Japan’s biggest yearly indie games event returned to a blisteringly hot Kyoto last weekend, just in time for the world-famous Gion Matsuri taking place in the city that same weekend. Bitsummit Let’s Go was the name given to the 11th incarnation of the event, expanding to three days for the very first time - also featuring over 100 games, the largest showcase yet. With so many games on show it’s hard to narrow them all down. Keeping with the event’s spirit of showcasing independent talent and undiscovered gems, I’ve chosen to pick out some of the smaller games peppering the show floor and highlight just a few favourites.
I featured titles like the fascinating psychological visual novel Mindhack last year (now available on early access) as well as Kitsune: The Journey Of Adashino, and in their return to the event under the watchful eye of publisher room6, both look more polished and just as intriguing. Seeing friends play in-person experiences like Make Friends that I had the chance to try at Tokyo Game Dungeon was similarly joyous, and other unique titles like the mixed-reality obstacle course of Laser Dance and the 1-bit story-driven adventure of From_. similarly impressed. Read on, then, for a clutch of different titles to keep an eye on.
You don’t necessarily look for Japanese hip-hop stars to be making the next top-down action game, but Sonokuni has the psychedelic biopunk mythological vision to perhaps deliver one of the more unique titles in the genre upon its planned release next year. The game was described by the devs managing the booth (all members of J-hiphop troupe Don Yasa Crew, with zero dev experience) as embodying the virtues of their rap music while trying to send a message for the world through the mythology and iconography of Japan. In the ruins of a dying nation, an assassin named Takeru is trying to find solutions to the issues facing the world by working to incite revolution and discover what defines a country, and what should be protected for the future.
Sonokuni just about balances the line between garish and engrossing, at times clashing with itself while at others creating audiovisual constellations of contrasting ideals. Mixed in is a rather interesting time-bending risk-reward combat system where players must slow time while attacking and reflecting hoards of enemy attacks.
Of all the games featured at this year’s Bitsummit, Tokyo Stories is one of the more mysterious. What we have suggests a fascinating adventure that embodies the mysterious, lonely vibes of a midnight under Tokyo’s neon lights, filtered through a lens of broken promises, unfulfilled nostalgia and the PS1’s blocky pixel aesthetic.
This was actually Tokyo Stories' second year at Bitsummit, after a brief teaser offered in 2022. The game centers on a young girl piecing together the disappearance of another girl she befriended one night in an arcade, meeting stragglers and strangers who similarly wander the Tokyo streets in the doldrums of regret and desire. It shows potential to be something special provided the team can follow through with capturing the unique urban sprawl of a moonlit Tokyo, but they have the experience to pull this off: director Yuki Ikeda, a 20 year veteran, worked on the unique PS3-exclusive Rain that was praised for its moody atmosphere.
If Tokyo Stories is to be a success, a lot of credit should go to its music by chillpop musician NEWLY. Soothing beats create a dreamlike atmosphere to the game's fixed-camera environments, which switch from the mundane to the fantastical as we dive into memories, worries and insecurities in search of answers. Even with just a short demo and many of the characters and scenes still kept under wraps, this proof-of-concept feels special.
Taking our eyes away from the domestic talent to further afield, Fishbowl is a slice-of-life and/or coming of age tale dealing with grief and self-discovery, developed by the two-person team Prateek Saxena and Rhea Gupte as imissmyfriends.studio in India. Following its major showcase during June’s Wholesome Direct, this pixel-art adventure received its first event showcase at Bitsummit, and promises a powerfully moving tale hidden underneath its welcoming visuals.
When 21-year-old Alo moves to a new city for a job as a video editor, she's dealing with unpacking her life into a new home while attempting to move on from the tragic loss of her grandmother from an illness in hospital. The focus is on self-care, so you can connect with friends, but on video calls, and unpack boxes into your new life (think Unpacking or the inventory management of Resident Evil), uncovering memories both joyous and painful. Amidst all that is a talking toy fish, a once-forgotten gift from your now-departed grandmother who acts like support in this uneasy grieving process.
Saxena and Gupte emphasised the game’s focus on capturing the connections we form, and nurturing those even at a distance. Especially as first-time devs, this is visually-complex yet effortlessly engaging, and handles difficult subject matter with taste. Hopefully the full game delivers beyond its positive first impression.
The world is forced underground by an apocalyptic meteor shower, causing a small feline child to be separated from their mother. Your mission is to drill through the Everdeep, meeting its eclectic residents, in the hope of reuniting mother and child somewhere in the deep labyrinth. Creating a sprawling dungeon adventure without combat introduces its own challenges, but it’s something Spanish developers Nautilus Games appear to have achieved with relative ease. The pixelated underworld of the Everdeep feels alive with its high-contrast visual art, easily differentiating the black uncertainty of the next step, its feline protagonist, the green hues of the garden of the flower-loving goat, or the grandmotherly home promising a diary with potential clues.
With each character having their own quests, you always have to plan your journey and memorise the ever-expanding map, especially when you have a limited-use drill to make it from place to place. It’s the endless charm of these oddball meetings that help even the darkest corners feel alive. It’s only a wonder what else can be expanded upon this highly-polished base between now and the game’s eventual (and as-yet unscheduled) release.
Anthem9 is the latest publishing effort from Shueisha Games, the rapidly-expanding Japanese indie games offshoot of the famed Shonen Jump manga publisher. Curated from Shueisha's Game Creators Camp, this game is a highly stylised deckbuilder gearing up for a release sometime next year. Anthem9 is a story-driven roguelike RPG, with stylistic and musical influences from the Persona franchise - from its smooth, highly-animated and non-standard menu design to its funky vocal soundtrack. I'm told that behind this will be a suspenseful story about the titular secret society, whose ideal is "the stable survival of the world through balance and harmony" by any means.
Battles are turn-based affairs using a pool of gems provided at the start of each round complete recipes, which correspond to certain attacks. Maybe one move requires a blue, red and green gem, used in that order to execute that attack. You can repeat attacks as many times as you like each turn, and, crucially, can share gems to maximise resources and deal extra damage - maybe even doing enough to cancel one of your opponent’s next attacks.
Leaving the best for last, Freaked Fleapit is a dream blending Crypt Of The Necrodancer-inspired rhythm with the continuous progression of a roguelike perfected by Hades, and throws in dating a cast of demons, animal girls, nuns and more to love and adore on your escape from purgatory.
Perhaps not the game you want the pearl-clutching old lady on the bus to see you jamming with on your Steam Deck, Freaked Fleapit is split distinctly between its journey into hell and its more slice-of-life elements. In the former the game’s toe-tapping soundtrack elevates the high-detail sprite work to create a pumping dungeon crawler, with hints of Binding Of Isaac in its unlockable abilities.
Adding its own unique twist to this is your upgradable tie, which essentially acts as a dodge and new form of movement in the game's current state, and will eventually have new poewrs. Each room is locked with your tie stuck in the entrance, and at a push of a button the ever-extending tie snaking around the room will yank you back a few squares as a pseudo-dodge roll, adding depth to your movement strategy. It’s also an idea ripe for further expansion - what if you can get tangled in your own tie, and need to consider this while moving through larger spaces later in the game?
When you return from your underground excursions, you have time to chat to the eclectic crew in the hell equivalent of a dorm room, complete with sleeping animal girls, a functioning bar, and more. You’ll be able to get gifts and go on dates with characters here, adding tasks for your time in the fiery pits and a reprieve from the action in equal measure. There's still a lot of dev time between now and release, but it's impressive how refined Freaked Fleapit is at this early stage, with personality oozing from every line of dialogue.
Bitsummit had wonders in every corner, and it was near-impossible to explore entirely, even with three full days to wander round. Nor is there space or time to talk everything I did see. Trust me, I’d love to talk more about the window cleaning life simulator Sky The Scrapper, the cute horror Vampire Survivors-esque Parry Nightmare, the flashy artwork and swordfighting action of Tokyo Underground Killer, and so many other games.
Ultimately, what defines this event is not just the creators but the community who make the trip from all corners of the country and beyond, and the joy each creator felt from sharing their work was infectious. Many I spoke to on the show floor almost forgot to hype up their own titles because they were too busy doing it for a game they'd discovered by chance a few booths away. This small list only scratches the surface on the joy to be had from the year’s most exciting indie gaming event.