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Friday, May 24, 2024

The Best Indie Games You May Have Missed in 2021

Sometimes it’s all about the journey. Over the past decade, indie developers introduced us to the voices (and hamsters) living inside their heads. In 2021, they demonstrated how complete bodies of work can hit new highs in innovation when everything clicks.

This year alone, Kena: Bridge Of Spirits traced the growth of a young Balinese heroine, Tarsier Studios delivered the perfect sequel in Little Nightmares II, Valheim blessed Norse mythology with the justice it so desperately needed, and Hazelight’s It Takes Two snagged Game of rhe Year—all thanks to a genre-breaking tale of co-op adventure (and that one elephant scene).

And to be completely honest, indie games are just getting started. The next year is looking like it will be a definitive showcase of the art styles and narratives that couldn’t quite make it out of the cycles of anxiety we sometimes find ourselves in, and their stories will pick up where others left off: providing comfort and inspiration. They continue to spur our imagination in sheer moments of uncertainty and while “art is still hard,” these are our favorite indies from the year that was.

Chicory: A Colorful TalePlatforms: PS5, PS4, PC, Mac, Nintendo SwitchBuy at PC, MacBuy at PlayStationBuy at Nintendo Switch

Adorned with a paintbrush and several chapters of Bob Ross goodness, Chicory: A Colorful Tale doesn’t bend the limits of creativity, it breaks them.

Greg Lobanov’s follow-up to the 2018 outlier Wandersong puts you in the shoes of a janitor whom you name after your favorite food—and who just so happens to stumble upon a magical brush before being tasked with bringing color back to a ruined black-and-white world. There are stamps, patterns, painting tools, and draw/erase functions to help add textures and shadows to each area (i.e. Gulp Swamp, Teatime Meadows), and every NPC, side quest, and boss fight adds perspective to the overarching themes at play.

Chicory will captivate you with its dialog and relatable personalities, but it will also hit a few heartfelt notes with its comments on self-doubt, depression, and why there’s no shame in starting over.

Cyber ShadowPlatforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo SwitchBuy at PC, Mac, LinuxBuy at Nintendo SwitchBuy at PlayStationBuy at Xbox

Mechanical Head’s Cyber Shadow is a damn good time as it reunites 8-bit action side-scrollers with their long-lost love: a level of difficulty that’s fantastically brutal.

At its core, it’s a wonderful modernization of Ninja Gaiden and Wrath of the Black Manta—drawing you into NES-era 2D action, intrepid level design, pinpoint platforming, jazzed-up chiptune anthems (see “Smasher”, “Monkey Shrine”), and peak cyber ninja combat outfitted with shurikens, airstrikes, and a bullet deflect that parries incoming projectiles.

The cheap deaths and dozen or so boss showdowns will humble you, but the stellar fix of early ’90s nostalgia will keep you glued until the very end.

Death's DoorPlatforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC, Nintendo SwitchBuy at PCBuy at Nintendo SwitchBuy at XboxBuy at PlayStation

Death’s Door is a much more modern example of a perfectly executed idea (and by a long shot). It’s disarmingly imaginative, visually spellbinding, and fleshed out with a laundry list of stuff to do and see, but instead of rescripting the same old Zelda tropes, it sharpens its commentary on the inevitability of death with nods to Titan Souls and Hyper Light Drifter.

Its premise is pretty out there—you play a crow whose 9-to-5 agency specializes in reaping souls that are transitioning into the afterlife—but it reels you in with satisfyingly constructed levels, puzzles, enemy designs, and isometric action that always finds a way to sticker itself to David Fenn’s mesmerizing score.

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The story beats are comical and brutal, and often just centered around a bird doing bird things, but the way they materialize is why Acid Nerve’s audiovisual style is a force to be reckoned with.

EverhoodPlatforms: PC, Nintendo SwitchBuy at PCBuy at Nintendo Switch

If Undertale is considered a landmark RPG for those who appreciate something a little bit different, then Everhood is a delightful and innovative lesson in what makes rhythm games tick.

Chris Nordgren and Jordi Roca’s latest project is a post-Minecraft, pro-Guitar Hero experiment that follows a puppetlike character named Red, who immediately loses their right arm to Blue Thief and a villain by the name of Gold Pig. It’s an adventure that borrows concepts from Toby Fox’s mind vault—with the hit-and-run being carried out due to a promise to be taller—and it sticks to its own improvised aesthetic, pairing distinct bosses (Rasta Beast, Professor Orange) with a fretboard-based battle system that trades charges and projectiles.

Everhood is still very much an RPG that’s defined by choices, but they rarely overshadow the lost spirits, multiple endings, and tabletop adventuring that make it one of the most surprising gems of the year.

InscryptionPlatforms: PCBuy at PC

Disclaimer: Inscryption is batshit crazy in all the right ways. Daniel Mullins’ new deck-builder is a deeply enjoyable card game. It contradicts everything you think you know about the roguelike formula in an effort to see you squirm.

One minute you’re immersed in Magic: The Gathering by candlelight, and the next you’re tumbling through a skittish nightmare of an escape room that uses sigils, sacrifices, Resident Evil 7 puzzles, and high-stakes tests of aptitude to get the mood right. It’s a headache to avoid spoiler territory, but rest assured, it’s worth it.

Mullins’ overgrown obsession with creepypasta and metafiction feeds on secrecy and modern subgenres of horror to make Inscryption a winding tale full of never-ending twists. And if the self-aware creatures don’t linger with you, the bass will.

SablePlatforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PCBuy at XboxBuy at PC

In a very Studio Ghibli way of doing things, Sable aims right for the heart and never looks back.

It’s Greg Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg’s greatest work to date: a flawlessly rendered iteration on open-world design that finds comfort in solitude to accurately capture the spirit of discovery. There’s the otherworldly art direction inspired by French artist Jean Giraud; the odes to the ’60s Archigram movement and Italian architect Carlo Scarpa; the ethereal vibes of Michelle Zauner (aka Japanese Breakfast) and her 32-track collection of music that emulates the more intimate moments of science fiction melodrama—all of which collide, dance, and explode into one beautiful narrative about self-realization. It can be atmospheric to a fault, but with an upgradable jetbike in hand, Sable is full of inescapable moments of curiosity.

Skul: The Hero SlayerPlatforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Nintendo SwitchBuy at PC, MacBuy at Nintendo SwitchBuy at Xbox

Skul: The Hero Slayer’s gorgeous 16-bit art, intuitive combat flurries, and striking assessment of what defines a (tiny) hero upholds every pillar of Shovel Knight and makes for a rich, 2D action platformer that’s full of heart.

It can be a bit obtuse and punishing at the beginning with its high difficulty spikes, but its “live, die, respec” principles let players use skill buffs and form-changing weapons—or in this case, skulls—to button mash their way through hordes of archers, wizards, golems, alchemists, and multiple-phase bosses retrofitted with their own awakened forms.

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It’s a definitive beat-em-up trapped in a roguelike that still speedruns Mega Man 2 and Kirby’s Dream Land on a daily basis, and coming from a smaller team of eight with ties to Chonnam National University in South Korea, it’s a very promising look into the future of addictive sidescrollers.

TOEMPlatforms: PS5, PC, Mac, Nintendo SwitchBuy at PC, MacBuy at Nintendo SwitchBuy at PlayStation

For a photography game, TOEM is the warmest of hugs. The afternoon delight from Something We Made’s Lucas Gullbo, Niklas Mikkelsen, and Elias Albrecht serves up all the right Pokémon feels as you’re gifted an old camera before heading off to witness a life-changing phenomenon.

It’s heady stuff, in the most Diane Arbus way possible, as you partake in a wave of first-person photo puzzles that illuminate the black-and-white world around you—from the nervous ghost in search of the perfect date spot to the moose DJ-ing an outdoor rave full of glow stick-thumping bears.

The Ratskullz, an invite-only fashion show, and the old punk on a bench are honorable mentions, but so are the cassette tapes and the ever-growing critter compendium that remodel TOEM’s hike with a camera roll into a groovy coming-of-age-story told through a different lens.

UnpackingPlatforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo SwitchBuy at PC, Mac, LinuxBuy at Nintendo SwitchBuy at Xbox

Witch Beam’s Unpacking is deeply therapeutic. It’s a cozy puzzle game at heart that’s part block fitting, part home decoration, but it emphasizes its point-and-click charm with a pixelated look at the feels that get dragged across the floor when moving house.

Its environmental storytelling is interactive and meditative as you empty towers of cardboard boxes in a series of spaces—from childhood bedrooms to dorm hideaways to that very first apartment in the big city. The major life transitions kick up bittersweet nostalgia and, without saying a word, become a disarming glimpse into the value of possessions with old guitars, stuffed animals, retro consoles, book collections, and framed mementos that speak volumes on their own. Even with its short runtime, Unpacking will tug at your heartstrings and blast chill Australian beats—composed by Jeff van Dyck—to leave you devastated in the best way.

UnsightedPlatforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo SwitchBuy at XboxBuy at Nintendo SwitchBuy at PlayStationBuy at PC

Tiani Pixel and Fernanda DiasUnsighted is Blade Runner unhinged. It’s a mind-altering trip that swaps Harrison Ford’s piercing gaze for Alma, an android turned synthetic weapon who, in the midst of a human-made apocalypse on a dying planet, attempts to liberate their kind before they slowly lose their sentience and are rendered “unsighted.”

But like other Souls offerings, there’s a catch: Each NPC is on a death timer. It’s a hostile mechanic and one executed to perfection as Alma’s quest to help automatons regain their sensory control is funneled through active reloads, a day/night cycle, craftable blueprints, inspired dungeon puzzles, and a *Nier Automata–*like chip system that’s the perfect counter to the bosses who aren’t bluffing about their lasers.

Unsighted offers a sense of exploration that tackles love, sacrifice, and chronic illness, and as a nod to the Metroidvanias of the late ’90s, values player choices that other games are too afraid to give.

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