crawlers.
Inti Creates has been on a roll lately, using their 2D pixel art prowess to deliver one action platformer after another. The studio released Gal Guardians: Demon Purge back in February and has a new title, Yohane the Parhelion: Blaze in the Deepblue, coming in November. The newly announced Umbraclaw, however, offers a twist on the company's usual Metroidvania fare.
For starters, Umbraclaw doesn't star a cool anime protagonist wielding a sword or a gun. Instead, you take control of a cat named Kuon. A dead cat, more specifically, one who has woken up in the Soulplane clinging to memories of the little girl who cared for him. Forget about weapons; Kuon lacks the opposable thumbs to wield anything at all, so his only choice is to dash and dodge his way past the less-than-friendly creatures he meets. Should anything in the Souplane hurt him, Kuon dies, again.
However, we all know the saying that cats have nine lives, which Inti Creates and Blaster Master Zero director Satoru Nishizawa apply quite literally to Umbraclaw. Should Kuon fall, it costs him one life, but he reanimates and gains a new power, making his journey easier. Initial deaths grant Kuon modest attack abilities, but after a few more missteps, I saw Kuon transform into a full-on battle cat with advanced jumping and fighting techniques. However, the reanimation cutscenes which play after each death indicated that Kuon was slowly losing his memories of the real world and his beloved owner.
I cannot explain the plot ramifications of this death mechanic given the brevity of the demo, but after a run of releases with a heavy anime aesthetic, I found Umbraclaw a refreshing change of pace for an Inti Creates game. At present it does not look or feel quite like any other action game and I'm eager to see where things go from here. If nothing else, I'm eager to watch speedrunners clear the game someday while retaining all nine lives.
Speaking of cats and myths, I'm sure anyone reading this has seen the meme about cats landing on their feet and toast landing jam-side down, so any cat with a piece of toast on their back becomes an anti-gravity device. In Cato, you control both a cat and a piece of toast who must work together to escape a labyrinth of puzzles. The cat cannot jump on its own while the toast only makes short hops, but when they unite, they can spin indefinitely through the air.
Since the two characters can essentially fly as a team, the puzzles in Cato all involve splitting the two apart via switches and sensors that require careful planning to navigate. The rooms also contain advantageous devices like toasters which can propel sliced bread at high speeds and glass tubes which the cat, being a liquid, can navigate with ease. The demo version is freely available on Steam for cat lovers and toast fans alike.
Allen Wang from Cato publisher Gcores told me that just two people are developing the project which began at a game jam last year. Working remotely, the two only met in person for the first time this past June. One half of the duo, responsible for the game's adorable art style, actually made it to BitSummit; I correctly guessed that he owns a cat in real life.
Word Game stands as my personal game of the show because it completely won me over from the moment I saw it.Taking the concept "text adventure" literally, everything on screen in Word Game is made of text. Not in a Rogue or Dwarf Fortress abstract way, but a direct one-to-one representation by using kanji, the Chinese writing system popular in many Asian cultures, Japan included. Walls, trees, doors, all kanji. Even a dog's bark comes out as kanji.
Where things get extra interesting is how Word Game uses its presentation to maximum effect. Any dialogue or narration written on the screen has equal weight with the characters and objects the player interacts with. This leads to Baba Is You style puzzles where the player (also represented as kanji) manipulates the text to change the reality of the game world. For example, removing the character “fu” from the Japanese word “fukanou” turns "impossible" into "possible." Besides pushing and pulling kanji around the environments, the player also gains the ability to split characters into their smaller components and merge them into new kanji.
The bad news is Word Game only works if you can read kanji and there's no way to localize it into any alphabet-based language. The original game, available on Steam in full, is in Chinese, but the demo at BitSummit translated the dialogue into Japanese. As a non-native speaker I did my best to make sense of the information overload, taking advantage of the game's built-in hint system whenever I failed to perceive a way forward in the story. Like any good puzzler, solving a dilemma in Word Game delivers a sublime sense of accomplishment; I don't think I smiled more while playing anything else at the show. Whether you're fluent in Chinese or just studying it casually, I welcome any curious readers to try the free version, Word Game: Episode 0. It's far more engaging than the usual flash cards or language app, and a Sony representative bestowed it the PlayStation Award at BitSummit's finale on Sunday.
I had heard of Shinonome before I arrived at BitSummit because, thanks to investing hundreds of hours in Vampire Survivors, the Steam algorithm recommends to me any and every "action roguelite" game it can. Yet while those two words do vaguely describe Shinonome, it feels like a label ill suited for this game's particular vibes.
According to its Early Access page on Steam, Shinonome "is a new type of escape game" which lines up closer to how the game works. Set in a haunted house from Japan's past, your character enters through one door and must find her way to an exit using her limited toolset plus whatever items she might discover along the way. That includes weapons, candles to light dark places, and food to replenish her always-depleting stamina.
The game plays out from an overhead viewpoint, similar to that of the original Legend of Zelda, especially since the rooms are all the same size and they all connect along cardinal directions, forming a basic grid. As you might expect, the house is not empty. The player can encounter a number of different creatures or spirits as they open doors in search of safety. Sometimes not opening a door is the wiser strategy, as sound cues can indicate movement in the next room over.
Shinonome walks a delicate balance between action, roguelike, and horror. While the monsters are generally on the cute side, it's still unnerving to open a door and see multiple creatures come crawling out. Standing your ground and fighting can work, but running away is also valid, although unlike in The Legend of Zelda, these foes continue to pursue you from room to room. A careless player (or a brilliant one) might find themselves parading a conga line of enemies behind them. In my BitSummit demo, I safely escaped but, like any good thrill ride, immediately wanted to go back for another round.
With its emphasis on insects and featuring characters having non-human skulls for heads, one might assume Birth to be a horror game. However, the actual experience struck me as charming and inviting due to its mysterious atmosphere. After waking up at the start and fixing breakfast, your character looks into the mirror, giving you a chance to customize the outfit and accessories your particular skeleton-person wears. After that it's off to the city to build yourself a roommate.
As outlined on the game's Steam listing, "Birth is an adventure puzzle game about constructing a creature from spare bones & organs found around the city in order to quell your loneliness." Again, this might sound like the premise to a horror game, but the mood is the exact opposite. You investigate small businesses and personal spaces, solve simple puzzles to collect items, and slowly gather the pieces you need to assemble your new acquaintance—all while soft renditions of classical music play in the background.
I spent at least 20 minutes with Birth at BitSummit and had to tear myself away from the computer to move on to other displays. Since she has already released the full game, solo developer Madison Karrh opted to show the finished version rather than build a demo. She also described her game as "autobiographical"; I must assume she meant that metaphorically as she didn't strike me as the Frankenstein-type and I could not see her skull as we spoke.
One of the delights of attending an annual event like BitSummit is getting to experience a game's growth and evolution first-hand. Given how long the process can take, especially for those working on their own often in their spare time, some developers end up bringing the same project to the show more than once.
Such was the case with Dome-King Cabbage, a game I first saw in Kyoto back in 2018. Described at the time as a visual novel, it invoked memories of playing Pokémon even as its pastel-colored art far outmatched the graphical capabilities of the Game Boy. I came away impressed, and solo developer Joe Buchholz received an award from IGN Japan for his efforts. A sample of this incarnation of the game still exists on his itch.io page.
Five years later, Dome-King Cabbage has metamorphosed into an almost unrecognizably different project. While still identifying as a visual novel, the game now opens with a stunning array of surreal 3D models. Graphically speaking, these segments of Dome-King Cabbage are in a class unto themselves; I couldn't compare them to any other title I've seen all year, AAA games included.
However, Dome-King Cabbage offers more than text to read over dynamic images. In another segment, I had access to a full RPG where I selected a monster to join me before setting out on a quest. While clearly taking cues from Pokémon, this portion of Dome-King Cabbage combined pixelated 2D sprites with 3D backgrounds, a 2.5D effect seen in modern-retro titles like Octopath Traveler.
Dome-King Cabbage remains a work in progress, even five years later, but its evolution over that time shocked me. I don't know how the visual novel and RPG portions of the game meld together, nor do I know what kind of story can support two disparate genres and aesthetics like this. All I can do is wait and see what Joe comes up with next.
(Full disclaimer: Dome-King Cabbage was recently signed by publisher Hyper Real, a sister project of IGN Japan.)
Another long-time-coming project is Akurra, a Game Boy Color-style overhead puzzle game that feels like a long lost release from the year 2000. While it resembles Link's Awakening or the Oracle games from The Legend of Zelda, there's no weapons, monsters, or combat to speak of. Instead, your hero—who comes to after washing up on the beach of a deserted island—pushes his way to explore his surroundings and solve puzzles.
Building a game around shoving boxes around invites comparisons to Sokobon, a classic puzzle game that has appeared on many platforms over the last four decades. However, Akurra has a much more relaxed, open-ended feel. In the demo version, players have free reign to walk around and tackle challenges in any order. Collecting keys and unlocking shortcuts opens new paths to more puzzles, with some portions of the island still locked even after I found every secret I could find in my playthrough.
Akurra creator Jason Neuman launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund development back in 2020; since then, he has worked full-time to complete his game. While the demo I played last week—available on Steam at the moment—didn't seem much different than the one I played three years ago, the overall level of polish seen here is remarkable. Puzzles and exploration go together like chocolate and peanut butter, and I'm always ready for more dessert.
Sky the Scraper
A fair number of indie games in recent years have taken the "life simulator" approach, asking players to manage their time and budget their money while performing some manner of everyday task. Sky the Scraper—winner of this year's IGN Japan Award—runs with that concept only to soar 50 stories into the air, pairing hum-drum realism with pure action fantasy.
I wouldn't call myself agoraphobic, but I seldom visit the upper floors of skyscrapers, let alone venture outside to clean the exterior. Regardless of my personal ignorance, however, I am confident the actual job strays far from the version we see in Sky the Scraper. Players dangle from a single cord and shift themselves back and forth, swiping at grime and grease as they swing by. Your cleaner can grip the building for more controlled movement and more effective washing, but at the cost of stamina. Cling to any surface for too long and you lose your grip, falling off the screen and incurring injury. This doesn't necessarily end your game, but you will need to spend in-game time recovering, costing you in-game money.
In contrast to the literal high-wire action of performing your job, the rest of Sky the Scraper is decidedly down to earth. Paying rent, answering texts, and simple bedrest are all equally important to keep your character housed, loved, and fit. These portions add a tinge of darkness to the experience, as a reminder that nothing is more dangerous than the ever-present threat of eviction.
Death the Guitar
From the moment this year's lineup at BitSummit was announced, I already had my eye on Death the Guitar for Name of the Show. The game is remarkably high-concept: you control a guitar and you use your music to kill those around you. According to the promotional materials, the guitar is on a mission of revenge on behalf of its owner, a pitch-perfect premise for a video game, one that ultimately received both the Famitsu Award and the Vermillion Gate Award at show's end.
The good news is Death the Guitar does not require any musical knowledge to enjoy, with simple controls: Press one button to jump, press the other to strum your strings and slay anything in your vicinity. The initial stages contain basic platforming elements, but things get more challenging once your enemies start carrying guns. As soon as their attack range exceeds yours, Death the Guitar becomes a race to kill-or-be-killed.
Fortunately, you control an electric guitar, which means you also generate a shockwave when you attack. These discharges can activate amps to give you a boost, shatter glass, or even trigger remote platforms. Crushing an enemy under a heavy block works just as well as blowing out their eardrums with your righteous shredding.
Death the Guitar restricts itself to a cool blue and gray color palette, acting as a canvas which makes the bright-pink blood you spill as you play look all the more dramatic. It's a game that demands quick reflexes, but one that also offers unlimited tries for each level, instead scoring your performance based on time spent and number of lives lost. At times it drove me crazy with its difficulty, but I found myself replaying stages over and over just to make sure I left no bad guy un-splattered.
Diamond Feit is a freelance writer based in Japan.