AAA video games have gotten remarkably similar to each other over the last generation, with publishers becoming less-willing to bet on creative and unique ideas as they focus on established franchises.
Indie games — those created by independent developers without the backing of a major corporate publisher — don’t have this problem. In recent years, many indie games have managed to surpass their AAA competition in terms of quality, and the notion that indie games are somehow “lesser” because of their lower budget is not accurate. In fact, if you ignore indie games, you’re missing out on some of the best video games of all time.
Here are the 20 best indie games you should be playing right now.
Fullbright’s follow-up to the acclaimed Gone Home, Tacoma, takes the indie studio’s narrative prowess to space for a sci-fi adventure that is equal parts moving and chilling. Whereas Gone Home was merely a superb character study, Tacoma builds a whole galaxy in a brilliant display of world-building. Set in 2088, you play as Amy Ferrier, a contractor tasked to find out what happened on station Tacoma, and where the six contractors are who, until recently, lived and worked on the ship. Through AR recordings of crew members, players piece together the story of the days leading up to Amy’s arrival. With excellent pacing and plenty of secrets to uncover, Tacoma will keep you glued to your seat through its startling and illuminating conclusion. Tacoma is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
Read our full Tacoma review
Part visual novel, part action-RPG, part … basketball? This strange combination is the essence of Supergiant Games’ Pyre, and somehow it works — incredibly well. You play as a nameless person banished to a purgatory called the Downside. From here, you link up with other unwanted folks and embark on a quest across mystical and dreary lands in the hopes of obtaining forgiveness, which will allow you to return to the Commonwealth. The game’s introspective dialogue and a beautiful art demand attention, but it’s the combat, which sees teams of three trying to extinguish their opponents’ Pyre with an orb, is what will keep you coming back. Pyre settles in as Supergiant Games’ best effort — a tall task, considering the studio created both Bastion and Transistor. Pyre is available on PC and PS4.
Read our full Pyre review
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is to 2017 what Overwatch was to 2016. The surprise hit from Bluehole entered early access on Steam in March. As of early September, the game eclipsed 10 million copies sold and has sported concurrent player counts of a staggering one million (quite the accomplishment for a non-Valve Steam game). The game’s large and enthusiastic player base is part of what makes PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) so intoxicating. The shooter drops 100 players from a plane into a large map. You can either go in solo or as a team of up to four, and the last player or team standing wins. The title’s straightforward premise leads to a variety of techniques. You can choose to wait for the player count to dwindle, or be the force that makes the player count go down. PUBG maintains an even balance by giving players a random starting weapon, which often dictates how one goes about surviving. With an Xbox One version set to launch later this year, PUBG will probably only grow in popularity throughout the back half of its first year. PUBG is available on Xbox One, PC, and mobile.
Dead Cells‘ melting pot of ideas makes it hard to pigeon hole into a single genre. On the one hand, it’s very much a Metroidvania, but it’s also a rouge-lite in the tradition of Rogue Legacy, it’s randomization making it exciting each time you enter its nostalgic spin on 16-bit visuals. And, yes, it’s challenging in a way that draws comparisons to Dark Souls (even its title harks back to the de facto “difficult” series). Dead Cells breaks up its 2D levels into zones much like a Metroid or Castlevania game, though its combat requires precision and forces you to adapt, like the aforementioned Dark Souls. You collect enemy blueprints, upgrades, weapons, and items throughout the game, all of which can be given for safe keeping to the collector, a strange old man. The crux of Dead Cells‘ progression system sees you pushing through levels and delivering useful items to the collector before you die and have to star anew. Your upgrades and available items will also make each run unique, given you’ll have more tools at your disposal. Satisfying combat and an addictive loot system make Dead Cells one of the best Metroidvania/rogue-lite games in years. Dead Cells is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC.
Read our Dead Cells hands-on
Returning to your hometown doesn’t always turn out how you expect it to. In Night in the Woods, anthropomorphic cat Mae drops out of college and heads back to Possum Springs. Mae gradually begins to see that the town and its people — a collection of eclectic, talking animals — holds a dark past and is full of mysteries. It plays as a sidescroller but Night in the Woods can aptly be compared to visual novels and exploration games. With an emphasis on the stories we tell, indie studio Finji’s first game ends up telling one of the most profound and relatable video game narratives we’ve played in years. Heavily indebted to dark humor, Night in the Woods asks players to make choices throughout that will affect the way Mae views the happenings in Possum Springs. It accomplishes the task of making you feel sad and laugh all in the space of one scene. Night in the Woods is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, and mobile.
D-Pad Studio’s vibrant platformer may have taken almost a decade to arrive, but the end product was well worth the wait. In Owlboy, human-owl hybrid Otus sets off on an adventure after his town is attacked by pirates. The first thing that stands out about Owlboy is its brilliantly realized, colorful world. This Metroidvania-style platformer features a sprawling, branching world that forces players to use all of Otus’ and his companions’ — whom he carries through various portions of the game — tricks. Owlboy is much more than beautiful scenery, though. Devilishly smart puzzles fill the gaps between interesting boss fights. It captures nostalgia via 16-bit graphics, but all of its mechanisms at work — smart gameplay, engaging dialogue, varied environments — make it feel decidedly modern. Owlboy is a pure delight. Owlboy is available on Xbox One, PS4, Switch, and PC.
Playdead’s follow up to the acclaimed Limbo doesn’t deviate much from the studio’s well-known aesthetic. A young boy is dropped into a dark setting with a color palette consisting exclusively of white, black, and gray. Most of the sound heard is produced by his feet pattering across the environment, which ranges from the woods to a bizarre factory. This puzzle-platformer is a master of not wasting a single moment of the player’s time. Every puzzle has a purpose, both narratively and in regards to teaching you a mechanic you’ll need to use later. Like Limbo, Inside creates a mood that is both chilling and hypnotic. Play it once to marvel at the ingenious puzzles, but play it again to notice all of the story details that you may have missed the first time around. Inside and Limbo both have a distinct atmosphere, but Inside makes better use of it while telling its unique and unsettling tale. Inside is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, and iOS.
Read our full Inside review
Telltale-esque, story-driven adventures are all the rage these days, though some refer to them positively or negatively as simply walking simulators. Nonetheless, Oxenfree may very well be the best entry in the popular genre to date. Set on an island, Alex and her friends begin experiencing events that can only be referred to as supernatural in nature. Instead of fleeing, they stay to try and uncover the island’s secrets. A distinct, 2.5D art style gives Oxenfree a look that separates it from others in the genre, and the twisting and turning story is undeniably spellbinding. With wonderfully realized cutscenes, introspective dialogue, and a meaningful choice-based system, Oxenfree is a gripping story that will hold you until the credits roll. Then, if you’re anything like us, you’ll boot it up again to choose differently, and see how Alex’s relationships and the ending change based on your actions. Oxenfree is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, and mobile.
Jonathan Blow’s long-awaited follow-up to the massive hit that was one of several to start the indie resurgence, Braid, is a very different game. The Witness features puzzles, and puzzles alone. At first glance, the colorful island littered with random statues and weird oddities seems like a very bizarre environment for a game that consists entirely of line puzzles, but when you start moving from puzzle to puzzle, you’ll begin to appreciate and dissect your surroundings. And the line puzzles are simply brilliant. Each one teaches you a valuable lesson, and when the environment is put into play in order to solve the puzzles, the grandiose experience only heightens. The game tests your mental stamina and will often persuade you to take out a pen and paper as you search for the correct solution. It’s rare for a game to inspire that much dedication, but The Witness does, and it will compel you to keep going, to keep learning, every step of the way. The Witness is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and mobile.
Read our full The Witness review
DrinkBox Studios is known for making compelling games that are prime for handheld play. Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack and Guacamelee! both shined on handheld consoles. DrinkBox is also known for switching things up. The aforementioned games were very different from one another, and Severed, which was originally released on the PlayStation Vita, switched things up yet again. Played from a first-person perspective, Severed resembles old-school dungeon crawlers. You play as Sasha, a one-armed hero attempting to save her family from a disorienting purgatory. Sasha must use her blade — which you control via touchscreen swipes — to ward off enemies. Severed somehow turns this simple mechanic into a highly methodical experience that always keeps you on your toes. In a way, Severed is poetry in motion, as each enemy has weak points that can be taken advantage of with rhythmic slices. The art style, like all DrinkBox games, is clean but engaging and goes a long way toward immersing you in the world. It’s a game that takes immense focus and concentration, but it rewards those who are willing to take on the challenge. Severed is available on Switch, 3DS, iOS, and Vita.
Gliding down one of Thumper’s psychotropic highways for the first time, you may feel a sense of passive awe as you gaze at the mercurial shapes floating in the distance. Then the metallic screeches and thunderous drums kick in, and the road before you becomes a twisted, nightmarish gauntlet. Thumper does not reinvent the rhythm-game — after all, the influence of Audiosurf is apparent — but it does give the genre a terrifying new coat of paint.
The game puts players in control of a silver beetle that’s perpetually racing down a track. Players use one button and movements to navigate obstacles; holding the action button and leaning left or right to take hard turns, for example. Players must progress through nine worlds with increasingly complex tracks, each of which culminates in a boss that players defeat by executing certain movement patterns. Thumper is probably the most frightening rhythm-game ever made, particularly when played with a VR headset. The horror comes not just from the visuals, but also the oppressive industrial soundtrack. Easy to pick up and challenging to perfect, Thumper is one of the most spectacular rhythm games in a long time. Thumper is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, and iOS.
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After an uneven second outing, Jackbox Games is back with the Jackbox Party Pack 3. As with the previous Jackbox collections, JPP3 contains an assortment of party games that players participate in using their smartphones. Each game has a unique premise and a “host,” who will give the players information and provide commentary on their actions. Typically, information intended for all players will be shown on a television screen or an accompanying monitor. Players will also use their phones to receive secret instructions meant specifically for them, and to enter their answers.
Party Pack 3 features the return of one of the best Jackbox games, Quiplash 2. As in the original, players will be given prompts on their phones and must enter a clever response. These prompts and responses will then be shown on the main screen, and players will vote for the response they like the most. The other big draw is Tee K.O., a game in which players draw pictures and write slogans; other players then mix and match these images and phrases to make t-shirts, and everyone votes on which t-shirt they like the best. All of these games are easy for anyone to get into, making the Jackbox Party Pack 3 a great experience for any group of friends. Jackbox Party Pack 3 is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
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One of the great things about indie development is that, without pressure from financiers, creators have a lot of room to experiment. This results in oddities like Crypt of the Necrodancer, which combines the essential traits of rhythm games and roguelikes for a truly unique experience. Players descend the floors of a randomly-generated dungeon, collecting treasure, evading traps, and fighting enemies. The twist comes in the controls. Each floor has its own soundtrack, and players must move and attack on the beat. (Don’t worry. There’s a visual cue on the bottom if you can’t step in time.)
Floors are further divided into grids, and players move using the four cardinal directions. Each enemy has its own movement pattern — and some have unique abilities, like one that turns each square it walks on into a slick ice patch — and players must learn and react to each enemy’s patterns. The game becomes hectic early on, but players can find and equip various items and spells to make things easier. Crypt of the Necrodancer is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, and iOS.
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Many games, particularly those based in fantasy, place characters into so many dangerous situations that one wonders how they avoid developing post-traumatic stress disorder. If the rigors of real warfare can leave many a mind reeling, how do video game characters not break down in the face of dragons, ghouls, and other abominations? In Darkest Dungeon, they do. The game casts players as the inheritor of an old estate which, due to the occult activities of the previous owner, is now overrun by monstrosities. The player must recruit heroes to explore the various corrupted environments, slaying monsters and collecting resources to build up a home base.
The defining mechanic of Darkest Dungeon is stress. As heroes explore various dungeons and face the abominations within, they will grow stressed and may develop various neuroses that can be problematic. A character who develops paranoia, for example, may refuse the player’s attempts to heal them. Combat plays out much like classic JRPGs, with characters lined up on both sides, but positioning plays a role; whether an ability will hit depends on the user’s position and the target’s. Darkest Dungeon is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, and iOS.
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The first emotion one is likely to feel in Hyper Light Drifter is unease. Following a wordless, nightmarish opening cutscene, the game drops players in a ruined world with nothing but a sword, a gun, and their wits to get by. The world of Hyper Light Drifter is gorgeous, painted in neon hues and augmented by a melancholy soundtrack. Behind that beauty lurks danger, however. The game is very difficult, throwing hordes of enemies at players, who must use careful timing to dodge attacks and strike back. Hyper Light Drifter is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and iOS.
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Mental illness is often used as a storytelling device to prop up a larger-than-life villain, will creators failing to realize how psychological conditions can also affect heroes, as well. Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tackles this issue head-on delivering a deeply disturbing and emotionally affecting story supported by Melina Juergens’ fantastic debut acting performance. The game also spits in the face of the stereotype that indie games’ visuals are sub-par, with some of the best animation we’ve ever seen in a game.
But Ninja Theory didn’t forget what made its previous games so engaging: vicious third-person combat. Though stripped down compared to DmC: Devil May Cry or Enslaved, the swordplay in Hellblade is still quite satisfying, and the threat of having to restart the entire game if you die too many times is enough to make you sweat. Hellblade is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
Read our full Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice review
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Stardew Valley could perhaps best be described as a small-town life simulator. The game opens with the player inheriting a farm in a run-down village, and from there it’s all about everyday living.
The game is divided into days, months, and years, and players can only accomplish so many activities in a given day, forcing them to choose their priorities. Whether growing crops, helping townsfolk with problems, or exploring caves to find resources, players must decide what they value and pursue it. Stardew Valley is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, mobile, and PC.
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Subset Games’ FTL: Faster Than Light delivered brutally difficult strategy with a classic retro-inspired aesthetic, and the developer outdid itself with its next game, Into the Breach. A time-traveling turn-based role-playing game that tasks you with saving humanity from destruction at the hands — or antennae — of the insect-like Vek creatures, each level takes place on a small grid map and requires you to do damage and position yourself in areas where you can knock Vek into the ocean. Survive for the allotted number of turns and you will beat the stage, but focus on damage output alone and you will quickly find yourself overrun. Though the game can be completed in a few hours, you’re all but guaranteed to start up a second run as soon as you finish your first. Into the Breach is available on Switch and PC.
Read our full Into the Breach review
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At first glance, Undertale seems like some bizarre student project, an homage to old-school JRPGs. The game does borrow many of the trappings of those old games (particularly the graphical style of Earthbound), but beneath that cheap retro exterior beats a transcendent heart.
Undertale casts players as a nameless child who has fallen into an underground world populated by monsters. Rescued by a kindly creature, the player must travel to the barrier that separates the human world and the monster world, meeting and battling a cast of outlandish characters along the way. Undertale’s writing is where the game really shines; its cast of monsters come across as beautifully human. Undertale is available on PS4, Switch, and PC.
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Celeste, the newest game from Towerfall developer Matt Makes Games, is a deceptively simple puzzle-plaformer. Ostensibly a game about protagonist Madeline’s journey to the top of the titular Celeste mountain, we gradually learn about her own emotional troubles, as well as the colorful cast of characters she meets along the way. But this isn’t a “walk and talk” adventure — Madeline climbs the mountain with simple-yet-deep jumping mechanics that make for some tremendously creative levels, and the hazards thrown in our way later on were always just challenging enough to slow us down. With tons of collectibles to find and special “B-Side” levels to unlock, Celeste will keep you climbing the mountain for hours. Celeste is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Switch.
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It’s been 10 years since Spelunky debuted as an open source game and more than six years since its full launch on Xbox Live Arcade, but the rogue-like platformer still stands tall as one of the most enduring indies of all time. The 2D platformer primarily takes place across four worlds with four levels a piece. Each level is randomized, from the underground mine levels to the forest to the wide open ice levels. Along the way, you can collect items and gold to help you survive for another moment. That’s the thing about Spelunky, it’s greatness stems from its unpredictability. You can have a great run going only to get stung by a bee, which sends you shooting into an exploding frog, which then flings you onto a spike pit. Game over, and game over means starting from the very beginning. And yet, even the disappointing ends to runs induce smiles. Each time you play Spelunky, you learn something new to take along with you for your next attempt. But each time you play Spelunky, the environments are different. It’s all about applying your knowledge and adapting at the same time. Spelunky is a master in platforming design with near endless replay value. Spelunky is available on PS4, PS3, Vita, Xbox 360, and PC.
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StudioMDHR’s Cuphead is one of the most visually enticing games we’ve ever played. Styled after 1930s cartoons, StudioMDHR’s long-awaited debut simply looks like a dream in motion. Cuphead and his brother Mugman enter into a dubious agreement with the Devil and wind up having to battle their way through Inkwell Isle for their souls. Cuphead is not for the faint of heart. Each of the game’s bosses test your platforming and shooting skills. Not satisfied being just a boss rush gauntlet, Cuphead also has run and gun stages, each of which is harder than the last. Cuphead‘s challenging gameplay is rewarding, but its visual and audio design steal the show. The bosses, from Beppi the Clown to Wally Warbles to King Dice, all are rendered in stunning detail. The animations pop and the jazzy sound crackles, fizzes, and pops. Cuphead feels like you’re playing an old cartoon, and an incredibly well-made one at that. Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC.
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Enter the Gungeon is a top-down rogue-like similar to The Binding of Isaac, only with a much faster pace. The loot-driven loop tasks you with picking between one of four characters to send through a dizzying number of dungeon rooms. You have to contend with both shooting quickly and dodging, as the dodge roll mechanic is an integral part of the gameplay. When you die, you go back to the beginning, but this rogue-like retains its rooms through each run. The challenge comes from the fact that room locations, treasure, and enemies change each time you start over again. With more than 300 unique weapons and items to uncover and four unique adventurers to play as, Enter the Gungeon is a game you’ll want to keep playing even after you’ve eventually seen the credits roll. You can also play co-op with a friend, which doesn’t necessarily make the game easier, but it does up the wonderful chaos. Enter the Gungeon is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC.
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Moonlighter is a novel mix of dungeon crawling and town management. By day, you run a shop in town selling your wares to townsfolk and travelers. You set the prices yourself, which is a surprisingly fun system. You need to restock your inventory at night, though, and that means heading north to the forbidden dungeons filled with monsters and loot. In the dungeons, Moonlighter plays like old school Zelda with a rogue-like design. In town, it plays like a stripped down Animal Crossing. You upgrade your shop, craft new weapons at the blacksmith, and build up the town itself through upgrades. Moonlighter is both an engaging management sim and a superb dungeon crawler. There’s nothing else quite like it. Moonlighter is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC.
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Papers, Please shouldn’t be captivating, but it’s easily one of the most enthralling indie games around. You play as an immigration officer at a border crossing that’s based off of East and West Berlin. Your job is to check papers amidst political and cultural turmoil and use a set of rules to decide if you should let the person in or turn them away. The act of checking papers, while the main gameplay component, is actually not what Papers, Please is even about. As an exercise an empathy, Papers, Please slowly creeps up on you, making you feel for the people around you and question the job that you hold. It’s an astoundingly moving experience and yes, somehow it’s also very fun to play. Don’t read too much about it before you dive in, please. Papers, Please is available on PC, iOS, and Vita.
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