So I joined the Bitsummit 2023 in Kyoto, Japan, on Friday the 14th of July, about a week ago now. This is now an indie convention that’s been surviving for more than 10 years, and while it had very humble beginnings, it’s now matured into a full fledged show with a professional organization. Over the past few years, the COVID19 crisis had put breaks on all kind of live events, but 2023 is finally a return to some kind of normalcy (with much less masks than before, even for Japan standards) and BitSummit 2023 looked pretty much like what you would expect pre-COVID. Lots of foreigners made the trip as well, which was also a sign that Japan had re-opened after years of a fairly strict policy against tourists.
On Friday the weather was hot and humid in Kyoto, but not as bad as usual as it was cloudy. The Kamogawa river had a lot of water, which is unusual for this season. It has been raining a lot in the past few weeks (causing deadly floods in Kyushu and Akita).
In any case, the exhibition was located in Miyako Messe, like every year - fairly close to the very famous Heian Shrine. The show may benefit in finding a larger location as some point, as it’s clearly getting crowded and there’s potential to show more. On Friday, it was business only, and in the afternoon it was hard to move around without bumping into people, so public days must have been much worse. But the Miyako Messe has it charms. I really like the space around the entrance where you can sit down and enjoy the natural light from outside.
So what was new in this 2023 Edition of the Bitsummit? This video may give you a short glimpse before you read further:
Now let’s look at what you could taste at the venue.
Lots of Games
I have to admit that indie conventions tend to have a relatively low bar for admission - where pretty much “anything goes” as long as you are an indie game dev. That means a good amount of games are either basic, of heavy pre-alpha prototypes, or stuff where production values (as real game journalists would say) are fairly low. This year, I was thoroughly pleased with the average quality of the games presented. Almost nothing was shovelware grade, and more often than not there were quite a few very high quality titles even at the pre-release stage. The bar is getting higher, even for indies.
With hundreds of games at the show, there was no way we could play them all, but we noticed a few of them that made us very hopeful. Here’s a few things worth highlighting.
Mercury Abbey is an side-scrolling 2D pixel-art adventure game in which you play the role of of a humanoid wolf and his son. I can’t comment too much about the story after playing for just 10 minutes, but the whole game looks great: animation, colors, backgrounds are top-notch.
It’s going to be available later in 2023. The game developers are apparently from China but are targetting the global market with their game. Here’s the Steam Page if you want to keep an eye on it.
This is a game still early in development from Indie-Us Games (what a strange name for a studio!) that’s apparently not going to launch until 2025, but it looked very impressive already.
The easiest way to describe it is that it feels like being in a Dragon Ball Z episode - your character can fly around, punch, kick and fight enemies with energy beams - and you can also destroy damange or mountains around you. It feels very smooth.
This looks like a AAA title even though it’s made by a small indie team based in Japan. I am wishlisting this one on Steam even though it may take a while before it’s out.
A JRPG made with a very small team (2 artists working full time and one part-time programmer, and no designer) - They have done an excellent job to get to that stage already, but they consider that they game is still pre-alpha level and they would need another 2 years of work. This is a JRPG focused around story and exploration with a bit of stealth, and they don’t really expect any kind of combat in it (as the name suggests, it’s mostly made to be a relaxing game).
The game should be somewhat short to finish once it’s done as they are targetting something that can be completed in about 10 hours. They were looking for a publisher to secure some kind of financial runway to ensure continued development. The Steam page indicates a release for end 2024 but this may be pushed back further based on my discussion with the developers.
Xenotilt Hostile Pinball Action
I remember with fondness the gothic-themed, pinball vs monsters game called Devil’s Crush from the PC Engine days in the 90s. This new title is apparently very much inspired by it, and is a sequel to a previous title called Demon’s Tilt from 2019 - It’s going to come out in a few months later this year. It was running directly on the Steam Deck as well, and was very fun to play.
I am going to wishlist it on Steam and keep tracking when there’s news about it.
It’s about a frog that has to keep jumping from one shadow to another.
There’s nothing else that can be said about it! The idea is quite original and the execution solid with pictures playing on colors and contrasts to make the shadows very obvious. It plays well and was also working just fine on the Steam Deck on the show floor. You can check it out on its Steam page while it has yet to come out.
I had no clue that Blaz Blue was not just a fighting game - now the franchise is spawning derivatives in other genres, with Entropy Effect.
It was actually amazing to see that the game was running by default on the Steam Deck on the show floor. Since I don’t know Blaz Blue that much I am assuming that the character roster is using your usual characters from the series. Here you get an side-scrolling action game where you fight against different types of robots - 2D style. You have quite a few attacks available and the demo at the show confirmed that the gameplay was very solid. Visually, it’s all very well done, so this may be a title to pay attention to. No idea about the story of if it even matters.
東京サイコデミック (Tokyo Psydemic)
This one has no English version available for now - it’s an adventure game mixing real footage and anime-style 2D characters where you get to work on unsolved crimes using top notch tools at your hand.
I did not try it out at the show, but heard good things about it. It’s from GRAVITY GAMES ARISE, a Japanese studio. You can follow it on Steam if you are interested.
34 Ever Last
I played this game on the Steam Deck booth from KOMODO.
It ran decently on it (probably not 60fps though) and it looks like a 3rd person view title where you run very fast in a mostly straight line and shoot things on the way. After a few minutes on it, I was not too impressed (the controls could improved upon), and as a genre, it’s not something that would interest me in the first place.
Note that despite the ressemblance, it does NOT play at all like Nier Automata. You can find out more on the Steam Page for the game while there is no release date for now.
Kitsune: The Journey of Adashino
This game has a strong vibe of Studio Ghibli’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away in the West), where you play a humanoid fox character just arriving on an unknown island.
You are stuck there and need to find a way to spend the night, and this is where you end up meeting strange characters and monsters on the way… it is still a game that is apparently very early in development but that looks great - mixing 3D for characters and hand-drawn 2D backgrounds. The demo was very, very short - with just about 10 minutes of gameplay. It seems like this is going to take quite a while to finish, as the developer seems to be progressing relatively slowly. Maybe for a 2024 or 2025 release?
It was playable on the KOMODO booth along with many other games for the Steam Deck. You can start following it on Steam.
The game is has just shipped after the show (on the 18th of July) - and I found out by talking with the devs is that the concept was started by one of the team members, and everyone else gravitated to it afterwards and most of them are working remotely and hardly ever meet. This seems to be a great game to show that you don’t need to have your asses in the same chairs all the time to be able to achieve something amazing. Just in case you missed it, I gave the demo a spin a few months back and it’s a good way to understand what makes this game very unique in a few minutes.
This is so clearly a Japanese game that you can’t mistake it. You play the role of a salary man who is sick of their job, and decides one day to quit. But quitting is not that easy, and the hero needs to fight his way in the company.
Enemies look like humanoids with robot heads (probably to make the story more acceptable) and the game looks like it could have been made using Flash were it not for the 3D backgrounds. It works also on the Steam Deck, and this is a fun take on your typical brawler genre. You can check it out on Steam, it has a demo too.
Dredge is not a new game by now, but it was at the show - I was able to meet some of the developers, from Black Salt Games - they are from New Zealand and we will come back in more details on what we discussed in a separate article.
The game is now available on many platforms, while Steam seems to remain the largest one. They have had tremendous success after launching earlier this year, and are now working on a couple of Free DLCs and also have some prototypes of new games in the works.
Another game that’s not new, since it launched in 2022, but it was a great opportunity to meet the Italian devs of 34 Big Things and learn more about the Italian game industry, and how it’s changed recently. This will be the subject of yet another article. In the meantime, you can check out our recent review of this anti-gravity racer which happens to work well on the Steam Deck.
I tried it on the Steam Deck directly.
This is a side-scroller action game where you go through levels and get rid of enemies, melee stype - it’s set in some kind of futuristic world. This was probably the least fun game I tried on the show floor. The animations were pretty bad, the art less than average with backgrounds overly saturated, and the action uninteresting. Not sure how alpha this version was, but it felt like it had fundamental issues in terms of gameplay that need fixing. If you are still interested to check it out, it’s on Steam and has a demo pending its upcoming release.
Venture to the Vile
A strange title where you play a character that’s wearing an animal mask - it’s a side scroller in which you can also move in depth between different parts of the level, with back and forth throughout the level - so nothing like your regular oldskool platformer.
The graphics were decent, but the animation a little awkward and there was a little bit of latency in the movements. It’s a little rough on the edges for now, but who knows, since it will not come out until 2024. You can follow it on Steam.
Here’s a game made by a single Japanese developer, which was impressive in its own right. While the demo was fairly limited, you play a character moving a dark world that looks like a city that’s just been razed to the ground. As you move around, you encounter a huge shadow that tries to grab you - and you better run!
It’s not perfect by any means, but very well done still. It will feel eerily familiar for anyone who has played Death Stranding, at least visually speaking. It’s not going to be out until 2025, but this may be a title that’s worth following carefully.
I played a bunch of other games, such as Karmazoo, a 2-players co-op game with pixelated characters in which you complete levels one after another by using your entity’s complementary abilities. It played well but it did not feel very original, since there must have been 3 bazillion games with the same idea in the past 20 years.
There was also Gift, that definitely takes inspiration from Limbo and INSIDE with a new kind of environment and different characters. It looked OK but not exceptional. It’s apparently coming soon and you can follow it on Steam as well.
And there’s Minds Beneath us that looked interesting, but I had no time to play it. Maybe another time…
And VR? Well, VR is completely dead
10 years ago VR was seen in quite a few places in the show. Maybe a good 30% of the show had indie devs focusing on VR. This time, you had to look for a long time to find any kind of VR title. I think I saw two in the whole show, and they did not seem to garner much attention. This goes a long way to show that the VR market is just not there. If devs are not even trying to make VR games right now, this means there’s nothing much to expect a few years down the road either. For all the hype that was around VR in the mid 2010s, this is yet another example that hype is not enough to ignite the reality of a technology that does not take off among end users. I still hear and see that there are die-hard believers in VR, but it’s clearly a small niche of gamers at this stage.
The Steam Deck Was Everywhere
This is really worth mentioning. The Steam Deck was just around every corner.
Of course, KOMODO was already there in the first place to promote the Steam Deck at the event, and they had maybe something like 15 units you could try your hands on at their booth, with games from the BitSummit 2023.
They also showcased how the Deck can connect to other peripherals:
On each Deck, there was something like 15 games from the show that you could try directly. Maybe more? I can’t remember exactly, but it was a great way to play a lot of games without having to move too much.
Here’s a few other pictures of the booth:
The booth was in a fairly central location so you could not miss it.
But that was actually just a minority of the Steam Decks at the show. Maybe something like 50% of all the booths had a Steam Deck available, either as the main device to play the games in demonstration (like for Entropy Effect), or an additional device to do so on top of a regular PC.
I asked a few developers what were their impressions of the Steam Deck, and most of them praised it - a couple lamented that it would benefit from having a better screen and longer battery life - on the other hand, it was amazing that it runs Windows games almost without a hitch - a miracle as one dev called it.
I was also able to talk with one of the KOMODO employees and get a few more details about how things are going locally, but this will be something I will talk about in a separate article.
A Great Show
In closing, there was a lot to see, many games were worth the visit, and it felt like a real event, not a ghost town like in these past few years. You had you usual weird gaming experiments going on in the show floor, such as this game using a human head as a controller:
but that’s why the Bitsummit is great! You never know what you are going to get.
There were a number of events on the stage during the day as well, focused on game development and related topics - and sadly I had no time to watch any of them, but it looks like they were live-streamed as well.
It seems to be tradition that I always find something interesting after leaving the show on the way back home. This time it proved true again. As I was walking through the nearby streets of Kyoto I found this shop that advertised Cowboy Bebop! I could not figure out why, since it did not look like they were selling Cowboy Bebop branded items in it.
Just a fan, maybe?