Greatness from small beginnings.
Ffor some time now, some of the best games released every year are ones made by smaller, indie teams, and 2019 was no different in that regard. From unique and creative experiences to unbelievably polished gems, 2019 saw the release of a number of excellent games that were released not by big budget AAA studios, but by smaller, ambitious teams- and these games, as they always do, stood toe-to-toe with the biggest releases out there.
Here, we’ll be talking about what are the ten nominees for what we feel have been the best indie-developed games of the year, before picking out one winner from the lot as the one that stood out the most to us.
NOTE: The nominees and winner were decided by an internal vote held among the entire GamingBolt staff.
It’s been over a decade since we last saw an Advance Wars game, and it’ll probably be many years before we see another one (if we ever do). Thankfully, earlier this year, Chucklefish took it upon themselves to fill that void, and they did so with great aplomb. Wargroove is a dream come true for turn-based strategy fans. Challenging, tactical, and addictive, Wargroove’s campaign would have been enough to secure a position for the game in this list as it is, but of course, there was more. The campaign and map creator was surprisingly robust and versatile, and added immense value to what was an already meaty package.
A PLAGUE TALE: INNOCENCE
In our review of A Plague Tale: Innocence earlier in the year, we said that it has the heart of an indie game, and the sheen of a AAA blockbuster, and we can’t find a better way to summarize how we feel about the game. There’s no need for qualifiers like “for an indie game” or “for a smaller budget title” with A Plague Tale- Asobo Studio’s action adventure title is excellent, no matter what metric you use to measure its worth. It’s full of heart, it’s ridiculously polished, and it’s a ton of fun to play- any game that can boast of all those things is aces in our book.
The indie space fosters some of the most creative and unique talent out there, and no game this year has exemplified that as well as Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds does. Not only is it unbelievably huge and unexpectedly addictive, it’s also a rare example of a game not only having a fresh, intelligent premise, but also managing to execute in an exciting and satisfactory manner. Unravelling the mysteries of Outer Wilds and exploring the corners of its vast worlds is, without a doubt, one of the best gaming experiences we’ve had all year.
SAYONARA WILD HEARTS
Sayonara Wild Hearts finds depth in its simplicity in every way possible. Playing the game requires minimal inputs, rarely anything more than flicking the analog stick or timing the press of a button, and yet zipping through its environments and syncing your movement to the beat of the game’s excellent music is extremely fun. The visuals aren’t the most detailed you will ever see, more impressionist than anything else, and yet the sights the game shows you will stay with you long after you’ve moved on. Best of all, Sayonara Wild Hearts finds a way to meaningfully weave its story and gameplay together, and what we have in the end is one of the most unique and memorable games we’ve played all year.
Sunless Skies is what every sequel should be- cognizant of all the things that were good about its predecessor, but also improved in the ways it needed to be improved most. Its dark and dreary world and its deft storytelling combine with incredible atmosphere and world-building for an experience more immersive than many of us expected, while its blend of survival mechanics and role-playing make for a compelling gameplay experience as well. Does it have issues? Yes, some- but that’s why the phrase “imperfect gem” exists. To describe games like Sunless Skies.
Where major AAA developers struggle to properly implement choice and consequence mechanics in RPGs, a small indie studio called ZA/UM did it on their first attempt, and spectacularly so. It’s hard to believe how good Disco Elysium is. It is brimming with meaningful choices to be made that rear their heads in unpredictable ways, it’s bevy of systems make for a deep and engaging role playing experience, and it boasts an engaging narrative and a fascinating setting, propped up by excellently written and developed characters. Calling it one of the best RPGs of this generation would not be an exaggeration.
SLAY THE SPIRE
Slay the Spire has been in our lives for a couple of years now, what with having gone through a sizeable early access period, but this year saw MegaCrit’s roguelike deck builder launching in full on PC and consoles. And as all of us had seen coming, it was well worth the wait. Slay the Spire is a wondrous concoction of familiar genres, all combining together to create an experience wholly unlike anything else. It’s vast, addictive, and strategic, and putting it down once it’s sucked you in and is at its best is an impossible task.
Manifold Garden flew under the radar of the vast majority of people when it launched in October, which is a bit of a shame, because this here is a beautiful, hypnotic, mind-bending game that you owe it to yourself to experience, especially if you like the puzzle genre. It makes use of a number of unique mechanics in conjunction to present players with some truly fascinating and intelligent puzzles, all the while also dazzling with its beautiful sights and sounds. Manifold Garden is the fruit of seven years of development, and though that’s a long time for the development team to have spent on the game, in the end, it’s safe to say that the effort paid off.
Katana Zero’s short length is a indisputable flaw, while its challenging difficulty makes it a game that not everyone might be able to get into, but by and large this is one of the most stylish action titles we’ve seen in recent memory. Deflecting bullets with, slowing down time, jumping over obstacles and traps, and brutally dispatching enemies- that’s what Katana Zero is all about. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed, frantic melody, while its excellent pixel art and impeccable sense of style add even more value to an already memorable experience.
ARISE: A SIMPLE STORY
Taking cues from the likes of Journey, Arise: A Simple Story is one of those games that’s best described as an “experience.” Trekking through its striking beautiful locations while listening to its beautiful soundtrack can be a powerful experience, and the story the game tells – or conveys, rather – is an emotional rollercoaster. Then there’s its time manipulation mechanic, which makes for some surprisingly engaging and satisfying 3D platforming experience. Though it comes in right at the close of the year, Arise: A Simple Story is still every bit as deserving to be here as its fellow nominees.
A PLAGUE TALE: INNOCENCE
One look at A Plague Tale: Innocence is enough to tell you that developers Asobo Studio did not let the size of their team of their budget be a constraint for their ambition. That one single look tells you how good this game looks, not just thanks to beautiful art, but technically incredible visuals as well. And when you actually play the game, you realize that that level of sheen and quality extends beyond the visuals as well. Its simplistic yet engaging and varied blend of stealth, puzzle solving, and combat; its heartfelt story and personal bonds and relationships; its excellently written and acted characters; how deftly it balances the larger mysteries of its world with the more personal characters of its protagonists.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the biggest surprises, not only of the year, but of this entire generation, and it convincingly hammers home the point that a studio needs talent and ambition more than it needs money and resources to make a standout experience. And that’s exactly what A Plague Tale: Innocence is- one of the most stunning and memorable games we’ve played all year.