Year in Review — The Best Indie Games of 2016
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2016 may not have been the best year, all things considered. It was a year of social upheaval, political frustration, and environmental catastrophe. Of unchecked corporate irresponsibility and the prospect of worse. Of loss.
But it was also undeniably an overwhelmingly good year for video games. Not only did we have a plethora of AAA surprises, we also had more cool indie games than most people could even conceivably play. That makes choosing a list of the year’s best a near impossible task.
Near impossible tasks, however, are also a theme of several of my favorite games this year, so perhaps it’s appropriate. Either way, here are some of the best new indie games you could play in 2016, each of them worth looking at if they passed you by. The list is generally in no particular order until you get to the contentious top 4 slots, and it only reflects my personal opinion of a handful of the hundreds of indie games released this year.
Slayaway Camp (PC)
A brilliant little traditional puzzle game with a weird combination of cuteness and gore. It’s got everything you want from a good puzzler with a nice surrounding package and a lot of flair, presenting itself as a 1980’s VHS horror movie collection. A modern take on what is too often a throwback genre, providing a ton of content at a bargain price. It’s also got a voice cast that includes … Mark Meer? What?
Brigador took me—and I suspect a lot of people—by surprise. While fairly limited in scope, Brigador is one of several games that grabbed me this year by being a distilled experience; lean, tight, and heavily skill-based. It’s got a great art style, a surprisingly involved fiction (including a nicely produced audiobook), and a stellar soundtrack by Makeup and Vanity Set, all layered smoothly on top of blow-up-literally-everything gameplay. Fans of mechs and dark cyberpunk futures need this one from Stellar Jockeys in their lives. Did I mention it’s got one of the best soundtracks of the year?
Superhot (PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One)
With one of the more unique gameplay conceits to come around in some time, Superhot was awesome, yet it didn’t quite manage to live up to its full potential. With a wicked cool menu system, storytelling method, and visual style, the game tasks you with shattering digital bad guys in a virtual first-person shooter. The twist is that time stands (almost) completely still unless you’re moving or shooting. The game is fairly short, but the unique mechanics put an almost puzzle-like spin on expected FPS gameplay, and the sparse, mysterious, and intriguing narrative which frames the whole thing is super cool. Superhot’s full asking price has for some been historically hard to swallow, but it’s a no-brainer if you catch it on sale.
Furi (PC and PS4)
Furi is an underrated gem that I suspect didn’t hook nearly the number of fans it deserved to. It’s got excellent style and gameplay chops, an interesting story setup, and a great synthwave soundtrack featuring the likes of Carpenter Brut, Danger, and Waveshaper. Essentially just one long boss rush, it’s the very definition of “no filler,” consisting of nothing more than awesome bosses and short walks (with some great environmental design and mysterious, intriguing narrative exposition) between them. With designs by Takashi Okazaki of Afro Samurai fame, the characters are all fantastic, and while there’s some transitional animation jank that occasionally gets in the way of the grandeur, Furi is otherwise beautiful to behold, fantastic to listen to, and a blast to play. It can be beaten in about 2 hours once you’re a veteran fighter—or if you just happen to be amazingly talented—but will take the average player 7 to 9 hours to get through on their first run.
It also happens to support several different languages, and allows independent selection of text and voice. The English and French audio tracks are fantastic, but do yourself a favor and switch to the Japanese track for a truly stunning set of performances.
One Night Stand (PC)
I confess that I fell in love with One Night Stand. It’s a very short visual novel-style story that encourages multiple playthroughs to get different endings, and has charm, personality, and a refreshingly different take on relationships and sex (at least as far as their presentation in games goes). It’s also got a really cool visual style and only costs a couple bucks. If you enjoy slice-of-life games and more laid back experiences, there’s really no going wrong here.
Crypt of the Necrodancer (PC, PS4, Vita, iOS)
If you’re a fan of roguelikes but have been looking for a different take on the genre, look no further. Crypt of the Necrodancer has everything you love to hate about permadeath dungeon crawling, and then adds in a rhythm game. It’s a simple idea that radically changes the formula, having you explore dungeons and fight monsters all while trying to do everything on a beat. Super catchy music, great art design, and a joyful sense of humor make this one of the goofiest games you’ll want to throw your controller at.
Hyper Light Drifter (PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One)
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the deadly serious Hyper Light Drifter. With some of the most gorgeous pixel art design and implementation you’re likely to see, including some absolutely brilliant cutscenes, Drifter takes the 16-bit Zelda formula and turns it into a top-notch character action game. It’s got an entirely wordless story that’s surprisingly compelling, and its world simply begs to be explored. With fantastic and difficult bosses, a bunch of interesting upgrades to acquire, and a metric ton of secrets to find, developer Heart Machine knocked this one out of the park.
The Witness (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Jonathan Blow’s latest opus is as intriguing as it is polarizing. It’s got some of the same narrative tone that irritated some people about Braid, but the gameplay is the real star. A puzzle game through and through, The Witness tasks players with exploring a beautiful, surreal, and seemingly abandoned island, solving 2D maze puzzles to progress through its various locales. If that sounds weird, it is; but even weirder is the fact that it works without being a quarter as lame as it sounds. The game explains so much about itself using interesting environmental cues and difficulty progressions that curiosity, exploration, learning, and progress all feel like equal parts of the whole. It’s a hard game to explain, and one better experienced than talked about. If you’re at all a fan of puzzle games, The Witness is one to make time for.
Project Highrise (PC)
Project Highrise, the second game from SomaSim, is a building and management loveletter to fans of Sim Tower. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of heart, a lovely art style, and offers a lot of design freedom. I spent more time than I expected trying out new strategies and learning the ropes, and while some balance issues continue to exist in the long game, most people will find it to be an accessible and fun creative sim, certainly one of the best released this year.
Prison Architect (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Prison Architect has been around for a good while. An early access game with a long and illustrious development, its final release is one of the best building and management simulation combos you could possibly hope to find. It’s got a wealth of content, tons of options, and more than a little personality for being so artistically simple. Introversion has made many great games, all worth looking at, but Prison Architect is one of the best. The scale of the prisons can get immense, and the thought one can put into their design makes building and modifying them constantly engaging no matter how many times you start over.
ABZÛ (PC, PS4)
There are two undersea-world indie games on the market right now (well, two that I’ve played, anyway), and Subnautica is still in early access. Its counterpart, ABZÛ, is also its antithesis. Where Subnautica is scary, oppressive, complex, and huge, ABZÛ is quiet, introspective, simple, and focused. It’s less a game and more an experience, and whether it appeals to you personally or not is anyone’s guess, but it absolutely stands as one of the most finely crafted indie experiences of the year, one that enraptured and moved me to a startling degree. It lives up to its pedigree (Flower and Journey) and then some, providing one of the most beautiful environments I’ve ever explored—in artistry if not raw tech—and one of the most memorable soundtracks in years. It can be finished in a handful of hours, but those hours are likely to stick with you a long, long time.
Thumper (PC, SteamVR, Oculus, PS4, PSVR)
Thumper is undoubtedly one of my favorite indies this year. Dubbed a “rhythm violence” game by developer Drool, this description doesn’t seem inaccurate. It’s ostensibly a rhythm game, but instead of using instruments or abstract button presses to keep rhythm with pop or rock tunes, you control a space beetle racing along a relentless track in a surreal, drug-trip environment while using timed button presses and stick movements to navigate the track, avoid damage, and score points. The game’s music is dark, atmospheric, and percussive in an unusual way, eschewing the usual melodic fare of most rhythm games, and it fits the tone perfectly. This is a difficult game that requires quick reflexes and good memorization skills, especially in its latter half.
But getting through it is only half the battle. Each section of each level is ranked according to score, and multipliers go up if you progress without missing a beat. You can pass turns unmolested by simply holding the primary button and the appropriate direction, but pressing the direction at exactly the right moment gives you extra points at the end of a section, and there are several other functions that perform similarly. Doing a long, complex section of track without dying feels great, but doing it perfectly is on a whole different level. There’s a “plus” mode as well, which tasks you with doing a level continuously, without failing, dropping the section-by-section methodology of the normal mode.
What sets Thumper apart from most games is that nothing is wasted. It’s lean, but it doesn’t merely work to avoid excess, it includes only what’s absolutely necessary and uses it to full effect. It’s one of the most focused experiences out there, leveraging its simple strengths to build slowly into complexity that feels almost overwhelming. If it sounds intriguing to you, do yourself a favor and dive in. Even without VR, it’s incredibly immersive and intense, and will deeply satisfy adrenaline and score junkies.
Darkest Dungeon (PC, PS4, Vita)
Similarly intense and oppressive, but lacking any particular need for rhythm, is Darkest Dungeon, a tactical, squad-based dungeon crawler with team management mechanics. It features permadeath, so your many heroes are always at risk, and there’s no savescumming to pull them back from death, making it especially devastating to lose a high-level hero you’ve been with for some time. But not only is mortality an issue, so is sanity. A heavily Lovecraftian game, Darkest Dungeon inflicts all kinds of mental and emotional strain on your heroes, leaving you to manage who risks going back into the dungeon and who sits the next one out.
With awesome Mignola-esque artwork, the actual best narration ever by Wayne June, and brutally tactical combat, Darkest Dungeon is not only one of the best indies this year, but one of the best games, period. With a new expansion set to drop in the near future, the madness has only just begun.
Devil Daggers (PC)
Topping the list is what almost, almost was my game of the year, bested only by Overwatch and DOOM. I wrote one of the first handful of reviews for it, and was shocked at how good it was both then and dozens upon dozens of hours later, when I’d seen and discovered so much more.
If Thumper is the intense, distilled essence of the rhythm game, Devil Daggers is the pure, unadulterated adrenaline rush of the first-person shooter. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more perfect, finely tuned game. This is not subjective, although the value will certainly not be apparent to everyone, as Devil Daggers is built with a very particular audience in mind. It’s a hardcore, skill-based shooter masquerading as a simple score-attack arcade arena. Survive as long as you can, shooting as many enemies as you can, until you’re killed yourself. One hit spells the end of the game, and the average run lasts only about a minute or so, depending on player skill (my own record time is a little over five minutes). The progression of enemies never changes, though it’s chaotic enough that it never quite plays the same, and for people who can’t last very long, even the meager $5 asking price might seem like too much.
Yet what many of these people will miss is one of the finest pieces of craftsmanship I’ve ever seen. This isn’t just the purposely lo-fi graphical presentation, the impeccable sound (which is extremely important to player positioning), or the specific enemies and their behaviors, but is also the nature of the player’s weapon, the enemy spawns and their timing, and the way players can gradually peel back an astonishing number of layers to the deep gameplay. I’ve personally put more than 105 hours into it, and despite this investment have still not been able to reach the game’s penultimate encounter. (The game never ends, but there is a point where the progression stops and finally begins repeating.) My high score puts me at rank 901, which is in the top 1.08% of the 83,150 people on the leaderboard currently. That should be all you need to know about how high the skill ceiling is in Devil Daggers.
This is a game that won’t be for everyone, but it’s made waves through the industry, with 3-man Australian developer Sorath earning the respect and admiration of those who appreciate exacting design. I absolutely can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. Not everyone will appreciate Devil Daggers to the degree that I do, but the barrier to entry is only $5 at full price. Come meet me on the leaderboards—if you’ve got the guts!
Okay, so I know there are some obvious choices missing from this list, and most of you are saying, “But what about [xyz]?” Some games I simply didn’t get to play long enough to form an editorial-worthy opinion, others I had spoiled for me because I had to edit reviews and features on them prior to playing, which killed their impact, and still others were popular but didn’t resonate with me as much as they did for most. That said, the consensus between critics, players, and myself is that all of the following games are fantastic in some way or another and are worth your time. A few of them we hope to offer full reviews for in the near future.
Owlboy – a long-anticipated platformer that finally saw release in 2016 to much fanfare.
INSIDE – a puzzle-platformer in the vein of LIMBO. From, well, the developers of LIMBO.
Salt and Sanctuary – Dark Souls the Metroidvania. Tastes great, less filling.
Stardew Valley – “I can’t believe it’s not Harvest Moon!”
Tumblestone – Non-Tetris in a really solid package.
Tricky Towers – Like, actually non-Tetris with a unique twist. With online and local play.
Clustertruck – Defies description. Just watch a trailer.
House of the Dying Sun – Space-dogfight your way to vengeance for the Emperor.
Let It Die – The latest from Grasshopper Manufacture. Non-abusive F2P third-person action RPG.
Quadrilateral Cowboy – Hacking puzzle-capers with a fantastic sense of style.
VA-11 HALL-A – Waifu bartending—no, really. And way, way better (and less dismissive) than that sounds. A stunning release from Sukeban Games.
Grim Dawn – While it didn’t quite make the cut for one of the best of the very best, it’s an awesome Diablo 2-style action RPG that anyone can love.
Starbound – Finally out of early access, with some unfortunate release decisions that hold it back somewhat.
The Final Station – For train and zombie apocalypse enthusiasts.
The Silver Case – A remaster release of Suda51’s seminal classic. You already know if you want this.
Cursed Castilla – A high-grade retro masterpiece in the vein of Ghosts n’ Goblins.
Subnautica – Technically still in early access, so it doesn’t qualify for a 2016 list, but this is (for me) hands down the best survival game on the market, and one I spent a ton of time playing, admiring, and reading about in 2016. It’s more than earned a mention here, especially since you can get it for only $10 on sale until the end of the year. Has some significant bugs and engine troubles that need addressing, but still an indie game like no other.
Before I close here, please bear in mind that there are many, many other games that deserve recognition but we simply can’t include due to time and space constraints. There are also undoubtedly other amazing experiences that have flown entirely under our radar. If there’s something you think we’ve missed that you want people to know about, please post your experience in the comments! We’d love to hear about everything we didn’t get the chance to play this year.