With the end of the year almost upon us, it’s time to take a look at what made 2016 really stand out. For many gamers, it has to be the indie scene. Though the AAA studios were no slouches, players interested stepping into strange new worlds thought up by developers outside the mainstream had a record year.
No matter the genre, this year saw indie games of all stripes hitting the shelves. Be it platformers, puzzle games or dungeon crawlers, there was a great game for everybody. Here are eight of the best, plus two honorable mentions.
The list starts with what many think is one of the best indies ever made: Darkest Dungeon. One of the most immersive, scary and difficult roguelikes on the market, it just squeaks into this list through its January release date. The game punishes every mistake you make rather brutally, yet time and again players will find themselves hitting the “new game” button thanks to the truly excellent gameplay. It’s creepy atmosphere is mostly evoked through the well-written descriptions, with the hand-drawn art adding detail to the unforgiving dungeons the player descends into. RPG fans will love this game, as will anyone who likes to get truly lost in an experience.
This title is as much a game as it is a celebration of pixel art. In fact, if there’s an award for persistence from a game developer, D-Pad Studio should win it; it took 10 years to make this game, pixel by pixel, and it shows. Owlboy is more than a pretty face, though, as the story is intricate and well-thought out. Players are in control of Otus, as he travels the world with his motley crew in a tale about darkness and evil, but also about growing up. Platforming action and puzzles are integrated well, making Owlboy an absolute must for anyone that wants to try something truly different and creative, made with a lot of heart and great dedication.
This game is, in a way, a celebration of a kind of loneliness that people seek out in the wilderness. Firewatch puts players into the shoes of-of Henry, someone who takes a job in a distant national park to get away from it all and ends up finding out what being alone really means. The game plays like a combination of adventure game and straight-up mystery as Henry tries to find out what lies behind all the strange happenings in the Shoshone National Forest, guided by a friendly voice on his walkie-talkie that goes by the name of Delilah. Who is Delilah? What is her role in all the forest fires? The game’s eventual big reveal at the end may feel a little thin, but the journey through the wilds of Wyoming is certainly worth it.
The Witness feels like the game Myst should have been – a story-driven puzzle game where each challenge makes sense in the overall scheme of things. Well, almost everyone: the game features over 600 puzzles, so a few are bound to be less than perfect. The puzzles are integrated into the story, which features the player making their way through a tropical island studded with odd structures and weird sculptures. There is, of course, a mystery, with the many challenges the player faces serving as tutorials for the skills they’ll eventually need to find out what’s behind the goings-on on the island. The Witness is a wonderfully atmospheric game, though it should go without saying that people who don’t like puzzles should avoid it.
A platformer with a difference, Bound is about grace and elegance as much action, as the player races through the game’s levels with ballerina-like precision. The story is very basic, with the focus of the game being entirely on the wonderful gameplay. The swirling, dancing protagonist can’t be killed by her enemies, only slowed down, but thanks to the wonderful design that feels worse than just dying. The game is not without its flaws, however, as there is little variation in enemies or actions and it’s a pity player can’t do more than just dance and glide. However, anyone looking for a platformer with a twist won’t go wrong playing Bound.
From elegance in a world of light we go to the crushing reality of life in a totalitarian state with Inside – a game that is about horror, but of a different kind usually found in video games. Players puzzle their way through a world of darkness, making sure to never be seen, taking control of inanimate objects and treading carefully to avoid death through the hands of unseen, unknown actors. Inside is a very satisfying game to finish, but a true test to get through. The despair is at times palpable and is therefore not recommended for all players, especially not young ones.
Stardew Valley feels like a fan of Farmville decided to give the Facebook game a backstory. Though the cutesy, Japanese style animation may turn people off, it fits in great with the theme where the protagonist arrives at their grandfather’s old farm and starts tilling the land and raising animals. When the thrill of animal husbandry starts wearing thin, there’s a huge, possibly endless, cave to explore and plunder, adding some variety to proceedings. Though Stardew Valley could end up being a bland experience, the art and writing make it worthwhile to keep going just to see how well the farm turns out.
Salt and Sanctuary
We close out the list with one of the most ambitious games of the year. Salt and Sanctuary wants to emulate games like Dark Souls and somehow succeeds in sticking to the core of those games, while being a proud game in its own right. This ridiculously difficult game is not for the faint of heart, with a distinct ability to make even the toughest gamers cry in frustration when they’re once again presented with the game over screen. At the same time, it also beats Darkest Dungeon in being pretty terrifying, with enemies that feel like they belong to the world while the protagonist is a mere interloper. The only downside to Salt and Sanctuary is that the story feels a bit thin, though actions fans will likely not care.
Honorable mention – Turmoil
This charming game by a small Dutch studio maybe isn’t quite good enough to make the best of the year list, but its gameplay is so well thought out it deserves some attention. Turmoil is all about prospecting and drilling for oil in the Old West and combines strategy with luck while also keeping a clock ticking. An absolute must for strategy lovers looking for something different.
Honorable Mention – Sunless Sea: Zubmariner
Technically not a full game, but an expansion, Zubmariner should be the textbook example of how to implement DLC. Priced reasonably, it adds uncountable hours of gameplay to the already quite hefty Sunless Sea. Building almost seamlessly on the excellently written base game, it offers a whole new side to the oddball Victorian setting as it allows players to take a submersible to the bottom of the Unterzee.
So there we have it – our pick of the best indie games of 2016. Do you agree with our choices, or do you feel that there were other underrated games of 2016 that deserved a mention? Let us know in the comments!