AAA video games have gotten remarkably similar to each other over the last generation, with publishers becoming less-willing to bet on creative and unique ideas as they focus on established franchises. Indie games — those created by independent developers without the backing of a major corporate publisher — don’t have this problem. In recent years, many indie games have managed to surpass their AAA competition in terms of quality, and the notion that indie games are somehow “lesser” because of their lower budget is not accurate. In fact, if you ignore indie games, you’re missing out on some of the best video games of all time. Here are the 25 best indie games you should be playing right now.
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, it’s randomization making 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 for safe keeping to the collector, a strange old man.
The crux of Dead Cells‘ progression system sees you pushing through levels and delivering useful items to the collector before you die and have to star anew. Your upgrades and available items will 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, Switch, and PC.
Read our full review of Dead Cells
Katana Zero has fast, stylish action and a nerve-wracking one-hit death system nodding back to Hotline Miami. But what it really feels like is 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 published by Devolver Digital.
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 PC.
Hyper Light Drifter
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. Hyper Light Drifter is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and iOS.
StudioMDHR’s Cuphead is one of the most visually enticing games we’ve ever played. Styled after 1930s cartoons, StudioMDHR’s long-awaited debut simply looks like a dream in motion. Cuphead and his brother Mugman enter into a dubious agreement with the Devil and wind up having to battle their way through Inkwell Isle for their souls. Cuphead is not for the faint of heart. 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. The bosses, from Beppi the Clown to Wally Warbles to King Dice, all are rendered in stunning detail. The animations pop and the jazzy sound crackles, fizzes, and pops. Cuphead feels like you’re playing an old cartoon and an incredibly well-made one at that. Cuphead is available on Xbox One, PC, and Switch.
Enter the Gungeon
Enter the Gungeon is a top-down rogue-like similar to The Binding of Isaac, only with 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 have to 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 again. With more than 300 unique weapons and items to uncover and four unique adventurers to play as, Enter the Gungeon is a game you’ll want to keep playing even after you’ve eventually seen 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 PC.