So. Many. Indie games. They were all good. It’s crazy really. To take so many gambles and have them all come out as winners makes me wanna go to a 7-11 and get some lottery tickets.
But it’s not really luck. Just a good year to play games from a small studio. Or small team. Or maybe just one crazy dev with a dream and no regard for personal time.
Either way, I’m thrilled to yell about these games to anyone and humbly request that you consider giving them a whirl.
11. Manifold Garden
Manifold Garden is a stunning vision of a game. It’s sometimes difficult to soak it all in. You’re constantly in areas that go on forever, and falling just lands you back to where you fell from. The geometrical world isn’t just fascinating in terms of how it’s programmed, it’s downright beautiful. The delicate hues of pinks and greens are easy on the eyes, and the simple tracks make you feel as if you’re walking through some type of Escher museum. It's all quite calming and meditative.
The simple puzzle premise is that you can change gravity by being next to a wall and pressing a button. Now that wall is the floor. Simple. But the puzzles get increasingly more difficult as you bend your brain to try and move blocks and collect little cube fruits from trees. Once you’ve put the cube fruits (I like saying cube fruit) in their rightful place, you are rewarded with more stunning areas to explore. The areas aren’t all puzzles though, many of them have clues to what the world might have been before you were there, a glimpse at a building or park structure, still with birds fluttering about. If you like pretty games with interesting puzzles and walks in the park, get this game.
10. Dicey Dungeons
Dicey Dungeons is dope! I can’t believe I’ve never played a gamble dungeon game before. I love gambling! It’s in my blood, I know several Kishs are addicted to gambling. But this is safely in the confines of a cute deck building game with sweet beats by Chipzel. Your dice are your weapons, you use them to strike with swords, defend with ice, get bonus damage with poison, do fury attacks that also look cool. The game is true to its word; it's dicey down there! I died many times on my journey taking too many risky moves. You have to choose wisely what weapons/defense you use, as you can only carry so much. Your fate is largely in the hands of the dice as they fall, but there’s more! You make choices from these rolls on where to spend the points, there’s lots of tiny nuances in the system that can get you in hot water if you forget to take advantage. Sweet, delicious red apples help replenish your HP between fights, and I’ve always found any opportunity to gain HP in a battle is worth taking. You continue on until you reach the boss at the bottom of the dungeon, and it gets stressful! Dying means redoing the whole dungeon, so you take your time and make sure you put yourself in the best position possible. Even so, your fate is truly in the hands of the 6-sided God. Will they be merciful? Who’s to say, but you’ll find yourself tapping your toes to Chipzels fine tunes as you pray for a 5 or at the very least an odd number. Gambling is back baby.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a love letter to those of us who jump headfirst into crazy situations with little information due to our wild emotions. The entire experience is so otherworldly it's funny to think you’re just playing a human. But you’re dodging bullets on a bike, riding an elk in a wild forest, and jamming out to sweet beats in a vivid virtual reality headset. So like, a weird human at least. The whole experience takes place in a saturated, dreamy landscape where you’re constantly moving forward via skateboard or bike or just straight up flying. Its smoooooth. That’s not a typo I needed those extra Os to make my point, Alex Navarro please don’t edit them out. [EDITOR'S NOTE: I did not edit them out].
You feel like you're floating, even when you’re not. It makes the entire experience whimsical and calming, even though you do need to pay attention to the dangers around you. Each level is set to an incredible set of music I found myself listening to throughout the year, and after each completion you get a rating from Queen Latifah herself, all hail. My heart moved with my character as I watched her float through these wild situations, focused on the next objective. I get riled up too, but if this lady can fall through the world and still get a Bronze score, I can certainly make it till tomorrow. We’re all just floating along for the ride, but this journey reminds me that I’m doing the best I can, and that’s enough sometimes.
8. Ape Out
Ape Out rules. It has a number of similarities to Goose Game, surprisingly, which I will now go over: There’s dynamic music that changes as you interact with your environment. Cymbals sizzle as you meander through the lab, music increases intensity as you are found, and jazzy tones hit a big drum beat when you crush a man’s skull with your bare hands. I guess it’s actually pretty different from Goose Game, but you get my point.
The muted colors help you see only what you need to. You’re trying to get out. You can be a bit more passive and avoid the armed guards, but the game is really about moving around each level and doing whatever it is you feel like. Wanna run? Run. Wanna grab an armed guard and use him as a human shield? Go for it! You’re an ape and you deserve agency. Do whatever it is you need to do, but by god have fun doing it.
Just when you think you’ve solved it, they put you in a big building for doing business. But you have no business in a business building! Get out, ape! Run around shoving papers aside and pushing pencil pushers out a 40-story window. Feels good, man. Then get your butt outdoors and continue your reign of terror. Let the zoo animals out, fuck it. Humans are the worst, but animals? They’re just doing their best to survive, and I’m with them.
7. Katana Zero
Katana Zero was a journey I enjoyed sharing on stream. In part because there’s a whole ton of action and slowing down time and cutting people down with samurai swords. The parts of this game where you take down loads of armed guards in fortresses and drug houses are fun to figure out, with a real quick rewind feature for when you make a tiny mistake that results in your death. Completing each section makes you feel rewarded, and also a little murdery. Move over Sekiro, this game has lots of sword killing in it. But the other reason I’m glad I played this on stream is because I often had no idea what was going on, and it was nice to check in with others to confirm the game is as crazy as I think it is. My character is on drugs you see, a lot of em. And I need my fix. I do a lot of bad things to get those drugs, and I’m starting to wonder what’s real anymore…
If, like me, you dig ambiguous storylines and character dialogue that makes you say, “I don’t know if that’s a good guy or a bad guy… but I’m probably gonna stab him," well, this is for you my friend.
This is a game that knows what it wants to do and executes it with anger and fury. You’re in Hell. That much is clear. The waves of enemies come floating in, and you have only a small area to move around. You have to be nimble and quick to stomp on them from above, or use one of your many guns to take them down. Hearts that blink with a short lifespan are valuable, and when you see them you’ll fight to grab them, but not paying attention to the one of many bullets coming your way will surely leave you with less health then before you grabbed it. The whole process is thrilling right up until the moment you are literally sucked out of the world and into a level hub where you can spend your precious gems for better guns and power-ups. And you’ll need those power-ups. These levels get tough. You’ll continue to fight your way through wave after wave of enemies, until running into another motherfucker of a boss fight that pushes your eyes to discern as many projectiles as possible. Expand your iris, you must see the whole screen! And when you’re sucked out of the level you’ll shriek for joy, only to find your next challenge. Sweet, sweet Hell, this game is good.
Untitled Goose Game has already been discussed by many. It's worthy of the praise. You’ll hear a lot about the AI, the level design, and the emergent gameplay that occurs from being a silly goose. But I wanna talk about sounds. They put a lot of effort into that honking.
Your honk echoes when you’re under a bridge. Your honk sounds like it's in a bottle when your honker is in a bottle. You can play a harmonica with your honk. The pitter patter of your goose feets sound like they should sound when you’re on concrete or grass or puddles. You could play this game with your eyes closed I bet, although there’s no achievement for it. The music is also dynamic, utilizing an adaptive soundtrack of Debussy’s Preludes. When you're just waddling around it's calm, and then when you’ve stolen a precious slipper the track feels like you’re in a jazz hall. It's amazing to think that nobody is hearing the same music track the same way, because not only are we playing it in our own unique way, we’re all adding honks at different intervals.
I guess what I’m saying is, when a game puts this much TLC into their honks, you bet your sweet feathered buns they put that TLC in every aspect of this game. It's filled with cute humor, witty puzzles, and enjoyable visual storytelling. If you ever get bored of the objective, just honk. That’s always fun.
4. A Short Hike
A Short Hike was my favorite surprise this year. I was encouraged to try it one stressful day at work. I played it to unwind, and found myself not wanting to stop. Far after I finished the game (it’s not a long experience) I just kinda hung around, float flying and looking at stuff. You’re a bird you see, and the flying has a real nice feel to it. You grab feathers to increase your jumps to gain height, then glide on the wind as you slowly descend back to the ground. There’s a surprising amount to see on this tiny island, but nothing is really expected of you. You don’t have to do anything, the game allows you to just meander around and talk to people, but the more feathers you find, the higher you can climb. It's tempting to know what it looks like up there, so as you find more feathers, you go further up the mountain side, finding more interesting characters and little events to participate in (at your leisure, of course). The game is calming, kind, relatable, and you fish in it. Who doesn’t like fishing?
3. Outer Wilds
Guess how fast I died in the Outer Wilds?! Quick. Like, before I got off the planet I started on, I fell off a waterfall. Never even got to fly. I was embarrassed at the time. I was unaware how often I would die. Man, did I die a lot! Haha, whoo man, I died.
Anyway, I died on all these amazing planets. One that had too much sand and was giving it to a planet with not enough sand. Flying around finding secrets from an ancient civilization, only to be crushed by sand filling up a cavern. I died on this planet with crazy water cyclones that lifted you up and sucked you in. I died in the bramble, to one of the scariest creatures I’ve ever seen. But I woke up, took a big breath, and got back in my ship and kept going. The story is fascinating, and there’s really no telling you how to uncover it. You read a lot about dead people and think about what they were up to when they were alive. Like an archeologist in Groundhog Day that keeps dying in the most horrible ways possible. Space is cool!
This game is worth trying, even if you suck at flying sims and you don’t know what you’re doing. Neither did I. But I saw this game attempt things I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen a game so openly tell you a secret and hope you figure it out. No objectives, no goals. Just get out there and good luck! I respect the developers' tenacity, and their appreciation for the player's intelligence. They just want you to try. You might not learn all the secrets, and you might be confused as to where to go next. But they believe in you to figure it out--or die trying!
Bloodstained is unapologetic. It’s melodramatic madness, chaos incarnate, and obviously Kickstarted because the backers are in the paintings that revolve around my character as a shield. You think I lie? I do not!
The shard concept is really fun to play with. You get ridiculous outcomes from picking shards for your attack, your movement, your defense, and more. Some of these you need, like one that lets you bounce off certain materials to progress through narrow passages. Some are straight up OP, giving you extra fire power combined with the two fire rings you found, and a magic attack that shoots fire from your face. It's nuts, and it’s really fun to play a game that seems to not take anything seriously save for its downright obsession with coming up with new and exciting ways for you to break it. The fights are hard, but also laughable somehow. I’ve taken on giant kitty cats, a stained glass hand, a really hot vampire, and an old man that just wouldn’t die. I’m working hard to get past them, and also somehow smiling to myself that someone came up with these characters and told an artist to make them. Those team meetings must have been delightful.
Miriam is a sweet character to boot, and you can change her boots along with any other part of her outfit and hair. She’s a fun character I can get behind, and I never got sick of playing her. Theres so much extra effort put into providing secrets and fun things you can do with her. Once when I was streaming, someone told me to change one of my shards to a fairy and then play the piano. What happened next really got to me. They sat down, and played a beautiful song together. This only happens if you have the right shard equipped in the right area. It seems like something that should be a cutscene everyone gets, but its just a little secret to bring you joy. That’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night for ya. You’ll be confused sometimes, stressed others, and even periodically speechless. But you'll never be bored.
Not an indie game, I know. But hear me out.
Resident Evil 2 remake is a masterpiece in its own right. If it wasn’t a remake I would say it's the best damn game of the year all the time. Two engaging scenarios allow players to see the game from two different perspectives with variations in areas and story and items. The story is convoluted, but in typical RE fashion it’s got enough twists and turns to get you to root for the good guys and hate those bad Umbrella guys. It has puzzles that will take you back to the original, and a new nemesis that will have you drooling for RE3. It does it all.
The Raccoon City police department is downright frightening. Every hallway makes my skin crawl. The level designers put shadows that look like zombies around corners just to mess with your head. They put dead bodies in lockers just to get a rise in your blood pressure. They don’t give you enough bullets to deal with the amount of zombies you're up against. They love fucking with you. They are very good at it.
They also decided that zombies and lickers weren’t enough, they added a damn Tyrant throughout the game. A dude, lovingly named Mr. X, who wears a fun hat and an enormous trenchcoat that follows you throughout the entire area, even the seemingly safe entryway. That’s my safety area, and it’s ruined! He also finds his way into your path when you least expect him, open a door and BAM he’s there. When he’s not there, you can hear his fat feet walking around you. Is he close? You won't know until it's too late. Thus my blood pressure spikes from even loading up the game save. I’m never really safe.
I have so many good memories with this game. Moments where I fell through the floor into a zombie infested library. Moments where I was caught between a licker, a zombie, and Mr. X just trying to get my ass to a save room. One of my favorite moments was opening a door to a lab to see a scientist, or botanist, or a man in a hazmat suit, smashed against the glass of an area I knew I was entering. I was going to get that man's badge, damn it, and they were toying with me.
If there was a Nobel Award for unleashing human fear, this game would win. I feel that we should respect that level of commitment to stressing people the hell out. Good for you, Capcom.