You know it’s been a bad year when we start seeking escapism in a game as presciently named as DOOM. For many of us, gaming has become the new nicotine in that respect. Regardless, 2016 was a great year to be a gamer and 2017 promises to be even stronger, especially for fans of independent studios. If you’re not particularly fussed, feel free to treat this list as 10 reasons you should be: as with all art, innovation happens on the fringes and video games are no exception.
So, assuming we aren’t all consumed in nuclear fire before they’re released, here’s a cherry picked selection of indie titles that’ll brighten up your life without turning you into a radioactive ghoul in the process. Although, what they’ll do to your social life I can’t say. Oh, and speaking from experience, if a cold caller offers you a place in some shady, underground vault thingy in the next few months, it might be less hassle to take your chances in a fridge.
Death’s Gambit (PS4, PC)
Like last year’s Salt & Sanctuary, Death’s Gambit from studio White Rabbit aims to find the middle ground between Dark Souls and Castlevania. In a combination that seems obvious in hindsight, it also channels Shadow of the Colossus, having you scramble over titanic bosses to find their weak points. It’s pixelated art-style, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the likes of Hyper Light Drifter and Shovel Knight, that is to say, absolutely gorgeous. Whether it has enough originality to outpace the shadow of its prodigious influences remains to be seen, but fingers crossed: the pre-release footage of Death’s Gambit hints at something special.
Eitr (PS4, PC)
In Eitr (pronounced ay-ter), you’ll rest at bonfires, engage enemies in challenging, methodical combat, manage your stamina bar and drink from an orange flask to restore your health. Derivative though it may sound, in scratching beneath the surface of its mechanics, you’ll find that its minimalist aesthetic is juxtaposed to a wealth of ideas that are entirely its own: weapon skills require you to play a certain way to recharge, health flasks can be swapped out for stat buffs, and equipable gems with their own skill trees can drastically change the flow of combat. Put it all together and Eitr is definitely one to keep an eye on. It doesn’t hurt that it also looks incredible, putting a chillingly gothic twist on norse mythology.
Rime (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC)
When it was first announced back in 2003, Rime was a PS4 exclusive. Since then, developer Tequila Works has acquired the rights from Sony and is now releasing the title across multiple platforms. Despite a May release date, Rime remains something of an enigma, and while the recent re-reveal trailer leaves much to the imagination, its vibrant visuals and coastal setting echoes last year’s The Witness. In the gameplay department, Rime alludes to a puzzle solving experience not unlike cult classics Journey and ICO. It’s all up in the air with Rime and how it’ll turn out after such a long and complicated development cycle is anyone’s guess. In the age of information, that’s an exciting thing!
Cuphead (Xbox One, PC)
It’s hard not to fall head over heels in love with Studio MDHR’s Cuphead on first glance. Absolutely bursting with the charm of the golden age of American animation, Cuphead is a nostalgia trip which feels more vital than the cutting edge, big hitters the industry churns out every year. Just look at it! The amount of raw imagination on screen at any one time is staggering, putting to shame platformers of its ilk. Cuphead is undoubtedly a labour of love; the soundtrack cracks like a bullwhip and the speed that the whole thing rattles along is electric. Alas, great games aren’t made on aesthetics alone and the steep challenge Cuphead poses may deter the casual gamer. But, hey, that’s why it has co-op. Buy this game!
Below (Xbox One, PC)
From Capybara Games, the team behind the stunning Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP, comes Below, a deeply atmospheric delve into the tenebrous unknown. Like Rime, the dearth of information surrounding Below seems only to embellish its alluring mystique. Below is surrounded in sinister intrigue, and with music from award winning composer Jim Guthrie and an aesthetic remoniscent of Oxenfree, this is a world whose secrets you’ll want to uncover for yourself. But it won’t be easy; to allude permadeath you’ll need to brew potions, craft items and engage in brutal, real time combat from a top down perspective. If you’d know what lies below, you’ll need to earn the right.
Pyre (PS4, PC)
Looking to make their hot streak a three-game run with Pyre is developer Supergiant Games. Like its predecessors, Pyre oozes style; vivid cel shaded colours pop off the screen, alive with sublime animation. In a peculiar mix between Rocket League and Transistor, two three-man teams take to a rectangular field bookended by pyres. The name of the game is to score enough magical orbs into the other team’s pyre to extinguish it before the same happens to your’s. There’s also a tinge of The Banner Saga in how you lead your party across the overworld, interacting with characters in multi-choice dialogue. How well this odd fusion of very disparate genres will work is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt it looks the part.
Flinthook (Xbox One, PC)
Depicted in beautifully rendered pixel art, Flinthook by Tribute Games is immediately endearing. There’s an elegant simplicity to the design of the ships the eponymous space pirate Captain Flinthook is out to plunder. Combat is fast and fluid, with each room packed full of hooks to grapple and swing on. If things get a bit too kinetic, time can be momentarily slowed allowing narrow escapes from a flurry of bullets or the chance to line up a shot on a troublesome baddie. There’s also a hardcore permadeath mode for roguelike veterans looking to up the ante. For fans of Spelunky and Rogue Legacy, Flinthook is a must buy.
Knights and Bikes (PS4, PC)
The pedigree of Knights and Bikes is clear in its presentation, Foam Sword, the two-man team behind it, having between them worked on LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway, and Ratchet and Clank. Funded on Kickstarter and inspired by stories like Earthbound and The Goonies, there’s a wonderful hand drawn, scrapbook feel to this heartfelt tale of childhood adventure. As you progress through the game in coop or alone, you’ll unlock new abilities, slay demons with a Frisbee, team up with a goose and severed head of a fallen knight, and of course, trick out your bike to reach new areas. If you grew up with the things it derives from, Knights and Bikes will effortlessly have you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
Prey for the Gods (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
Think the titanic monster hunting of Shadow of the Colossus infused with the wasteland survival elements of something like The Long Dark and you’ll have a pretty decent idea of what to expect from No Matter Studios’ Prey for the Gods. Be it trudging through the frozen tundra or stalking prey with your bow, each action you perform in Prey for the Gods will detract from your character’s energy levels, making them increasingly less capable as they encroach upon exhaustion. Graphically, it is fantastic: snow capers across the screen in thick flurries of white, trees whip back and forth as the icy wind howls through their branches, and bosses fill the screen with their enormity. It sounds great on paper but that Prey for the Gods values style over substance is a bit of a worry; let’s just hope it doesn’t leave us feeling cold in the end.
Night in the Woods (PS4, PC)
If there’s one thing that the games on this list have in common, it’s that they all have have absolutely stellar presentation. Even still, with its autumnal colour palette and minimalistic designs, Night in the Woods by Infinite Fall stands out for all the right reasons. Despite having no voice acting whatsoever, Night in the Woods’ is brimming with personality underscored by a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humour that goes along way to defining the dark character of its world. With a mystery recalling that of Life is Strange at its heart, it is at once haunting and alluring, melancholic and warm, tactile and illusive. Gameplay may not be its strong suit but when a game’s narrative promises to be as rapturous as Night in the Woods’, who cares?
As you can hopefully tell, I’m pretty freaking stoked for the games on this list (less so by the idea of having to shell out for an Xbox One/PC to play some of them). But which upcoming indies have captured your imagination? Let me know in the comments below!