Despite the influx of sour-tasting trends across the industry last generation, one of its most redeeming highlights is the leaps and bounds made by small, independent developers. A number of indie games have come out to critical and commercial success, offering the type of creativity and innovation that has stagnated in the AAA space. We’re at a point now where these titles can go toe-to-toe with the big hitters; Celeste for example, received a Game of the Year nomination in a year full of blockbusters. This diversifies the range of experiences for gamers to have, and challenges major publishers to re-evaluate their strategies.
Games Gone By
The independent front was fairly quiet in 2020 compared to previous years, although the blinding success of games such as Hades, and to a slightly lesser extent Spelunky 2 and Spiritfarer, kept the market fresh and exciting. Their success was unarguably well-deserved, although there were other titles that got left somewhat in the dust. For me, there is nothing more infuriating than trying to champion a hidden gem that is being ignored. These smaller titles are the ones that require the most attention after all.
There were two stand-out titles in 2020 that I personally found criminally under-discussed, the first of which was Carrion. The reverse-horror metroidvania was a unique, power-fantasy riddled experience. Controlling a red tentacled monster, the player is tasked with breaking out from a secret research facility, destroying everything in its path. Despite being published by the incredibly reputable Devolver Digital, Carrion seemingly came and went, absent from the majority of Game of the Year discussions.
The second one is a bit of a cheat, as CrossCode technically came out in 2018 on PC. As a primarily console-only player though, its summer release made it a practically new game to me. I have since poured countless hours into the beautifully pixelated, top-down action RPG that evokes Secret of Mana and old-school Zelda memories. This one seems to have passed most people by; I didn’t hear anything about it in 2018 either.
Heading Into 2021
As we head into the uncertainty of this year, there is much to look forward to regarding indie games. Hollow Knight: Silksong and Axiom Verge 2 for example, are both extremely high on people’s radars going into the year. It makes sense, given how well received their outstanding predecessors were, and it shows just how much the indie-scape has moved forward to a point where gamers are hotly anticipating new entries. The likes of Team Cherry and Thomas Happ do go into their sophomore projects with a weight of expectation. Aside from that, they have an already established audience who will more or less market the games for them.
There are many indie games however that are slipping just under the aforementioned radar, and are scarcely being discussed as passionately. Therefore, I have selected five games that I believe deserve more time in the spotlight. Although it could’ve been many more, these are the ones in particular that have really caught my eye.
If Studio Ghibli collaborated with Nintendo to make a Zelda game, this is probably what it would look like. Boasting an uplifting soundtrack, Baldo is a fantasy action-adventure game brimming with joyfulness. The zoomed in, isometric perspective does a grand job of showing off the diverse environments and the expertly crafted creature designs. This game looks mystically beautiful and fully deserves to be at the forefront of people’s minds. Apart from Ni No Kuni, there is simply nothing else that looks like this.
The vivd aesthetic certainly makes Baldo stand-out, separating it from the look of most Zelda-like’s. Despite only seeing one gameplay trailer so far, this title seems far from being ‘style over substance’. I love the range of environments on show, from deserts to dungeons to densely packed forests. On top of that, is the montage of enemy types and puzzle solutions that vary throughout the footage. Amongst a sea of indie games taking influence from Zelda, Baldo enhances its inspiration to create a magical world of its own. If you love that style of gameplay and want a brand new world to explore, don’t sleep on this one. Also, yes – you can pet the dog.
Developed by Naps Team, Baldo is set to release on Switch (timed-exclusive) PS4, Xbox One and PC this year.
Chucklefish are fast becoming one of the best independent publishers in the industry. That trend looks to continue with this top-down, action-RPG set in a post-apocalyptic future. In a world where society has shrank to an all-time low, protagonists John and Sam set out to traverse through the decaying land. Most interestingly, is the dual-character system that allows players to swap between them both in order to solve puzzles and take on different enemies. John is the melee type as opposed to Sam who specialises in magic.
Eastward looks fascinating. The autumnally coloured landscapes are littered with weird and wonderful characters, and the modern 3D lighting contrasts gorgeously with the pixel-art. For me, it’s the intrigue of the story; why has the population plummeted? How does Sam have magical abilities? Yes, there are a vast amount of games that involve top-down combat and puzzling, but there aren’t many that feature the enticing mystery and stunning artwork this title has to offer. This looks like a modern-day GBA game, and I’m all here for it.
The Last Faith
Castlevania fans, rejoice! Described as a ‘dark gothic metroidvania’, this kickstarter backed project looks like a fantastic spiritual successor to Konami’s legendary series. The gloomy art direction sets the tone perfectly, alongside the retro 2D environments. From a giant, medieval Cathedral to horrifying, monstrous beasts, this indie game boasts a bunch of features that fans of the genre will love. Gothic design doesn’t always speak to me, but this particular project has got me on board.
There are many Castlevania spiritual successors out there, most notably Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night by the renowned Koji Igarashi. Although many are quick to compare it to The Last Faith, I find the differences to be vast. The former sports a colourful, vivid art style as opposed to the Bloodborne-esque goth-horror of the latter. The Last Faith is dark, dreaded, gore-filled and ominous, and contrasts against Bloodstained in a way that makes the comparisons seem futile. This atmospheric side-scroller strives to carve out its own identity and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.
Developed by Kumi Souls, The Last Faith is scheduled to release on Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC in 2021.
Let’s step away from the action-heavy titles for a bit. This Neo-noir detective adventure requires stealth and inquisitiveness to solve cases in an animalistic world. Howard Lotor is the private eye raccoon who you play as, sleuthing through the dimly-lit streets of a dystopian Vancouver to uncover various mysteries, by interviewing its inhabitants and locating clues. The name of the game: piece together the puzzle and find some answers.
As is the case with all of these indie titles, Backbone first drew me in with its look; the stunning lighting and detailed backdrops create a visceral world that’s hard to successfully implement in most side-scrollers. On top of that though, is the dark tone of the game. Society is split based on species, and is explored through the various NPC’s encountered throughout the world. I find it utterly fascinating thinking about how this will play a part in cases. The experimental score labelled as ‘doom jazz’, contributes to the uneasiness of this dystopian universe, and wonderfully rounds off my anticipation. From the small sample showcased so far, this could potentially be one of my personal favourite video game soundtracks ever.
Developed by EggNut, Backbone will release on Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC in 2021.
Dead Static Drive
As I stated at the beginning of this piece, one of the primary attributes regarding indie games is there focus on innovation and creativity. Dead Static Drive has that in abundance. Combining shooting, adventure, driving and Lovecraftian-horror all into one package, this title breathes nothing but fresh air. The 80s Americana vibe brilliantly complements the drifting muscle cars you drive down the infamous Route 66, as you stumble into the heart of the apocalypse.
The stylish nature of Dead Static Drive is unique in its hybrid design. The tentacled monsters spewing out from the ground scream H.P. Lovecraft, yet the tone maintains a Vice City vibe. Despite that, the environments are barren and open. This adds to the suspense though, as the monsters seemingly come out of nowhere to unleash terror and have a large space in which to operate. If the developers can successfully implement responsive driving, good shooting and continuous tension, I think this indie game will offer an experience unlike any other on the market.
Developed by Team Fanclub, Dead Static Drive is due to release on PC and Xbox One on Game Pass.
The Future Looks Bright
These indie titles are only five of what could have easily been fifteen that are simply not talked about enough. Nevertheless, they are the five that I feel deserve the most attention. From stunning art styles to fascinating worlds, each of these games has me tremendously excited for the year ahead (although in the current climate delays are unfortunately inevitable). I always want to give these smaller-scale projects the spotlight they need, and I’m incredibly optimistic they will come through and be terrific experiences. What makes the future even more exciting though, is thinking about all the indie hits that will come out of nowhere and completely blow us away, not to mention the in-development games I am yet to discover. It’s vital these types of projects get recognition. Not just to help them become successes, but to widen the scope of the gaming industry itself.
So, what have I missed? Which indie game do you think is being sorely under-discussed? Let us know down in the comments!