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Delve into the world of auteur game design with 15 of the best indie games

As AAA games have gotten more expensive to make, big publishers have naturally become a lot more risk averse in making them. The big budget games market today is flooded with all manner of modern military shooters trying to chase Call of Duty’s success, or mobile games designed to slowly bleed players’ wallets.

For those who want games that break the mold and not the bank, the indie market is the place to look. Some of the brightest minds in game design are working at indie studios, and the games they’re making are a ray of light in a murky industry. Here are some of the best indie games available right now.

Related: Why pay to play when you can watch for free? How YouTube burns indie developers

Hyper Light Drifter ($20)

The first emotion one is likely to feel in Hyper Light Drifter is unease. Following a wordless, nightmarish opening cutscene, the game drops players in a ruined world with nothing but a sword, a gun, and their wits to get by. The world of Hyper Light Drifter is gorgeous, painted in neon hues and augmented by a melancholy soundtrack. Behind that beauty lurks danger, however. The game is very difficult, throwing hordes of enemies at players, who must use careful timing to dodge attacks and strike back.

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Steam GOG

Nuclear Throne ($12)

Death comes fast in Nuclear Throne, a roguelike shooter from Vlambeer. The game lets players choose from a dozen characters — each with their own unique abilities — and try to shoot their way through a series of randomly generated levels, gathering new weapons and perks along the way.

There are no frills here, no quests or frivolous dialogue trees. Nuclear Throne is purely top-down action, and it delivers. The game moves quickly, with dozens of projectiles flying at any given moment, and the player’s health is low enough that any stray bullet could mean the end. Thankfully the controls are tight, and skilled players can survive the hectic battles with quick reflexes and a little luck.

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Steam PSN

Stardew Valley ($15)

Stardew Valley could perhaps best be described as a small-town life simulator. The game opens with the player inheriting a farm in a run-down village, and from there it’s all about everyday living.

The game is divided into days, months, and years, and players can only accomplish so many activities in a given day, forcing them to choose their priorities. Whether growing crops, helping townsfolk with problems, or exploring caves to find resources, players must decide what they value and pursue it.

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FTL ($10)

So many games are designed around making players feel powerful, but every so often one comes around that is designed to make the player feel powerless. FTL does just that, putting a player in control of a lone spaceship that must outrun an enemy armada. The galaxy consists of a series of randomly generated maps, each with a destination the player must reach. Along the way, players may find dangers and opportunities, as well as enemy ships to fight. Combat requires players to carefully manage their crew and the ship’s systems, and failure carries a heavy price. Death ends the game, requiring players to start over with a new ship in a new galaxy.

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Steam Apple

Undertale ($10)

At first glance, Undertale seems like some bizarre student project, an homage to old-school JRPGs. The game does borrow many of the trappings of those old games (particularly the graphical style of Earthbound), but beneath that cheap retro exterior beats a transcendent heart.

Undertale casts players as a nameless child who has fallen into an underground world populated by monsters. Rescued by a kindly creature, the player must travel to the barrier that separates the human world and the monster world, meeting and battling a cast of outlandish characters along the way. Undertale’s writing is where the game really shines; its cast of monsters come across as beautifully human.

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Enter the Gungeon ($15)

The age of the roguelike continues with Enter the Gungeon, which takes the randomly generated dungeons and permanent death of roguelikes and adds another fiendish wrinkle: bullet hell. The five floors of the Gungeon are crawling with enemies who will flood the screen with projectiles, and players must roll, duck behind walls, or flip over tables for cover if they want to avoid being killed.

Because the best defense is a good offense, there are hundreds of weapons that can be found, giving players varied ways to destroy their foes. If the player dies, they will have to start over, beginning at the first floor of a newly rearranged dungeon. However, there are some features (including a shop) that players can unlock that will persist between runs.

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