At every E3, all eyes are fixed on the major publishers and their AAA titles. But smaller independent games had a strong showing too. And since they often don’t get enough attention during the gaming convention, this post-show dust-settling period is a good time to throw the spotlight onto the indie-est indie games there.
While this list features some of the indie games that Microsoft and Sony are championing in one way or another, it also includes some hidden gems that you might not have heard about. Either way, keep your eyes on these titles; they’ll help you pass the time until Bethesda finally releases Fallout 4.
While Microsoft showed off an impressive collection of triple-A games at its E3 2015 press conference, Cuphead looked more like a Disney cartoon dug up from the vault than a Halo or a Gears of War. And gamers noticed.
Classic animation tropes like the enemies’ eyes changing colors or clouds of white smoke appearing each time a character blows help sell the world, while Cuphead is also a competent run n’ gun platformer that focuses on one-on-one or two-on-two battles between the playable characters and zany bosses.
’NIGHT IN THE WOODS’
When it still had a Kickstarter campaign, Night in the Woods already looked as if it belonged to Sony’s expansive collection of quirky indie titles. Fluid animation, an impressive art style consisting mostly of cool colors, and quirky anthropomorphic animals blend together to create an endearing world often seen in the publisher’s experimental games.
Night in the Woods is a side-scrolling adventure game with light puzzle-solving and platforming mechanics—nothing you haven’t seen before. However, the dialogue between protagonist Mae and her friends or enemies is noticeably sharper than what’s seen in most games. These humorous quips also explore the themes of accepting your mortality and figuring out your life’s purpose. In other words playing this game is like reliving your early twenties, not something many games tackle.
Superhot is unlike any first person shooter because it has a unique mechanic: time (read: bullets and adversaries) moves only when you do. The player’s mission is simple: find the gun and eliminate the gunmen before they shoot you.
Because of the time mechanic, you can see the trajectories of bullets while they’re standing still; therefore, you can strategically plan your next move. With the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, players can move their bodies from side to side to dodge enemy fire, making Superhot the closest a video game has come to emulating The Matrix.
Double Fine Productions produces games that tend to resonate with their audience, such as Psychonauts. So when an indie game comes with the label “Double Fine Presents,” as is the case with GNOG, the company’s fans notice.
With its colorful, unique art style and challenging puzzles, GNOG seems like a game Double Fine would create themselves, not simply “support,” as is the case. It takes place in a universe full of mechanical monster heads, and each one has several components for players to manipulate. Failure isn’t imminent, so players have all the time they need to rotate, explore, and play around until they solve the puzzle. GNOG seems like a game designed to make players feel like they’re children who curiously disassemble a toy to figure out how it works.
’MOTHER RUSSIA BLEEDS’
Devolver Digital has published an incredible library of indie games, and, like Double Fine, it knows how to pick ‘em. The company is most famous for publishing Hotline Miami, and it tends to seek out games with a similar style. Mother Russia Bleeds is about as close as it gets to emulating Hotline Miami , but in a totally different genre: the “beat ‘em up,” like Streets of Rage or classics such as Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time.
What separates this title from its retro predecessors is its wildly depraved presentation. In the demo, the protagonists hunt down a club owner in a BDSM (nothing wrong with BDSM) dungeon full of half-naked, pig-masked thugs; however, the word takes a psychotic turn for the worst as the protagonists are drugged, fighting against demonic versions of themselves in hell. Mother Russia Bleeds is perfect for gamers who enjoy seeing something messed up, which, let’s be honest, is most of us.
Crossing Souls is ostensibly about 5 kids exploring the realms of the living and the dead through a magical stone. To do this, players take control of five teenagers, each with their own abilities and mechanics fitting for the tropes they exhibit (the nerd uses gadgets, the jock uses brute force, and so forth).
However, Fourattic’s real goal is to help players relive the ‘80s. The art has a neon purple vibe that’s fitting for 1980s California, and the soundtrack is catchy and captures everything we loved about the decade. In addition, cutscenes are animated to look exactly like ‘80s cartoon shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and He-Man. Even players who aren’t particularly fond of the ‘80s might find themselves impressed with this beautiful adventure game with light RPG mechanics.
What separates Eneme Entertainment’s Eitr from classic 16-bit RPGs is the former doesn’t face the restraints that games on retro hardware did. Instead, its two-man team is capable of producing detailed pixel art that developers from the ‘90s could only dream of.
Eitr is a dark action game that takes inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, Diablo and Dark Souls. The unnamed female protagonist is a seasoned warrior, yet she must maintain her stamina meter and refrain from taking on too many enemies at once unless she wants to be skewered. If you’re looking for a game that will whet your appetite for Dark Souls III, then Eitr is the game for you.
Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent helped with the resurgence of the horror genre within the indie community. The team handed off the sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, to a different developer so it could focus on its first-person space horror adventure, Soma.
Players are tasked with exploring a space ship where terrible things have happened to the rest of the crew. Soma makes manipulating objects more complicated than simply “press X to hack,” and it replaces boring journal logs with dead bodies that trigger memories to provide backstory, leading to a hypnagogic experience. The result is a game that truly feels nightmarish in all the right ways.
’HEART FORTH, ALICIA’
Kogi Igarashi’s successfully crowdfunded Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night proved that consumers still want a good “metroidvania” (games similar to the retro classics Metroid and Castlevania); however, he still needs some time to complete his dark, gothic game. Thankfully, there’s another metroidvania that’s a more colorful yet equally impressive: Heart Forth, Alicia.
It hearkens back to the graphics of classic RPGs such as Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy. The detailed sprite animation and Final Fantasy-like abilities blend perfectly with gameplay similar to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. If you’re looking to relive some of Square Enix’s (Squaresoft in the ‘90s) classics, then look for this game in early 2016.
Indie developers seem to be obsessed with Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda because they both provide fascinating worlds to explore and challenging scenarios. Below, which was announced exclusively for Microsoft’s consoles in 2013, might be the closest to completely capturing the essence of both games.
In the world of Below, players explore the dungeon from a top-down perspective. The dungeon is enveloped in darkness, and players rely on their lantern, sword, and shield to survive. The light and shadow effects provide the perfect, suffocating atmosphere for exploration, and players need to be careful if they don’t want to die and lose their lantern. Should that happen, they’ll begin with a new character who symbolically carries the torch.
There were many other amazingly weird games—not to mention plenty that were just plain cool—at E3 2015. Check out Playboy.com’s video games hub for all our gaming coverage, and check in with our Gamers Next Door to see what Pam and Amelia are playing.
Garrett is a technical writer who dabbles in games journalism. When he’s not thinking about pop culture he—no, wait, he’s always thinking about pop culture. You can follow him on Twitter @_garrettglass.