We see more and more franchise games growing in popularity with less desire for publishers to work on creative and unique ideas that veer from what gamers are used to. That said, indie games created by independent developers don’t have this problem because they don’t need a publisher to get their game up and running.
If you’re unsure what an indie game is or you don’t know of any good examples, don’t worry because we’ve got you covered.
My Friend Pedro
A goofy blend of platforming, puzzle-solving, and precise-shooting action, My Friend Pedro doesn’t fit cleanly into any particular genre, and its bizarre and surreal storytelling only make it more unique. Tasked by a talking banana with eliminating baddies such as crime bosses, you’re given pistols and a plethora of ammo to complete your rampage of justice.
The enemies aren’t pushovers, however, and can eliminate you in just a few seconds with their weapons. To counter this, you have a time-slowing ability that allows you to carry out acrobatic kills like something out of The Matrix. Ignorance is bliss, playing My Friend Pedro comes pretty close.
My Friend Pedro is available on the Nintendo Switch and Windows.
Dead Cells‘ melting pot of ideas makes it hard to pigeon hole into a single genre. On the one hand, it’s very much a Metroidvania, but it’s also a rouge-lite in the tradition of Rogue Legacy. The randomization makes it exciting each time you enter its nostalgic spin on 16-bit visuals. And, yes, it’s challenging in a way that draws comparisons to Dark Souls (even its title harks back to the de facto “difficult” series).
Dead Cells breaks up its 2D levels into zones much like a Metroid or Castlevania game, though its combat requires precision and forces you to adapt, like the aforementioned Dark Souls. You collect enemy blueprints, upgrades, weapons, and items throughout the game, all of which can be given to the strange old “collector” for safekeeping.
The crux of Dead Cells‘ progression system sees you pushing through levels and delivering useful items to the collector before you die and start anew. Your upgrades and available items also make each run unique, given you’ll have more tools at your disposal. Satisfying combat and an addictive loot system make Dead Cells one of the best Metroidvania/rogue-lite games in years.
Dead Cells is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Windows.
Read our full review of Dead Cells
Published by Devolver Digital, Katana Zero has fast, stylish action and a nerve-wracking one-hit death system nodding back to Hotline Miami. But it feels like a stealth game with an overarching puzzle loop. As a samurai, you can dash and slash a mighty blade, as well as slow down time to dodge and deflect bullets. The tight, nimble mechanics make Katana Zero always feel fair despite the sometimes immense challenge. The trick is to discover the ideal order for clearing out stages in this magnificent sidescrolling feat.
Though you play as a “samurai,” the story is a modern neo-noir thriller with layered, exquisite writing that cuts deeper than most games, especially from the 2D action genre.
Katana Zero is available on Nintendo Switch and Windows.
StudioMDHR’s long-awaited debut, Cuphead, is one of the most visually enticing games we’ve ever played. It feels like you’re playing an old 1930s cartoon and an incredibly well-made one at that. It simply looks like a dream in motion. The story sees Cuphead and his brother Mugman enter into a dubious agreement with the Devil only to battle their way through Inkwell Isle for their souls. Cuphead is not for the faint of heart, as each of the game’s bosses tests your platforming and shooting skills.
Not satisfied being just a boss rush gauntlet, Cuphead also has run and gun stages, each of which is harder than the last. Cuphead‘s challenging gameplay is rewarding, but its visual and audio design steals the show. All bosses, from Beppi the Clown to Wally Warbles to King Dice, are rendered in stunning detail. The animations pop, and the jazzy sound crackles, fizzes, and pops.
Cuphead is available on Xbox One, Windows, MacOS, and Nintendo Switch.
Enter the Gungeon
Enter the Gungeon is a top-down rogue-like similar to The Binding of Isaac, only at a much faster pace. The loot-driven loop tasks you with picking between one of four characters to send through a dizzying number of dungeon rooms. You must contend with both shooting quickly and dodging, as the dodge roll mechanic is an integral part of the gameplay. When you die, you go back to the beginning, but this rogue-like retains its rooms through each run.
The challenge comes from the fact that room locations, treasure, and enemies change each time you start over. With more than 300 unique weapons and items to uncover and four different adventurers to play, Enter the Gungeon is a game you’ll want to keep playing even after the credits roll. You can also play co-op with a friend, which doesn’t necessarily make the game easier, but it does up the wonderful chaos.
Enter the Gungeon is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Windows.
Night in the Woods
Returning to your hometown doesn’t always turn out how you expect. In Night in the Woods, anthropomorphic cat Mae drops out of college and heads back to Possum Springs. Mae gradually begins to see that the town and its people — a collection of eclectic, talking animals — have a dark past full of mysteries. The game plays as a sidescroller, but Night in the Woods can aptly be compared to visual novels and exploration games.
With an emphasis on the stories we tell, indie studio Finji’s first game ends up telling one of the most profound and relatable video game narratives we’ve played in years. Heavily indebted to dark humor, Night in the Woods asks players to make choices throughout that affect the way Mae views the happenings in Possum Springs. It accomplishes the task of making you feel sad and laugh all in the space of one scene.
Night in the Woods is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, MacOs, Linux, iOS, and Android.
Telltale-esque, story-driven adventures are all the rage these days, though some refer to them positively or negatively as simply walking simulators. Nonetheless, Oxenfree may very well be the best entry in the popular genre to date. Set on an island, Alex and her friends begin experiencing events that can only be referred to as supernatural. Instead of fleeing, they remain to uncover the island’s secrets. A distinct, 2.5D art style gives Oxenfree a look that separates it from others in the genre, and the twisting and turning story is undeniably spellbinding.
With wonderfully realized cutscenes, introspective dialogue, and a meaningful choice-based system, Oxenfree is a gripping story that will hold you until the credits roll. Then, if you’re anything like us, you’ll boot it up again to choose differently, and see how Alex’s relationships and the ending change based on your actions.
Oxenfree is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, and Android.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Mental illness is a storytelling device frequently used to emphasize a larger-than-life villain, yet many creators fail to realize how psychological conditions also affect heroes. Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tackles this issue head-on to deliver a deeply disturbing and emotionally affecting story supported by Melina Juergens’ fantastic debut acting performance. The game also has some of the best animations we’ve ever seen, spitting at the “sub-par visuals” stereotype that currently plagues indie games.
But Ninja Theory didn’t forget what made its previous games so engaging: Vicious third-person combat. Though stripped down compared to DmC: Devil May Cry or Enslaved, the swordplay in Hellblade is still quite satisfying, and the threat of having to restart the entire game if you die too many times is enough to make you sweat.
Hellblade is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Windows. A sequel is currently in development.
Read our full Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice review
In this award-winning game from Mobius Digital, players assume the role of an unnamed alien astronaut recruit. It’s his first mission into space that’s suddenly cut short after 22 minutes when the sun goes supernova. Bummer, right? This short adventure seems disappointing at first, but your trek doesn’t end there. The recruit discovers he’s trapped in a 22-minute time loop yet retains all knowledge each time he dies. That means the recruit must explore and gather all the information he can before the sun incinerates all local life and the 22-minute cycle resets.
The premise of Outer Wilds is to uncover the secrets of an ancient race and understand why you’re in the time loop. Both are connected and you must hop from world to world to converse with other astronauts and explore ruins. The overall mystery doesn’t specifically tell you where to go. Instead, all dialog offers hints so you can unravel the plot on your own. Given Outer Wilds is mostly about exploration and discovery, you’ll find puzzles to solve and deadly environments to endure, like the giant tornadoes of Giant’s Deep.
Outer Wilds is one game you don’t want to fly by on the Xbox One, PS4, and Windows.
D-Pad Studio’s vibrant platformer may have taken almost a decade to arrive, but the end product was well worth the wait. In Owlboy, human-owl hybrid Otus sets off on an adventure after pirates attack his town. The first thing that stands out about Owlboy is its brilliantly realized, colorful world. This Metroidvania-style platformer features a sprawling, branching world that forces players to use every trick offered with Otus and his companions, whom he carries through various portions of the game.
Owlboy is much more than beautiful scenery, though. Devilishly smart puzzles fill the gaps between interesting boss fights. It captures nostalgia via 16-bit graphics, but all of its mechanisms at work — smart gameplay, engaging dialogue, varied environments — make it feel decidedly modern. Owlboy is a pure delight.
Owlboy is available on Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, MacOS, and Linux.
Playdead’s follow-up to the acclaimed Limbo doesn’t deviate much from the studio’s well-known aesthetic. The game drops a young boy into a dark setting washed in a dreary, monochrome palette. Most of the sounds you hear stem from his feet pattering across environments ranging from the woods to a bizarre factory. This puzzle-platformer doesn’t waste a single moment of your time, as every puzzle has a purpose, both narratively and in teaching you mechanics you’ll need later.
Like Limbo, Inside creates a mood that is both chilling and hypnotic. Play it once to marvel at the ingenious puzzles, but play it again to notice all of the story details you likely missed during the first playthrough. Inside and Limbo both have a distinct atmosphere, but Inside makes better use of it while telling its unique and unsettling tale.
Inside is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, and iOS.
Read our full Inside review
Celeste, the newest game from Towerfall developer Matt Makes Games, is a deceptively simple puzzle-platformer. Ostensibly a game about protagonist Madeline’s journey to the top of the titular Celeste mountain, we gradually learn about her emotional troubles, as well as the colorful cast of characters she meets along the way.
But this isn’t a “walk and talk” adventure. Madeline climbs the mountain with simple-yet-deep jumping mechanics that make for some tremendously creative levels. The hazards thrown in your way later in the game are always just challenging enough to slow you down. With tons of collectibles to find and special “B-Side” levels to unlock, Celeste keeps you climbing the mountain for hours.
Celeste is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, MacOS, and Linux.
Read our full Celeste review
Spelunky debuted as an open-source game in 2008 followed by an Xbox Live Arcade launch in 2012. Despite its age, this rogue-like platformer still stands tall as one of the most enduring indies of all time. The 2D platformer primarily takes place across four worlds with four levels apiece. Each level is randomized, from the underground mine levels to the forest to the wide-open ice levels. Along the way, you can collect items and gold to help you survive for another moment.
That’s the thing about Spelunky: Its greatness stems from its unpredictability. You can start a great run only to get stung by a bee, which sends you shooting into an exploding frog, which then flings you onto a spike pit. That’s game over for you, which means starting over from the very beginning. And yet, a disappointing end to your run induces a smile.
Each time you play Spelunky, you learn something new to take along for your next attempt. But each time you play Spelunky, the environments are different. It’s all about applying your knowledge and adapting at the same time. Spelunky is a master in platforming design with near-endless replay value.
Spelunky is available on PS4, PS3, Vita, Xbox 360, Windows, and Chrome OS.
Jonathan Blow’s long-awaited follow-up to Braid — the massive hit that was one of several to start the indie resurgence — is a very different game. The Witness features puzzles, and puzzles alone. At first glance, the colorful island littered with random statues and weird oddities seems like a very bizarre environment for a game that consists entirely of line puzzles. But when you start moving from puzzle to puzzle, you’ll begin to appreciate and dissect your surroundings. Simply put, the line puzzles are brilliant.
Each puzzle teaches you a valuable lesson, and when they involve the environment as part of the solution, the grandiose experience only heightens. The game tests your mental stamina and often persuades you to take out a pen and paper as you search for the correct solution. It’s rare for a game to inspire that kind of dedication, but The Witness does, and it will compel you to keep going, to keep learning, every step of the way.
The Witness is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nvidia Shield, Windows, MacOS, and iOS.
Read our full The Witness review
Papers, Please shouldn’t be captivating, but it’s easily one of the most enthralling indie games around. You play as an immigration officer at a border crossing that’s based on East and West Berlin. Your job is to check papers amidst political and cultural turmoil and use a set of rules to decide if you should let the person in or turn them away.
The act of checking papers is the main gameplay component, but it’s not what Papers, Please is even about. As an exercise in empathy, Papers, Please slowly creeps up on you, making you feel for the people around you and question the job that you hold. It’s an astoundingly moving experience and yes, somehow it’s also very fun to play. Don’t read too much about it before you dive in, please.
Papers, Please is available on Windows, MacOS, Linux, PlayStation Vita, and iOS.
Untitled Goose Game
Developed by House House and published by Panic, Untitled Goose Game presents a simple, semi-isometric view of a mischievous goose waddling about in an English village carrying a “to-do” list. The game’s flat colors only complement the feathery animation and allows players to focus on the puzzles at hand, not the overall environment. Like Angry Birds, this family-friendly game packs character just in design alone. The goose waddle is simply adorable.
Your “to-do” list is nothing short of evil. You won’t find any blood or violence. Instead, players rely on puzzle skills and a little stealth to get tasks completed. For instance, your first task is to have a picnic, but that means breaking into the garden, getting the groundskeeper wet, stealing his keys, throwing his rake into the lake, and so on. Later you’re tasked to steal a boy’s glasses. Because he can’t see, your goose steals the boy’s toy plane and gives it to a local shopkeeper. The boy must now purchase the plane.
Untitled Goose Game is a devilishly good time for everyone on the Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, and MacOS
While gliding down one of Thumper’s psychotropic highways for the first time, you may feel a sense of passive awe as you gaze at the mercurial shapes floating in the distance. Then the metallic screeches and thunderous drums kick in, and the road before you becomes a twisted, nightmarish gauntlet. Thumper does not reinvent the rhythm-game — after all, the influence of Audiosurf is apparent — but it does give the genre a terrifying new coat of paint.
The game puts players in control of a silver beetle that’s perpetually racing down a track. Players use one button and movements to navigate obstacles; holding the action button and leaning left or right to take hard turns, for example. Players must progress through nine worlds with increasingly complex tracks, each of which culminates in a boss that players defeat by executing certain movement patterns.
Thumper is probably the most frightening rhythm-game ever made, particularly when played with a VR headset. The horror comes not just from the visuals, but also the oppressive industrial soundtrack. Easy to pick up and challenging to perfect, Thumper is one of the most spectacular rhythm games in a long time.
Thumper is available on PS4, PS VR, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, iOS, and Google Stadia.
Crypt of the NecroDancer
One of the great things about indie development is that, without pressure from financiers, creators have a lot of room to experiment. This results in oddities like Crypt of the NecroDancer, which combines the essential traits of rhythm games and roguelikes for a truly unique experience. Players descend the floors of a randomly-generated dungeon, collecting treasure, evading traps, and fighting enemies. The twist comes in the controls. Each floor has its unique soundtrack, and players must move and attack on the beat. (Don’t worry. There’s a visual cue on the bottom if you can’t step in time.)
Floors are further divided into grids, and players move using the four cardinal directions. Each enemy has a unique movement pattern while some have special abilities, like walking onto squares and turning them into slick ice patches. That means players must learn and react to each distinct pattern and ability. The game becomes hectic early on, but players can find and equip various items and spells to make things easier.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is available on PS4, Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Linux, MacOS, and iOS.
Slay the Spire
Slay the Spire combines two trendy genres — roguelikes and trading card games — to create one of the coolest and replayable indies around. Taking place throughout three acts, you battle both small and large baddies using turn-based combat. Your weapons are your cards, organized in a deck that gradually builds over time. When you fail a run, you start back at the beginning. Critically, you will have new knowledge to put into play during your next run and more possibilities in terms of cards and abilities at your disposal.
Slay the Spire has three different heroes with unique decks and play styles. The balance of combat is what makes Slay the Spire so good. You’re constantly weighing whether to defend or attack (or do both) during your turn. Slay the Spire has many layers of strategy, but it never becomes cumbersome. The experience only gets better the more you play.
Easy to pick up and play for short spurts and long gaming sessions alike, Slay the Spire is a sterling RPG for the Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Linux, MacOS, iOS, and Android.
At first glance, Undertale seems like some bizarre student project, a 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 fell into an underground world populated by monsters. Rescued by a kindly creature, the player journeys to the barrier separating humans from monsters while meeting and battling a cast of outlandish characters along the way. Undertale’s writing is where the game really shines, as its cast of monsters come across as beautifully human.
Undertale is available on PS4, Vita, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Linux, and MacOS.
Many games, particularly those based in fantasy, place characters into so many dangerous situations that one wonders how they avoid developing post-traumatic stress disorder. If the rigors of real warfare can leave many a mind reeling, how do video game characters not break down in the face of dragons, ghouls, and other abominations? In Darkest Dungeon, they do.
The game casts players as the inheritor of an old estate. Due to the previous owner’s obsession with the occult, it’s now overrun by monstrosities. The player must recruit heroes to explore the various corrupted environments, slaying monsters and collecting resources to build up a home base.
The defining mechanic of Darkest Dungeon is stress. As heroes explore various dungeons and face the abominations within, they grow stressed and may develop various neuroses that can be problematic. A character who develops paranoia, for example, may refuse the player’s attempts to heal them. Combat plays out much like classic JRPGs, with characters lined up on both sides, but positioning plays a role; whether an ability will hit depends on the user and target’s position.
Darkest Dungeon is available on PS4, Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Linux, MacOS, and iOS.
Developed by ZA/UM, Disco Elysium is a stylish-yet-gritty isometric open-world RPG. Players assume the role of a detective who initially wakes up mostly naked on a dirty hotel room floor. Problem is, this guy has an alcohol problem. It escalates to a three-day drinking binge that ultimately leaves him with amnesia. Thanks to his inner demons, you’re not only tasked with solving the murder case he originally worked on before his breakdown, but you must discover the character’s hazy identity.
Players roam the streets of Revachol, a 70s-esque city infested with crime and poverty. Overall, Disco Elysium is dialog-heavy, even during violent encounters. There’s no real combat system, but rather dialogue trees based on your actions. It’s an interesting twist to your typical isometric RPG and gives Disco Elysium more of a storybook feel versus an interactive game. Over time you’ll focus on four major abilities — intellect, motortics, physique, and psyche — as the murder-mystery unfolds and you level up the detective.
Disco Elysium is available on Windows, with PS4 and Xbox One ports in the works.
Stardew Valley could perhaps be described best 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 divides into days, months, and years. Players can only accomplish so many activities in a given day, forcing them to choose their priorities wisely. Whether they’re growing crops, helping townsfolk with problems, or exploring caves to find resources, players must decide what they value and pursue it.
Stardew Valley is available on PS4, Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Linux, MacOS, iOS, and Android.
Kerbal Space Program
Want to run a spaceport? Kerbal Space Program is the simulator for you. It centers around an alien species known as Kerbals located on the planet Kerbin. The little green creatures built a spaceport just for you, a platform for designing, building, and launching spaceships. It’s not just a design studio, however, as the sim relies on orbital and aerodynamics to provide an “authentic” feel. The object: Conquer space by building space stations and habitations on neighboring planets. Fun stuff we’ll never see in our lifetimes.
Start Kerbal Space Program by selecting one of three gameplay modes. In Science Mode, players advance Kerbal knowledge by conducting space experiments to unlock parts. Of the three, this mode is your safest starting point. Career Mode stacks on contracts and funding, thus you’re managing the entire space program and building a reputation. Sandbox Mode simply unlocks everything the sim provides so you can create anything you want without worries over finances and contracts.
Kerbal Space Program is available on Xbox One, PS4, Windows, MacOS, and Linux.
Into the Breach
Subset Games’ FTL: Faster Than Light delivered a brutally difficult strategy with a classic retro-inspired aesthetic. However, the developer outdid itself with its next game, Into the Breach. It’s a time-traveling turn-based role-playing game that tasks you with saving humanity from destruction at the hands — or antennae — of the insect-like Vek creatures. Each level takes place on a small grid map and requires you to do damage and position yourself in areas where you can knock Vek into the ocean.
Survive for the allotted number of turns, and you complete the stage, but focus on damage output alone, and you will quickly find yourself overrun. Though the game can be completed in a few hours, you’re all but guaranteed to start up a second run as soon as you finish your first.
Into the Breach is available on the Nintendo Switch, Windows, and MacOS.
Read our full Into the Breach review
This article was last updated by Digital Trends contributor Gabe Gurwin on 3/27/2020.
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