Over the past few years, indie games have grown from smaller titles which could be used as distractions before the next AAA game, into a massive industry of games in and of themselves. Many indie games have come out over the years meet the standards of and even surpass their AAA brethren in quality, content, and enjoyment. Many of these critically acclaimed indie games either perfect a formula already set up by the gaming world, seek to innovate in different and unique ways from the usual AAA products, or even set out to make their own genres all together.
10. Hyper Light Drifter
- System/Platform: PC, PS4, XBO, Ouya
- Publisher: Heart Machine
- Developer: Heart Machine
- Release Date: Mar. 31st, 2016
One of the joys of indie games is the ability to experiment with a formula that existed prior and trying to innovate on what is old. Hyper Light Drifter is a perfect example of this, taking several elements from critically acclaimed games such as Zelda and Dark Souls, and combining them all into a gorgeous mesh of hack-and-slash gameplay with a focus on dungeon crawling. Hyper Light Drifter chooses to leave most of its machinations for the player to figure out - from controls to mechanics, everything is figured out when playing the game rather than by reading a tutorial on screen. The general plot and setting follow this same structure - as the main story is left entirely up to the interpretation of the audience, with no dialog of any kind to supplement the story. Luckily, this direction works wonderfully for the game, as the environments and set pieces each tell a story on their own for the players to extrapolate from if they so choose. The art direction and music both help further immerse you into the world - with many of the tracks fitting the tone of each particular area wonderfully, and the amount of detail in the animations and art pulling you in as early as the opening cutscene.
Hyper Light Drifter does not let up when it comes to the difficulty - with many of the game’s combat sections taking place in small areas surrounded by enemies. Mastering the combat of Hyper Light Drifter is required in order to progress, and one wrong button press or movement is typically enough to end the game or severely injure the player. The most important ability in Hyper Light Drifter is dashing - allowing for seamless dodges between enemy attacks as well as a way to quickly chain attacks between enemies. Unlike traditional dungeon-crawlers, Hyper Light Drifter has every character upgrade available from a shop in the main hub - allowing the player to customize their loadouts any way they would like from the very start of the game. This freedom of choice extends to the four main areas of the game, with each area being explorable in any order the player may desire. Hyper Light Drifter may feel brutal at times, but the level of challenge is welcome as it incentivizes mastery of the controls and mechanics of the game. Hyper Light Drifter does a great job of blending all of its inspirations into an incredibly difficult and fun hack-and-slash game that has much more intricacies and depth in the story and world, and is a definite must-play.
9. Castle Crashers
- System/Platform: XB360, PS3, PC, XBO
- Developer: The Behemoth
- Publisher: The Behemoth
- Release Date: NA: Aug. 31st, 2010 EU: Nov. 3rd, 2010 JP: Nov. 25th, 2010
A King is hosting a party at his castle, attended by the various people of his land - including four knights of different colors. While the party goes on, a dark wizard suddenly appears, kidnapping the various princesses in the castle as well as taking a mysterious gem with him. The knights are tasked by the King with saving the different princesses and stopping the wizard's nefarious plans before he destroys the world. The knights must face off against various minions, wildlife, and the occasional alien on their quest to restore peace to the lands once more.
Castle Crashers is one of the best (and few) beat-em-up style games to come out in quite a while. The controls aren't too complex and many of the games skill comes from being able to chain multiple combos of physical and magical attacks to maximize damage. Where Castle Crashers really shines is in its multiplayer aspect, with up to four players being able to control individual knights that each have their own abilities and upgrades. It's an incredibly fun party game to pick up for a few levels with friends, or to plow through over the course of a few days. The cartoon-esque art style and over-the-top sense of humor and environments help further the fun and carefree nature of Castle Crashers. If you don't have three other friends to play with, however, the single player experience is still incredibly fun and challenging to plow through by yourself, and it’s certainly one flagship indie title that shouldn't be overlooked for years to come.
- System/Platform: PC, PS3, XB360, PSV, PS4, XBO, 3DS, Wii U, Switch, iOS, Android, Windows Phone
- Developer: Re-Logic
- Publisher: 505 Games
- Release Date: May 16th, 2011
Released around the time when sandbox building games became a hot trend in the gaming world, Terraria does plenty to separate from the crowd and make itself one of the most recognizable sandbox games of all time. On the surface, Terraria looks like any other sandbox game - except in 2D as opposed to the typical 3D - but once more of the game is explored, it becomes clear just how much more expansive Terraria is both in scope and in content. Terraria is jam-packed with various action-RPG elements that give the game its identity - one of the most recognizable being the enemy variety and boss encounters. Terraria features multiple bosses that are to be taken on in order to progress in the world and unlock higher tiers of gear and blocks - a far cry from the typical sandbox game which lets the players access most resources immediately. There are plenty of gear and items to obtain to further customize your character as well as build your own settlement.
It is more accurate to describe Terraria as an action-RPG which features sandbox elements, as the game constantly incentivizes players to try and become more powerful through their findings and take on the next obstacle, up until you are facing the last boss decked out in the highest tier armor and able to fly around to your heart's content. Despite that, the sandbox elements that are present are also very welcome, as the game features a variety of vanity items and furniture to customize your house once you are done slaying the demons of the world. For fans of action-RPGs, as well as sandbox games, overlooking Terraria would be a misdeed, as it is one of the finest games in both genres to hit the indie scene.
- System/Platform: PC, XB360, PS3, PS4, PSV
- Developer: Mossmouth, LLC
- Publisher: Mossmouth, LLC
- Release Date: Org: Dec. 21st, 2008 Remake: NA: July 4th, 2012 EU: July 5th, 2012
Spelunky is an action-platformer that mixes in rogue-lite elements to create one of the tougher indie games to come out recently. Every level is procedurally generated, meaning that there will never be the same level layout multiple times, and the same can be said for enemy placements and items that can be obtained along the way. Items can be obtained through multiple methods; such as getting them from opening a crate, buying them, or deciding to rob the shopkeeper and risk meeting the wrath of his mighty shotgun.
Spelunky is by no means easy, as the game is exceedingly punishing and health is at a premium (usually by way of rescuing a damsel in distress, located in each level), but this level of challenge also adds to the addictive nature of Spelunky. When first starting, it is easy to die on the first few levels, but runs typically don't exceed 20-30 minutes, so there is a lot of incentive to keep trying your hand at a brand new set of levels to see if you can conquer the mines the next time around. This is further assisted by how well Spelunky controls - few platformers feel as precise and satisfying to play as Spelunky does. While this level of challenge may turn some players off, being able to overcome the challenge and properly traverse each level to the very end is incredibly satisfying, and there's not too much punishment if you die trying. Spelunky is a must-buy for any fans of the platforming genre looking for a unique experience that can suck you right in for many hours to come.
6. Enter The Gungeon
- System/Platform: PC, PS4, XBO, Switch
- Developer: Dodge Roll
- Publisher: Devolver Digital
- Release Date: Apr. 5th, 2016. Switch: TBA
Legend tells of a mysterious planet which is primarily inhabited by beings in the shapes of living bullets, firearms, and other strange weaponry. This planet also contains a fortress - named the Gungeon - which is said to contain a gun that can destroy the past of whoever uses it. This gun is highly sought after by various explorers and bounty hunters with a troubling past that they wish to get away from - and as the player, you get to choose from various different characters who each have their own issues that they want to erase. Will you be able to make it through the hellish corridors of the Gungeon in order to erase the past? or will you be stopped by the various bullets aimed at your head along the way?
Beneath Enter The Gungeon's charming and cartoony art-style lies one of the most difficult rogue-lites on the market. Gungeon takes much inspiration from other top-down games of its past and adds a unique spin to the formula with the various movement abilities and different weapons at the players disposal. These abilities are certainly welcome, as Gungeon can quickly evolve from a top-down shooter to a bullet hell in the later stages, although there are certainly enough items to help the player out in their adventure through the Gungeon. Gungeon is one of the best designed rogue-lites in terms of mechanics and difficulty, with the game being fairly rough for the new-comer, but not to the point of being inaccessible for anyone who may want to delve in. There are even rewards for completing levels without taking damage - a nice incentive to improve your skills through practice and memorization. Everything about Gungeon feels very charming, while still offering the same level of difficulty that is expected of the rogue-lite genre over the years, making it a must-play for any fans who may be looking for a more unique spin on the same old formula.
5. Hotline Miami
- System/Platform: PC, PS3, PS4, PSV, Android
- Developer: Dennaton Games
- Publisher: Devolver Digital
- Release Date: Oct. 23rd, 2012
The streets of Miami are corrupt and shady, with drug deals and gangs being a commonality. As Jacket, you are hired by several mysterious individuals to take out these criminals by the most efficient means - murdering them all. Taking various different orders, Jacket must go through each of his objectives, encountering difficult obstacles and shady individuals that he must put down.
Hotline Miami puts the players in several top-down levels with the only resources available being masks which offer special abilities and whatever they can scavenge from the dead bodies of gang members. The strength of Hotline Miami comes from the impressively crafted levels, with each individual level being a challenge as well as a puzzle to overcome and then execute properly. This is much easier said than done, as the player can only be hit once and each level is jam-packed with thugs armed with weapons and guns - however, the difficulty is part of the appeal, as the game quickly respawns the player and lets them retry almost instantaneously. When it comes to top-down action games, there are few that are as mechanically fluid and fun as Hotline Miami.
4. Hollow Knight
- System/Platform: PC, Switch
- Developer: Team Cherry
- Publisher: Team Cherry
- Release Date: Feb. 24th, 2017 Switch: TBA
Hollow Knight is a haunting side-scrolling metroidvania style platformer with one of the most charming art styles and musical direction of recent indie fame. The player explores a gigantic world full of different caves housing monsters and cities housing civilians. The main objective and story is initially left vague, besides the fact that a once solid kingdom has fallen and is nothing more than rubble and memories to the people.
The player is given the typical range of mobility options, with their primary attack being a sword slash in front, below, or above themselves. The player is very fragile as well, initially only being able to take four hits before dying. To aid in survival, a heal can be accessed at almost any point that the player has the necessary souls to use it. Being able to heal is a huge boon, as the creatures of Hollow Knight don't let up and the world is very unforgiving. To further assist in the player’s quest are charms - different attributes that can be equipped to give the player a further advantage. While simple, the controls of Hollow Knight feel fluid and satisfying, with each mistake feeling like the player’s fault rather than shoddy movement on the game’s part. It's a good thing the controls feel so tight, since the world to explore in Hollow Knight is vast and expansive, giving players plenty to find on their journey. Despite the large size, the world never feels disjointed or cumbersome, with every section interconnected in order to flesh out and bring the world to life. Hollow Knight is a beautiful game in every sense of the word, and an instant classic that will go down as one of the highest revered indie games for years to come.
3. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
- System/Platform: PC, PS4, PSV, Wii U, N3DS, XBO, iOS, Switch
- Developer: Nicalis
- Publisher: Nicalis
- Release Date: Nov. 4th, 2014
Isaac lives alone with his mother in a small house on a hill. Isaac spends his time playing with his toys while his mom watches Christian broadcast. One day, Isaac's mother hears a voice from above claiming to be God, telling her that her son has become corrupted and that she must sacrifice him to appease God. Isaac overhears the conversation between God and his mother, and panics while thinking of a way to run. When he moves his carpet, he discovers a secret door leading to the basement. Isaac must venture through the depths of his house in order to face his mother, as well as the inner demons that fester inside of him.
The Binding of Isaac was one of the most critically acclaimed indie games upon release, with its rogue-lite elements being praised as well as its simple but fun control scheme, all wrapped up in a mysterious and bizarre plot in the mind of a five-year old Isaac. Rebirth contains more of the same action rogue-lite gameplay that made the original so addictive and fun, while adding more chapters, enemies, and items to mess around and synergize with. Rebirth has become one of the premier rogue-lite action games due to the amount of content there is, with no two runs feeling exactly the same thanks to the 450+ items to experiment with. One of the main appeals of Binding of Isaac is also the difficulty; the game is staggeringly difficult when first played, but the sensation of getting better as you play more is supremely satisfying. The amount of dedication and content put into The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth makes it one of the highest rated indie games of all time, and a gem for anyone who doesn't mind a little bit of gore and a lot of cartoonish poop monsters.
- System/Platform: PC, XB360, XBO, PS4, PSV, iOS
- Developer: Supergiant Games
- Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
- Release Date: Jul. 20th, 2011
The world has been broken, shattered into various pieces due to "the Calamity". Monsters and beasts roam the now destroyed world while civilians are turned to ash and the wildlife is in ruin. A lone kid suddenly awakens on a mysterious chunk of the world, and meets the only other survivor there. The survivor - an elderly man named Rucks - instructs the Kid to find various Cores that could be used to explore further into the broken world. The Kid ventures out into this new and dangerous world, ready to uncover the mystery of the Calamity and try to restore it back to its glory.
Bastion is an isometric action RPG in which the player is given two different weapon slots to switch between. Each of the weapons are upgradable and have different roles they fulfill in the Kid's arsenal. Despite the desolate nature of the shattered pieces of the world, the environments and art style are truly stunning to look at as you go through the game fighting the various creatures. The beautiful environments lend to the immersive nature of Bastion, coupled with the narrator who narrates every action the Kid takes part in. The narration helps the player feel as if they are truly a part of the world, and helps tremendously when it comes to how amazing the story is. The story is perhaps the highlight of Bastion, however, and worth a single playthrough simply because of how well-told it is the entire way through. As a game, Bastion is very fun to play through once, but the game truly shines as an atmospheric tale of a desolate and destroyed world that is best experienced when played through yourself.
1. Shovel Knight
- System/Platform: PC, 3DS, Wii U, Switch, PS3, PS4, PSV, XBO
- Developer: Yacht Club Games
- Publisher: Yacht Club Games
- Release Date: Jun. 26th, 2014
Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were an inseparable pair who adventured all across the lands together until they eventually came across the Tower of Fate. As they explore the Tower, the pair were suddenly attacked by a cursed amulet, leaving Shovel Knight unconscious. Shovel Knight was left outside of the tower, with the only sign of Shield Knight being her helmet. Shovel Knight was heartbroken, and quit his adventuring ways until a new quest called for him. The Enchantress and the Order of No Quarter seized the lands, and the only one who was able to stop them and free the land of The Enchantress' evil magic was Shovel Knight!
Shovel Knight takes heavy inspiration from old-school NES action platformers in the approach to both level design and gameplay. Shovel Knight has a very charming art style and sense of humor, with many NPCs and bosses having dialog that further brings them to life and gives them each a sense of individuality further exemplified by their cartoony character designs. When it comes to the actual gameplay, Shovel Knight is an absolute joy to play in terms of handling and attacking. Shovel Knight has a variety of different spells and armor sets that can be obtained throughout the adventure which give him new ways to tackle each situation thrown at him, but the tried-and-true shovel works just as well at disposing of enemies and obstacles. Each level is crafted with a different and unique gimmick, centered around the Knight boss of that level, that gives each stage its own sense of identity. Whether you're a fan of old-school platformers or prefer the newer takes on the genre, Shovel Knight is one of the greatest examples of action platformers and among the best in the indie game hall of fame.
The level of quality and polish that some indie games have reached is astounding to witness and even more amazing to be able to play through. These games have either paved the way for many future developers to try and innovate on or are innovators themselves which will go down in the gaming world as some of the best games of their respective years. To say indie games have evolved into their own niche would be a massive understatement, and if you haven't tried some of these entries out and they seem fun to you, then make sure to fix that up right away! Of course, there are hundreds of other indie action games that are amazing, and we would love to hear what some of your favorites are in the comments below!