We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but we do it anyway. Our brains are wired to make snappy judgement calls, from the people we meet to the media we consume.
With so many great indie games out there it’s easy to quickly judge them based on their cutesy art styles or fairy tale stories. But you’d be missing out on some incredibly deep, rewarding gameplay if you didn’t give these ones a deeper look. Here’s a list of 15 indie games that shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.
We’re at a point where we can already look back and count Braid as one of the forerunners of indie gaming. What looks like a simple platformer with a glossy art style quickly grows devious with its unique time-traveling mechanic.
The biggest shocker comes from the increasingly tense story that cleverly uses a twist ending to subvert the classic video game concept of heroism.
14. ’CHILD OF LIGHT’
While it’s technically published by industry giant Ubisoft, Child of Light has all the whimsical trappings of an indie game. And its stunning hand-painted artwork and a faerie tale-like story could either draw you in or repulse you.
The hidden value is one of the best combat systems in years, taking all the great parts of the Japanese role-playing game genre and streamlining them into an adventure that doesn’t wear out its welcome.
13. ’CTHULHU SAVES THE WORLD’
Everyone’s favorite elder god gets his own 8-bit RPG adventure. While Cthulhu could’ve easily rested on the laurels of pure nostalgia for an earlier era, developer Zeboyd infused laugh out loud writing that skewers just about every gaming trope there is.
A deep but intuitive combat system is paired with several convenient mechanics that combine the best parts of modern game design while still using 8-bit maps and sprite-based foes.
Classic point-and-click adventure games have been on the rise in recent years. German developers Daedalic Entertainment are a big reason for this.
The Deponia trilogy looks like an interactive novel with an exaggerated anime-like art style, but the gameplay is pure point and click greatness as you gather inventory items and solve puzzles. Production values like these are rarely seen in the genre and shouldn’t be missed by any fans of classic adventure games.
11. ’DUNGEON OF THE ENDLESS’
Developer Amplitude Studios has crafted its own universe of Endless games. While bigger brothers Endless Space and Endless Legend hog all the glory, this little pixelated darling deserves some love for its amazing design and gameplay.
Dungeon of the Endless takes the concept of permanent death in games, forcing you to start over every time you fail, and adds some more strategic elements from other genres to create one of the most unique games I’ve ever played.
10. ’DUST: AN ELYSIAN TAIL’
Dust looks like it was ripped right out of an anime cartoon, with its exaggerated art and anthropomorphic characters.
What it does is combine a combo-happy fighting style with the stalwart metroidvania genre to create a fantastic experience. It helps that the voice acting and writing are absolutely top notch.
Pixelated platformers are all the rage in indie gaming, but Fez manages to stand apart with the ability to twist its 2D levels on a 3D plane.
This unique hook allows you to traverse any given level from multiple angles. You quickly discover the insidious puzzle design and maze-like world that sprawls out before you. Mysterious markings, secret passageways, and hidden endings are all par for the course as you unravel the enigmatic world of Fez.
8. ’GONE HOME’
While criticized as a “walking simulator”—a game where little happens besides the player simply walking around—by its detractors, Gone Home is one of those rare first-person games that doesn’t thrust a gun in your hands.
Instead you interact with various objects in a creepy house, hoping to piece together the puzzle of your missing family, and brilliantly learn about their stories along the way. Gone Home executes on its simple premise to create one of the most unique and tense adventure games in years.
7. ’MASSIVE CHALICE’
Don’t let the simple but effective paint-style art fool you. Double Fine have crafted a worthy XCOM-like tactical game. While you become attached to your random soldiers in XCOM, Massive Chalice forces you to let go as your heroes naturally age and die over the 300 year war.
Breeding for high stats and powerful traits becomes a fun exercise in eugenics (contradictory as that may sound) as your sturdy bloodlines defend against the onslaught of the demonic Cadence.
6. ’ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST’
Ori was the original inspiration for this list. It’s a typically cute-looking indie platformer with gorgeous art that belies the challenging but satisfying gameplay underneath.
Death comes so swiftly and often that one of the game’s biggest features is the ability to create manual save points wherever you please. Don’t miss one of the most perfectly balanced and enjoyable games in years.
5. ’PLANTS VS. ZOMBIES’
If you’ve been playing games at all in the last few years, there’s an excellent chance you’ve already played Plants vs Zombies. The ubiquitous backyard defense game has spawned numerous sequels and spin-offs, and infested every platform imaginable.
If the cartoony graphics turn you off, you’d be missing out on one of the most finely crafted strategy games ever made, and one that future games in the genre are constantly judged against.
4. ’RISK OF RAIN’
Risk of Rain dumps you into its tiny, pixelated world and forces you to figure things out on your own. Stick with it and you’ll find one of the best dungeon crawlers ever built, with multiple unlockable classes, fun abilities, and semi-randomized levels and foes.
A real joy to play cooperatively, and one of the most haunting, memorable indie game soundtracks I’ve ever heard.
Originally beginning life as a free PC game, Spelunky got a brightly colored overhaul when it came to consoles.
The monsters and animations look at home in a children’s cartoon, but Spelunky still boasts one of the best implementations of the hardcore dungeon crawling genre. You could play for dozens of hours and still never beat its brilliantly randomized level designs.
2. ’THE SWAPPER’
Mixing serious, high-concept science fiction themes with innovative puzzle designs is not something we see too often in gaming. The Swapper does all that in half a dozen hours.
The story and gameplay revolve around the use of clones, creating an incredibly deep-thinking and memorable experience. Navigating a creepy, abandoned space lab is always great sci-fi fodder but what really sells it are the well-designed puzzles.
Terraria, and its still-in-development progeny Starbound, could be easily dismissed as 2D version of the popular Minecraft, using the typically cute pixelated style that many indie games utilize.
But Terraria has really come into its own after years of stellar post-game updates, and now feels more like an actual game than Minecraft ever did, with bosses, dungeons, loot, and an intricate and rewarding crafting system.
Eric Watson is a freelance writer who enjoys talking about video games, movies, books and Dallas-based sports teams. Every week he watches a random film from his collection of several hundred DVDs and live tweets about it @RogueWatson. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas with his wife and daughter, two dogs, two cats, two fish tanks, some hermit crabs and a bookshelf full of Transformers.
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