The most intriguing games in any given year are rarely the ones with the biggest advertising budgets. While big-budget titles like Deathloop and Halo Infinite have dominated gaming discourse this year, they aren’t necessarily the games that will push the industry forward. Innovation largely comes from indie developers, who have more space to take risks that you won’t find in a bankable series like Ratchet & Clank.
This year, developers once again proved why the independent scene can’t be ignored. If you only played the hits this year, you missed out on some truly groundbreaking titles that reimagined what gaming can accomplish as a medium. From soon-to-be cult hits like Inscryption to industry-moving accessibility efforts like The Vale: Shadow of the Crown, here are the best indie games we played in 2021.
The less you know about Inscryption, the better. On its surface, it’s a roguelike card game where players need to sacrifice woodland creatures to play bigger, stronger cards. But that barely begins to describe one of the most subversive games I’ve ever played in my life. Inscryption is full of mechanical twists and turns that continually change the way players use their cards. Its narrative is best kept secret, but it’s a sincere love letter to the lineage of digital card games and the culture around them. When it comes to surprises, Inscryption is an unforgettable experience on par with the original Portal.
Before Your Eyes is a game you don’t play with a controller. Instead, it hooks up to a webcam and is solely controlled through your blinks. It isn’t just a random control scheme for the sake of doing something different. The game follows a character at the end of their life, watching their memories play back. When the player blinks, it skips through a memory. That makes the entire game a clever adaptation of the phrase “blink and you miss it.” It’s a short tearjerker that throws the established rules of gaming out the window to tell a story that only works with this level of interactivity.
Developers are getting better about adding accessibility features to games, but The Vale: Shadow of the Crown goes one step further. Its an audio game with no graphics at all, making it fully playable for blind gamers. It’s not a simplistic title, either. It’s a full action RPG starring a blind woman that features a combat system built around listening to where enemies are moving around you and swinging in their direction. Magic, bows, merchants — it’s all there. You’ll be shocked to learn just how far great sound design can go toward filling in for graphics.
Death’s Door is the one indie on this list that made it to our full top 10 of 2021, putting it next to giants like Metroid Dread. It’s easy to see why as soon as you pick up the controller. It’s a capitol VG “Video Game” that sharpens classic genre tropes. It’s a riff on top-down adventure games like Zelda, with effectively simple combat and intricate world design that’s built around interconnected shortcuts. But more than that, Death’s Door is a sincere game about death and learning when its time to let go. Memorable characters like Pothead (yes, Pothead) bring real-world weight to this avian grim reaper story.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits might be the best debut I’ve ever seen from a small studio. It’s so slickly produced and confident that you might think its a first-party Sony game. In reality, it’s a small-budget action adventure game from an animation studio-turned game developer. The animation experience shows, as Kena features stunning visuals that look plucked from a Pixar film. There’s a lot to love here, from its clever Pikmin-inspired mechanics to its surprisingly tough combat, but the game’s real heart is in its environmental themes. Kena is an adventure about a girl sifting through the ruins of an environmental disaster and finding the motivation to undo the harm caused to the Earth and its people.
Sable may not be the technically cleanest game of the year, but it’s the one that made me the most emotional. The open-world desert exploration game is about a young person who embarks on a rite of passage. The hero must travel the desert helping those in need in order to figure out their path in life. It’s a coming-of-age story told through striking visuals, incredible sound design, and intriguing world-building that made me want to explore every corner of the desert. Once I finally got to the end, I sincerely felt like I had found my character’s true calling, which triggered an emotional response that has stuck with me ever since the credits rolled.
Few games this year were as creative as Overboard! The visual novel-roguelike hybrid stars a woman who throws her husband off the side of a ship (we’ve all been there). The goal is to successfully convince everyone on board that she’s innocent by lying through your teeth and covering up as much evidence as possible. It’s a reverse whodunit that tests just how good players are at deception. I left the experience feeling a little worried about how good I am at getting away with murder.
Solar Ash, the long-awaited follow-up to indie hit Hyper Light Drifter, did not disappoint. Developer Heart Machine’s sophomore game is a striking sci-fi adventure about a planet being torn apart by a black hole as the world’s government bickers about how to stop it. Players control Rei, a Voidrunner who must glide around the decaying planet to activate a black hole-reversing Starseed. Mobility is the star of the show, as Rei can skate around clouds and architecture with the finesse of a dancer. She also comes face-to-face with enormous bosses that invoke the titans from Shadow of the Colossus. It’s harrowing, awe-inspiring, and an absolute vibe all-in-one.
In Chicory: A Colorful Tale, players use a magic paintbrush to bring color to a black-and-white world. It’s a clever mechanic that makes for some classic top-down puzzle-solving, but Chicory is much more than a cute gimmick. It’s a moving indie about imposter syndrome. The game’s memorable cast of characters grapple with bouts of anxiety sprouting from the expectations that come with the word “artist.” In a world where more people than ever are trying to make it as a “creator,” those themes feel especially relevant and help turn Chicory into a modern mental health parable.
If you’re looking for pure fun, don’t sleep on Boomerang X. The indie action game is fast, frenetic, and always exciting. Players attack by tossing a boomerang at enemies, cutting down waves of monsters in the blink of an eye. With each level, the game adds more tools that ratchet up the action. By the end, players can slow down time, target multiple enemies, or even teleport to their boomerang in a flash. It’s as thrilling and high-octane as any billion-dollar shooter that you’ve played this year.
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