Level Up KL is a game expo held annually in Kuala Lumpur. This year’s first post-pandemic show featured a wealth of great games from across the Southeast Asia region, with developers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Korea, the Philippines and more. The quality of games coming from this region is growing at an amazing rate, with some not-to-be-missed new titles coming this year and next.

Here are a handful of my favourites from the Level Up show floor this year.

Kabaret

With its dark fantasy take on folklore from across Southeast Asia, Kabaret is a visual novel with a rich scattering of minigames and other confections, all presented with an incredibly striking hand-drawn art style and a vibrant soundtrack. While developer Persona Theory (Fires at Midnight) is based in Malaysia, they are collaborating with developers and musicians from across the region to breathe life into Kabaret’s captivating mythos.

The story follows Jebat, a freshly dead ex-human who must adjust to his new horned serpentine form in an afterlife filled with monsters, keeping his nerve as he rubs shoulders with a harimau jadian weretiger, a pontianak vampire and other mythical creatures from Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and more.

The game unfolds through a mix of visual novel text boxes set against grand full-screen painted backgrounds, comic-book panels, dialogue trees with abstract images instead of text, and minigames where you must lead a tea ceremony, flick guli marbles, or conduct a musical theatre performance. There’s even an interactive glossary for Malay vocabulary. Grounded in legend yet unbound by reality, Kabaret is shaping up to be a truly special experience. Pick it up on Xbox, Steam and Epic Games Store in March 2023.

Faerie Afterlight

This fun yet thoughtful puzzle-platform game with Metroidvania elements is bold enough to ask the question: What if you didn’t have to kill every enemy creature you encounter? Yes, you can do that in Faerie Afterlight, from Indonesia’s Clay Game Studio, but you also have the option of leaving them alive and having your companion fairy Wispy possess them so you can utilise their abilities. For example, some enemies are impervious to spikes, so riding on their back will help you to move around spike pits safely, while other flying creatures can help you to reach high platforms or cross large chasms.

Wispy’s skills evolve through the course of the demo, allowing you to unlock various mysterious doors, shortcuts and respawn points, or to control and rearrange platforms to allow you to proceed through the increasingly non-linear stages.

All of this is rendered in a gorgeous art style, a surrealistic and warm visual take on the Ori series accompanied by a dreamy soundtrack. The game is due for release on PC sometime later this year or early 2023, and a demo is available now on Steam.

Katana Rama

With an emphasis on making players feel like a badass, Katana Rama is a slick third-person action game from Malaysian developer Ghost Machine in which you play as a hacker program fighting its way out of a digital security system. Cue ninja action and wall-running parkour, as you lock on to one-hit-kill enemies with your katana to rack up Power Level points that then allow you to break the shields of tougher enemies or to unlock the next kill-room.

Katana Rama uses a dash system that is slick and fast and surprisingly intuitive, with excellent visual feedback that uses bright colour-coding and numbers to ensure you always know how many Power Level points you have and how many more you need to advance through the battle.

With only three bosses, it’s a short game, but one that is replayable: While each enemy-filled room is hand-designed, they are strung together procedurally so that each run is different than the last, and capped off with a creative and challenging boss fight. Katana Rama’s demo is available now on Steam Next Fest, and the game is due in February 2023.

Never Ending Beyond

Petting animals is proven to be good for your mental health – but in Never Ending Beyond it’s a survival technique. In this roguelite from Malaysia’s One More Dream Studios (Ageless), players take control of an android called CareTakerUnit, which has a unique skill for petting animals to unlock new abilities. You must explore handcrafted but procedurally linked islands of a shattered planet called the Beyond to find and rescue animals – increasing your arsenal of offensive and passive skills in the process.

Each animal you find on your travels will follow you around until you find a warp from which to send it back to your base, where you too will return each time you die, allowing you to harness your pets and other resources to craft for the next run. And of course, depending on how you mix and match your weapons and skills, every run will be different.

The Steam page for Never Ending Beyond was launched during Level Up KL, so why not tickle its tummy.

Instantly familiar to fans of Overcooked or Moving Out, At Your Service is a housekeeping action game for up to four players, from Thailand’s FairPlay Studios. Players are tasked with tidying a messy home, starting with simple tasks such as emptying the garbage and sweeping the floor. The action grows more chaotic as the tasks grow in complexity, such as washing the laundry, hanging it out to dry and then putting it away into closets – but what really throws a spanner in the works is the inclusion of homeowners, who will follow you around to make sure you’re working hard and grow ever more furious when you miss a spot.

The game will launch on all platforms next year with three different world themes, each with their own gameplay gimmicks: suburban homes of the 1980s, a futuristic sci-fi setting, and a magical realm of castles and wizards. It will launch with couch co-op, with online added in the future. Fun and frantic, At Your Service is shaping up to be a welcome addition to the family party game space.

Troublemaker

One of the wilder games at Level Up KL was Troublemaker, whose anarchic demo went viral after a let’s play racked up over 5 million views. The young developers at Indonesia’s Gamecom Team have been heavily influenced by the Like a Dragon/Yakuza series, throwing a mishmash of violent combat encounters and bizarre minigames into a schoolyard setting as new transfer student Budi takes on the bullies of the Student Council to climb the high-school social ladder.

The demo for this “action-adventure-beat-’em-up” is filled with local slang and gutter humour, plus plenty of violence – its surprisingly deep combat system allows the player to unlock new abilities and Sick Moves such as delivering heavier combo punches, wielding a sickle or throwing a sandal in your opponent’s face.

The minigames are hit and miss, but they certainly have an odd charm as they draw on everyday life in a run-down school – “race” hilariously slowly in a wheelchair some classmates found lying around, enter a first-person survival-horror game, train a “stupid bird” to fly, and even undertake a rock-hard multiple-choice school test. Troublemaker is set for release in 2023 on Steam and Epic Games Store, and a demo is available on Steam until October 23.

Rendezvous

Set in futuristic versions of Indonesia’s Bay City and Surabaya, Rendezvous from Pendopo Multi Creation is a cyberpunk noir adventure game with a local flavour. Its glorious 2.5D pixel art design and fluid character animation carry more than a whiff of 1990s classic Flashback, but its cityscapes are more easily explored, and filled with the intrigue and paranoia that you’d hope for in a cyberpunk noir game.

In a world where the ruling megacorps make life crappy for everyone, protagonist and reformed criminal agent Setyo is pulled back into the sinister underworld as he hunts for his sister, who he learns is working with an infamous Cyberrunner gang. The adventure has you undertaking Setyo’s mundane night job as a security guard, chatting with NPCs, hacking robots, picking up clues and solving puzzles as the drama escalates into all-out action.

Rendezvous is due out sometime within the next year or so, and a playable prologue titled Rendezvous: Shadows of the Past is available now on Steam.

Honourable Mentions

Here’s a bonus batch of hot games from Level Up KL! The demo for Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus & Butterfly is out now on Steam, and it is promising to be another deeply touching serving of late-night java therapy. Gloom and Doom is a gag-filled 1990s slacker comedy movie dressed as a horror game, with a supernatural twist. Rhythm Doctor’s simple one-button mechanic belies a fiendishly hardcore music game based on complex rhythm theory and tricky timing. Let’s Build a Zoo is a sweet-natured management sim with added DNA splicing, allowing you to create up to 300,000 different animals to wow your visitors. And Cuisineer is a roguelite dungeon-crawler RPG filled to the brim with yummies.

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