A bumper year for indie games gave us some of the best games in recent memory.
What once started as the smaller scale side of the gaming industry has now become a dominant creative force to be reckoned with, with some of the best games every year being produced by indie game developers of all persuasions. No longer content to just make the same few genres that once used to be the purview of indie developers, indie games today deliver games of all types, with the lack of pressure from publishers or to recover astronomical budgets meaning they can even innovate and experiment in a way that most AAA games cannot.
What follows is a list of the fifteen best indie games that launched this year – but these games are so great that most of them could well find themselves on a list of the 15 best games of the year, period, and no one would bat an eye.
NOTE: The nominees and winner were decided by an internal vote held among the entire GamingBolt staff.
No other game has perhaps done as much to popularize the roguelike as the original Spelunky did. While the game was already well received upon its original release on the Xbox 360, it was the subsequent redo on Vita (and then on other systems) that made it the universally beloved game that it is today. The original Spelunky is one of the most acclaimed games of all time, with its purity of design and skill based mechanics making it a mainstay in many people’s gaming libraries on a near constant basis. Spelunky 2 had a lot to live up to, and by and large it delivers. It’s an excellent game that polishes an already perfect formula even further, delivering a compelling roguelike that once again ranks as among the best the genre has to offer. If there is one criticism that is to be leveled at the game, it’s that it’s not as revolutionary as the original game was – but few games are, and holding it to that standard feels almost unfair.
Another great example of the vast range of genres that indie developers and games now cover, Levelhead lets you create, share, and play your own platformers, in the tradition of games such as Super Mario Maker and LittleBigPlanet. It’s remarkably intuitive, hilariously well contextualized, and even the platforming mechanics work well. With great sharing features and cross platform play functionality, this is also a game where you’re guaranteed to find a community, whether you fall on the creator or the player side of the equation. Levelhead is a remarkably full featured game, and is yet another example of the stunning ambition indie games so often display now.
Frictional Games’ original Amnesia was a big bang moment for horror games, with its unique blend of psychological horror and non combat scenarios almost instantly leaving an indelible mark on the genre, influencing all games to follow. With SOMA, Frictional proved they’re no one trick pony, but it was their return to the Amnesia world that drew all eyes on them once again. After all, they promised it would be their most ambitious game to date. And boy, did they deliver. Amping up the psychological horror even further, and making the storytelling an interactive part of the experience that is intractable from the gameplay, this non-linear sojourn into gradual insanity may lack the instant milestone status its celebrated predecessor achieved, but manages to be a heck of a game regardless.
Streets of Rage 4
Sega’s Streets of Rage series is arguably the single greatest achievement of the brawler genre, particularly Streets of Rage 2. Suffice it to say, there was skepticism when Streets of Rage 4 was announced, and that it had some mighty big shoes to fill. It is incredible, then, that it actually manages to meet those lofty expectations, and then some. We’ve received so many great brawlers in the last few years, in 2020 alone, in fact, and yet Streets of Rage 4 easily outclasses them all. Hopefully its success prompts Sega to look at producing a higher budget sequel, and bringing the talented indie team at Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games on board as well. They’re too good at what they do to let them slip away.
There are many ways to describe Fall Guys, the delightful blend of Mario Party style shenanigans and a classic TV game show format, concocted in a battle royale mix – but the best one is “absolute mayhem.” Mediatonic struck gold with Fall Guys when it launched earlier this year, and that’s because the game is just so gloriously, ridiculously, absurdly fun. Putting its contestants through a series of increasingly ridiculous (and frankly outlandish) gauntlets, Fall Guys is that rare game that was at the right place at the right time, and managed to capture lightning in a bottle. It’s so good that it transcends its genre, and manages to just be a hell of a good time regardless. The true mark of a great multiplayer game is that you manage to enjoy yourself, regardless of whether or not you win – and if that’s the metric by which one is to be judged, then Fall Guys stands as among the best multiplayer games we have received in a very long time.
Management sim games are a concept almost as old as video games themselves, and even indie games have managed to put out some truly unforgettable ones, with Game Dev Tycoon standing out as one that truly broke out into the mainstream in the last few years. And yet, in spite of the prevalence of the genre, Spiritfarer stands out. A large part of that is because its core conceit is so unusual – you’re not managing a city or a restaurant or a hospital or anything like that, you’re managing the transportation of the deceased to the afterlife. That already sets it apart from other similar games, but Spiritfarer goes above and beyond – it tackles some heady existential topics with grace and tact, but manages to be an optimistic outlook nonetheless. And it’s not just about the setting or plot, either – the core gameplay is remarkably addictive, with the central loop likely to keep players engaged into the early hours of the morning before they realize that they let all that time slip away. Like the best sim games, Spiritfarer can be lethal if consumed unmoderated – and that’s really the highest compliment we can give it.
Risk of Rain 2
Some of the best work in fiction has followed people stranded in space – games themselves have seen seminal entries such as Metroid and Alien Isolation, based on the same central conceit. Risk of Rain 2 manages to rank among the best that this concept has to offer. Survival and roguelike indie games are dime-a-dozen, so it’s to Risk of Rain 2’s credit that it manages to stand out so much regardless. There isn’t much that Risk of Rain 2 really does that’s different from other games in the genre (other than a surprisingly well handled transition to 3D), and it still suffers from some of the jank that plagues all early access titles. That, in fact, speaks more than anything else to just high quality the game is, that in spite of all of these potential shortcomings, it still manages to stand out as much as it does, as well as it does.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
The original Ori is already arguably one of the best games ever made – at the very least, it ranks as one of the genre greats for Metroidvanias. And yet, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the long awaited sequel, manages to outdo it so thoroughly in every regard, that it’s not controversial to say that Blind Forest has been made obsolete and redundant by its own sequel. A masterwork of tight, breathtaking design, Will of the Wisps expands upon the original game’s strengths, works to address its shortcomings, and also takes liberal inspiration from some of the other genre greats that have come in the years since the original title’s launch, such as Hollow Knight. That Ori and the Will of the Wisps can legitimately lay claim to being one of the best games of, not just this year, but this generation, when there have been so many great games in this period, should tell you everything you need to know about just how great it really is. Honestly, we can’t wait to see where Moon Studios goes next.
In the last few years, we have seen increasingly accomplished examples of games that are not loud or explosive, as so many are wont to be, but contemplative and introspective. If Found is cut from that latter cloth, presenting itself as an adventure game following a young girl who must delve into her past to try and solve a mystery intractably tied to an impending world ending cataclysm. Gorgeous art, resonant writing, and some stirring sound design make this game a painful, haunting, but ultimately rich and evocative experience that truly stands out as a remarkable example of what games can accomplish, and how much they can be true works of art.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the minds behind Monument Valley were able to deliver an incredible game such as Florence, but this game still stands out due to just how remarkably well it blends storytelling and gameplay, all while tackling some universally identifiable themes. Florence, the eponymous protagonist, is disaffected at the age of 25, with no idea of where her life is going – all until she meets a young man, who shows her a new way to look at the world. Following a charming and sweet story of young love, Florence is a staggering achievement of true storytelling delivered via interactivity, and is hopefully a portent of how storytelling in videogames will evolve and develop in the coming years.
Open world games are a very tricky genre – even massive teams of AAA developers struggle with getting them right. And yet, The Pathless, an unassuming open world action adventure game delivered from the same small team that gave us ABZU, manages to deliver one of the most stirring and remarkable open world games in recent memory. Much like some of the other best open world games, The Pathless eschews genre tropes such as maps, markers, and icons, instead relying on the player’s natural curiosity and drive to explore to lead them through its beautiful and desolate world. By keeping the emphasis solely on exploration and collection, The Pathless keeps the emphasis squarely on the one thing it manages transcendentally well – evoking as sense of wonder and wanderlust in the player, and slowly leading them through its beautiful world.
RPGs are usually high stakes games. You’re saving the world, taking on evil powers, dismantling crime rings, battling down existential threats, or trying to be the very best there ever was. Haven is so refreshing in being a role playing game that’s just about… life. You’re following the story of two people stranded on an alien planet, but you objective in the game is simply to build a life for yourself. You set out into the world not to beat back some threatening invading force, but simply to find things to better your life. Haven is that rare game that puts the emphasis on the smaller moments in life, and its distinct flavor, coupled with its well done mechanics, make it one of the more unique games we have received in a while.
Art of Rally
Racing games are typically the purview of high end developers delivering top of the line graphics and thrilling speed or grounded realism, but Art of Rally manages to show us that indie developers are as capable of giving us a top notch racing experience as anyone else. Its stark art style can be off-putting at first, but ends up working to the game’s favor, while its top down perspective lets it play differently than other racers, while also being far easier to get into than its contemporaries. If you’re a fan of racing games, then you definitely need to grab yourself Art of Rally and give it a go as soon as you can.
Stardew Valley meets… something. That’s how you’d describe Littlewood. The Dark Wizard has been defeated, and the world is at peace, but the personal cost was great, and you remember very little. Now is the time for you to rebuild not just the world, but also your life. Taking the best from games like A Link to the Past, Animal Crossing, and the aforementioned Stardew Valley, Littlewood is calm, meditative, and surprisingly unique, given how much it shares with so many other games. Right now, it’s flown a bit under the radar, but here’s hoping that the plaudits it has received, as well as its impending console launch, will help it catch the eye of many others in the future.
You knew this was coming. You knew this would be on this list. Few games, indie or otherwise, have managed to capture the zeitgeist like Supergiant’s latest effort did when it launched on PC and Nintendo Switch earlier this year after a long Early Access gestation period. Hades joins the rarefied company of games such as Stardew Valley, Undertale, Hollow Knight, and Celeste in becoming an indie title that transcends those indie origins and becomes a mainstream hit regardless. And all that hype is backed up by an incredible game – Hades is a remarkable roguelike, a roguelike for those that don’t like roguelikes (it achieves this by minimizing the frustrations typically associated with the genre), while delivering enough depth and nuance to placate even hardcore genre fans. It’s extremely strongly designed and well balanced, and a tour de force of video game storytelling, with some fantastic writing and voice acting making the narrative a surprisingly compelling raison d’etre to keep playing, again and again and again, even after you’ve died so many times. A masterpiece of game design and storytelling, Hades is arguably the most important roguelike since the original Spelunky, and well and truly one of the all time great games.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Moon Studios have perfected the Metroidvania with Ori and the Will of the Wisps, a game so incredible that it received the vaunted GamingBolt 10 when it launched earlier this year. The biggest problems with the game upon launch – its technical performance – have long since been ironed out, leaving nothing but a triumph of game design for players to experience, with little to no friction along the way. Stirring music, gorgeous art, tight controls, and literally mind bending level and world design all come together to make Ori and the Will of the Wisps a true standout game – and GamingBolt’s indie game of the year 2020, a title that it truly deserves. Here’s hoping Moon Studios manages to scale even higher heights with their next game.