What is Indie and what is AAA? It feels like that line is blurring more and more every year, doesn’t it? Most of the time, the critical darlings and buzz-worthy games aren’t the major releases from the mega-publishers these days. Instead, it’s the games made by the little guys who come up with a unique and interesting take on a well-worn genre that the massive publishers won’t do because the concept is just too risky.
2018, in particular, was a fantastic year for the Indie scene, with many titles getting nominated for Game of the Year awards right alongside Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War. What were these games, though? What were some of the best games made by people working out of their garages (both figuratively and literally)? Let’s count ‘em down!
10. Light Fall
- System: PC
- Publisher: Bishop Games
- Developer: Bishop Games
- Release Dates: April 27, 2018
Don’t you get sick of properly timing your jumps in platformers? Light Fall has a unique solution to this oddly specific issue by allowing you to create your own platforms right in the middle of gameplay! You’ll explore the beautiful world of Numbra while your owl partner Stryx advises you as you play… or teases you for being so bad. You know, whatever he’s in the mood for.
Light Fall is exactly the sort of platforming challenge you want out of a good indie title. It looks great, has a really tight and engaging level design, and has a fun hook that connects it all together. The ability to place a small box right underneath you as you jump around is a real game-changer, giving you the feeling that you’ve always got an out no matter how badly you screw up. This removes the impulse to immediately blame the game for your screw-ups when you know you could have easily created a platform for yourself sooner!
9. Guacamelee 2
- System: Playstation 4, PC, Switch, Xbox One
- Publisher: Drinkbox Studios
- Developer: Drinkbox Studios
- Release Dates: August 21, 2018
Juan is a Mexiverse hero. He saved El Presidente’s daughter Lupita, stopped Calaca from taking over the world, and restored the honor of Lucha Libre fighting. It’s been 7 years since all of that, though. Now he’s settled down with Lupita and they’ve started a family. However, something seems amiss. Dark clouds have sprouted up over the village. Juan goes to investigate only to discover that, in an alternate timeline, Calaca won their fight and was instead defeated by a separate fighter named Salvador! Salvador has become mad with power and Juan needs to stop him as soon as possible!
The original Guacamelee was a standout entry in the Metroidvania subgenre at a time when said genre was really picking up in popularity due to its combination of satisfying explorative platforming and tight Devil May Cry-style combat. Guacamelee 2 doesn’t add much barring 4-player co-op and chicken mode combat, but when it’s building on such a strong foundation, that can hardly be considered a bad thing!
- System: PC, Switch, PlayStation 4
- Publisher: Humble Bundle
- Developer: Greg Lobanov
- Release Dates: September 27, 2018
The Bard was just out playing in the Woods one day when he comes across a horrible discovery: the world is about to end! He’s not really sure he gets the details, but he certainly can’t let that happen! All he knows is that he needs to learn the Earthsong to prevent this from happening, and he’ll need to meet up with several different deities (called Overseers) in order to learn it. The first Overseer he meets, however, blows him off and tells him he doesn’t have any faith that humanity can be saved. This doesn’t stop the Bard though! He sets out on a global adventure to learn the Earthsong and stop humanity from tearing itself apart.
Many fans of Wandersong will sing praises of its positivity and atmosphere; the charming writing, the wonderfully colorful world, the glorious reverberation of Bard’s voice that makes the act of singing just a joy to play around with. What often gets ignored, however, is that it’s also a surprisingly interesting blend of different genres, mixing puzzle-solving, rhythm gaming, and mild platforming that’s always figuring out new ways to shake-up the gameplay. It’s always in service of its overall message, making Wandersong a fantastic playthrough.
7. The Messenger
- System: Switch, PC
- Publisher: Devolver Digital
- Developer: Sabotage Studio
- Release Dates: August 30, 2018
Your ninja village is done for. It’s been attacked by the evil Demon King, and now all you can do is run for your life. However, a brief glimpse of hope arrives when the Western Hero arrives with a scroll and tells you it needs to be delivered to a nearby village. Doing so only causes you to travel 500 years into the future, which only makes the world look less… blocky, somehow.
It is an indisputable fact that ninjas are just plain awesome. It’s why games have focused on them since the NES era. The Messenger recaptures a lot of the magic of old action games like Ninja Gaiden and Strider with its mishmash of gameplay styles, mixing the razor-sharp combat of the 8-bit generation with the more exploratory oriented 16-bit era that once showed off the badassitude of Ninpo. Even better, The Messenger mixes things up by alternating between 8-bit and 16-bit art as an ultimate love letter to these games of old.
6. Donut County
- System: PC, iOS/Android, Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One
- Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
- Developer: Ben Esposito
- Release Dates: August 28, 2018
Have you ever wanted a quadcopter drone so badly you’d do anything for it, even if it meant destroying your city? Well, BK the raccoon didn’t realize that he was actually destroying the city, as he thought he was just sending donuts to people for points that he could save up for a drone. That doesn’t mean he regrets it or anything. Instead, he was creating holes underneath people and sending them underground. Now, everyone in town has got a bone to pick with BK, as they recount exactly what happened.
Donut County is essentially the Western take on Katamari Damacy: an incredibly simple and frankly kind of stupid gameplay mechanic that has a weirdly addictive zen quality to it. In Donut County, all you’re doing is creating holes, and the more things you swallow up, the bigger the holes get. However, while Katamari Damacy never seemed to acknowledge the silly destructiveness of its mechanics, Donut County tackles it head-on with its story, making it an oddly insightful (if tongue-in-cheek) counterpoint to that game.
5. Into the Breach
- System: PC, Switch
- Publisher: Subset Games
- Developer: Subset Games
- Release Dates: February 27, 2019
Civilization, as is the case in most video games, is in danger. Society has crumbled and people are doing their best just to survive. The Vek, giant aliens that have settled underground, are not making things any easier. However, hope is not lost. Giant mechs can combat the Vek, but at a cost. The pilots have to be very careful to limit their collateral damage, as they actually receive power from pretty much every building in the surrounding area.
Don’t let its minimalistic, mobile-appropriate-looking gameplay fool you: Into the Breach is one of the biggest leaps forward turn-based strategy games have seen in years. It was designed to keep the humanity of society intact by making civilian areas a core component of the gameplay. It’s actually something you want to protect because it’s vital for your survival! Plus, being from the creators of FTL, you can expect some heavy randomization elements to the encounters, which forces you to actually master the mechanics rather than just memorize a strategy for every single mission.
- System: PC
- Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
- Developer: Wadjet Eye Games
- Release Dates: August 8, 2018
Don’t you just hate it when you destroy the world? After all, it’s not like it was your fault. You just happened to have been possessed by a terrible demon with unstoppable magical powers. Really, it could happen to anyone. But, alas, it was you, and now you’re going to have to take responsibility for it. An organization called the Unavowed is willing to help out, though. You can’t exactly turn back time, but at the very least, you can help rebuild society into something better!
Unavowed takes its inspiration from the classic Point and Click adventure games of the 90s. It’s got a little of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream with chilling horror that’s distilled through a more primitive art style. It’s got a lot of Day of the Tentacle in it with the multiple party members with different skill sets that alter how you handle solving puzzles. However, it’s also got some major inspiration from modern game design, as your path can actually branch at points and change the entire course of the story. It’s a remarkable achievement for the genre!
3. Return of Obra Dinn
- System: PC
- Publisher: 3909
- Developer: Lucas Pope
- Release Dates: October 19, 2018
Have you ever dreamed of entering the exciting world of insurance claims? Wait, don’t go away! What if it’s investigating an early 19th century abandoned ship? Is that still not doing anything for you? Well, trust us, there’s much more that’s going on underneath the surface of Return of Obra Dinn. As you investigate, you’ll see recreations of what actually unfolded on the Obra Dinn during the 5-year period it was missing. It’s up to you to piece together the mystery!
Obra Dinn made some serious waves last year when it released due to its combination of storytelling and its secretly devious puzzles. Make no mistake: this is not a simple walking simulator that throws in a puzzle or two to pad out the game. You are going to have to genuinely put your noggin to the test and figure out what exactly happens. When you do, you’ll be rewarded with just a little more story as you discover what happens. Well, if you can call “heartbreaking tragedy” a prize, anyway. It is, however, one of the most satisfying gaming experiences of 2018 because of that.
2. Dead Cells
- System: PC, Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One
- Publisher: Motion Twin
- Developer: Motion Twin
- Release Dates: August 7, 2018
You’re not sure why you’re stuck on an island. The guards just call you The Prisoner, because you’re locked up there for some crime you don’t really know the details of. Though you do seem to be Immortal. It’s just that when you die, you return to the same prison every single time and you lose everything that you accumulated along the way. But that doesn’t deter you from making your best attempt to escape!
Dead Cells has actually been in Early Access since 2017, but unlike most Early Access games, this actually worked to Dead Cells’ benefit. People immediately got a sense for the game’s intense Dark Souls kill-or-be-killed combat combined with the randomized encounter design of a Roguelike. This, in a way, makes it the ultimate Dark Souls game, as you can’t merely memorize enemy wave patterns to cheese your way through. You’ll have to grind out the combat and start from square one every single time you lose, capturing the true frustration and fury of The Prisoner.
- System: Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
- Publisher: Matt Makes Games
- Developer: Matt Makes Games
- Release Dates: January 25th, 2018
Madeline can’t seem to get out of the funk she’s sunken into. One day, she thinks, “Well, maybe I should give mountain climbing a shot”. So she does. This may not have been the best decision, as Celeste Mountain is one of the most treacherous mountains out there, with a very strange secret hidden within. However, that doesn’t deter Madeline, and she sets off on her journey. What she doesn’t realize is that the secret of Celeste Mountain is that it brings the dark side of people to life. Madeline is going to have to run from her evil self while simultaneously climbing a treacherous mountain!
The best way to describe Celeste would be the most positive masocore platformer that’s ever been released. There’s something odd about a game that keeps track of your death count–which often soars into the triple or even quadruple digits–and tells you that this is actually okay. It reminds us that perfection shouldn’t be expected of the player. We’re all going to make mistakes. But that’s okay, because when we fail, we grow. It encourages us that it’s okay to fail over and over again just so long as you keep going. It’s a wonderful message tied up with some incredibly tight platforming challenges, which is why we’re calling it the best Indie game of 2018.
Maybe AAA games are flashier and bigger, but let’s face it: indie games are the experiences that really stick with us now. They aren’t forced to keep us in gameplay loops to suck away our time and money. These games, we feel, were among the best of the year.
Disagree with us? Think Celeste is getting too much hype? Really wanted to see Return of Obra Dinn higher? Please, let us know in the comments below!