Indie GOTY 2023 – Our Top 10
IndieGameReviewer is now in its 16th year. Every year, we try to sift through thousands of indie releases and somehow surface 10 that remain standing after every hole has been punched through the list.
Our conditions: each nominee must be an indie-funded game with at least a 1.0 release during the year we are considering.
All of the games on this list meet that criteria and exceed expectations in many ways. They represent a wide variety of themes, genres, and mechanics. They are chosen for their excellence across the board and their potential to have lasting impact on both players and the industry as a whole.
They are games that remind us why this medium is unique and important.
And here are IGR’s consensus picks:
10. Slay the Princess
by Black Tabby Games
Slay the Princess is an unexpected twist of complexity and horror hiding behind a seemingly simple – albeit twisted – premise: like the hero of so many fantasy stories (in video games or otherwise), you need to save the world and find the princess. This time around, though, you have to kill her.
It’s an intriguing enough premise, but instead of a straightforward visual novel with a twist, Black Tabby Games takes things in multiple unexpected and disturbing directions.
An unreliable narrator and more player agency than you’d expect from a visual novel reward multiple play-throughs. In most narrative games, there’s a pressure – explicit or implicit – to make the “correct” choices in order to arrive at the “best” outcome.
Slay the Princess is different; it feels like your choices actually shape the outcome. And because this is a horror game, most of the outcomes are “undesirable” but still thought-provoking.
“I talked about this game previously in our Halloween list, but Slay the Princess really is something genuinely special among horror games. Plenty of visual novels have branching routes, but this is a game that truly seems to sculpt the story that you experience around your own actions. It’s astonishing how much it does with such a simple premise, thanks in no small part to its simple but effective production, stellar voice acting, and genuinely unsettling visuals and storytelling. You might just wish your princess was in another castle…” ~ TheOvermatt
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Linux, Steam
by Visai Games
Venba is a cooking simulator, but this is no Cook! Serve! Delicious! clone, putting ever-increasing demands on time management and reflexes.
Instead, it’s a home-cooking simulator, with food serving – as it so often does – as metaphor for family connection and as a means of telling a particular family’s story. Foodies will appreciate the authenticity of the South Indian recipes during the cooking segments; everyone will appreciate the emotional authenticity of the story.
“I feel like Venba is exactly what interactive media was made for: a process-based, at-your-pace immersion into a family’s cultural experience that you may not otherwise get a chance to participate in at this level of intimacy.
Some might confuse this for a cooking sim with a Tamil twist, but the cooking mechanics are there to pull you into the experience of recollection, attention, sitting with the moment of hearing, tuning in, savoring those things that your parents tried to impart but you were unready to receive. It is beautiful and contemplative…sometimes frustrating, but only by design.
With a ripping original soundtrack, slick illustrative graphic treatment, and no-holds-barred emotional gut-punches, this short but lively experience is the type that changes you, maybe by degrees, maybe by whole damned revolutions.
SPOILER: [The scene where you go through cooking five whole meals without interruption until you think, ‘What the hell? Is the game broken?’ and then you realize that the mother has been making a huge varied dinner of traditional family foods, and then the text from the son whom she is awaiting comes in: ‘Sorry mom, something came up, won’t be able to make it,’ and you’re sitting there with all the prepared food that you actually put in the effort to cook, feeling nothing but heartache.]” ~ IndieGameFreak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS5, Microsoft Xbox, Windows PC, Mac, Steam
8. Boneraiser Minions
“Oh, Boneraiser Minions, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I think the first time I raised this title as a stand-out someone made a double-entendre joke about the title. ‘Oh girl, you have no idea,’ came my reply. Yes, it is all intentional, just like the hyper-pixelated, low-bit aesthetic which is as crude as its humor.
But let me tell you, for those who love it, it’s everything. You see, I was one of those rare ones that loved the neon vomit color palette of punk zine-cum-massive-tabletop RPG Dungeon Degenerates. Couldn’t get enough of the gross-out toons, sex slaves, witch-smellers, and fish-men.
And it dawned on me one day that that is what Boneraiser was tapping in me, too. That it wasn’t just an also-ran Vampire Survivors-like, pseudo-idle mob-munching SHMUP with level-ups, but instead a super rich, super deep, super interesting evolution of that.
It even shares a lot of ideas with Dungeon Degenerates – like willingly inviting tougher monsters early in exchange for better loot. You know, the whole, ‘take a curse for a better reward’ mechanic.
Not content to stop there, it has a vast tree of minion evolutions – a matrix of monsters to do your bidding to collect loot, grab land, and wipe out waves – and equally evolutionary baddies you can unlock and then tune which will become available to face or deploy on your next outing. It’s a deck-building, Rogue-like, procedural, irreverent, punk, retro-tribute, chortle humor, but vastly customizable and strategic romp that will be a total turn-off to some and magic rock to the strange rest.
But not one to rest on its laurels, there are so many lovely seasonal touches, be it Halloween or Christmas; the game is a living community and mutable space for hours of gleeful but also laid-back, delegatory mayhem.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
“The success of Vampire Survivors has led to an explosion of wave-based survival games, with Boneraiser Minions raising itself to the head of the pack. As a necromancer tasked with surviving waves of heroic enemies bent on ending your evil reign, it’s all about summoning the right undead minions to do your dirty work for you.
Between this fun twist on the formula and the game’s swathe of customization options (not to mention all the boner jokes), this is a game with plenty of meat on its numerous, rock-hard bones.” ~ TheOvermatt
Platforms: Windows PC, Steam
7. Bomb Rush Cyberfunk
by Team Reptile
A spiritual successor to the Jet Set Radio series, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is more than an homage; it’s actually an improvement. The skating and graffiti action is still there, of course, but the controls and feel of movement are vastly improved, “more responsive in the air or on the ground,” as reviewer FICTiVETRUiSM puts it in his review.
But what good is fast skating without places to skate? The urban near-future world of Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is likewise such a joy to explore in all its cel-shaded neon glory that everything else, from the main story – which, amusingly enough, begins with our protagonist’s decapitation – to the missions to being hassled by cops takes a backseat to making the city yours, not via the stated methods of tagging and street gang superiority but by exploring every corner of it (at lightning speed while catching lots of air, of course).
“Bomb Rush is such a triumph. It’s such a fantastic experience that surpasses its inspirations. It’s instantly fun to play. It realizes the importance of gameplay without being a cutscene-heavy experience. In that regard, it feels very old school, like a fun, addicting quarter-stealing arcade cabinet.” ~ FICTiVETRUiSM
“There’s an adage among the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom that the fans know what makes a good game better than Sonic Team does these days. Well, thanks to Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, we can now say the same about Sega in general. A loving tribute to Jet Set Radio that improves upon it in tons of ways, the developers behind the Lethal League franchise have crafted something truly special here. Even if you’re not already a fan of cel-shaded, graffiti-spraying extreme sports, you will be once you experience this game’s tight gameplay and infectious grooves.” ~ TheOvermatt
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Sony PS5, Microsoft Xbox, Windows PC, Steam
6. World of Horror
We were waiting for this one to come out of Early Access for a long time, and for good reason: World of Horror is a masterful blend of cosmic and urban horror combining themes of evil cults summoning ancient gods to destroy the world a la Call of Cthulhu with the grotesque urban and small-town horror of manga genius Junji Ito, all delivered via 1-bit monochrome art: Return of the Obra Dinn by way of Hideshi Hino.
It’s a marvel in purely mechanical terms, as well, with semi-random puzzles, encounters, and mysteries revealed making each play-through – and each grisly death – additive, with inevitable defeats becoming not endings but rather means to an end in the best Rogue-like fashion.
As TheOverMatt described it for his Game Pass Good Stuff column all the way back in 2020, “It’s challenging, and you’re guaranteed to die more than a few times, but it never feels impossible either.”
“The definition of a labor of love, this solo developer project illustrated in MS Paint really has been the little RPG that could. After an Early Access period that seemed to go on forever, the final product is a gripping, tense, and charming slice of Rogue-lite horror roleplaying that only gets better as you play it. Beware though, because just like the protagonists of any story by Lovecraft or Ito, once this particular tale has you in its clutches, it just might not let you go.” ~ TheOvermatt
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Sony PS5, Windows PC, Mac, Steam
5. Pizza Tower
by Tour De Pizza
Like Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, this game wears its biggest influence – Wario Land – on its sleeve. And similarly, Pizza Tower refines that basic to produce something that exceeds its influences, with extremely fast, frenetic, and simply fun platforming that’s forgiving instead of frustrating and exemplifies the idea of “simple to learn, hard to master.”
As TheOvermatt puts it in his review, this doesn’t mean that Pizza Tower isn’t challenging; rather, “what it really does is provide a low skill floor to compliment its high skill ceiling.”
Accompanying the action is a presentation that borrows from ’90s cartoons both in art style and absurdity. “Both the quality and amount of animations on display are staggering,” says TheOvermatt. “The writing is also as absurd as its premise suggests.”
“I have probably played more side-scrolling platformers than I give myself credit for, but I generally avoid them because I loathe wall-jumping, especially bad-controls wall-jumping. But Pizza Tower got me fast.
I couldn’t believe the sheer number of movement options I had at my disposal and the ingenious way it rapidly trained me to chain them until I was lost in a flow state of pizza parkour that pinged me backward like a boomerang when I got to the finish line so I could do it faster and smoother in the other direction.
Not to mention the laugh-out-loud Microsoft Paint, Commodore Amiga cartoon treatment with enough squish-and-stretch to make Tex Avery wolf-whistle. A joyful wacky ride, impeccably executed. Chef’s kiss!” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Steam
4. Bramble: The Mountain King
by Dimfrost Studio
Yet another game that we also featured in this year’s Halloween article – 2023 was a banner year for indie games in general and horror games in particular, especially horror games that capture that ineffable Halloween quality we look for – Bramble: The Mountain King beautifully restores the inherent dread to the sun-dappled meadows and mushroom-adorned woods of Scandinavian fairytales.
Not to mention trolls, giants, and other mythological forest-dwellers, depicted here in their historically appropriate terror in some knuckle-whitening boss fights.
“A horror adventure that, thanks to its gorgeous visuals and compellingly creepy world, belongs up there with indie darlings like Limbo and INSIDE.” ~ TheOvermatt
“Bramble was the first game that truly knocked the wind out of me this year. Its first impact on me, when I came to it completely cold and without prep, was like the first time I played Dark Souls. I thought, ‘What the hell is this? I can’t find any analogs to what I am seeing.’
Every time I thought I had Bramble pegged, it took it a step further into a more beguiling, winsome, or legitimately terrifying direction. Drawing heavily from Wil Huygen’s Gnomes, Brian Froud’s fiendish Trolls, and the seminal work of John Bauer (a major inspiration for The Dark Crystal, Neil Gaiman, and Tim Burton alike), plus a hefty dose of wanton and uncompromising gore to offset any sheer adorableness, it’s the most gleefully macabre immersive experience.
It plays a little like Dragon’s Lair on hard mode in that you must get the timing right on relatively fixed levels, usually managing multiple simultaneous environmental threats.
Add to that the fact that it is seemingly shot in real-time by expert cinematographer Mikel Lindhe, who seemingly has a healthy fetish for dioramas, macro photography, and dramatic lighting, and you have an irresistible and unforgettable experience that straddles the line between photorealism and lucid fever dreams. An outstanding production across the board.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Sony PS5, Microsoft Xbox, Windows PC, Steam
3. A Highland Song
A Highland Song is a walking simulator in the absolute best sense of the word, not to mention a hiking simulator, a hopping simulator, a climbing simulator, and – if you’re not careful – a tripping-and-falling simulator.
Inextricably tied to its sense of place, the Scottish Highlands, it combines a joyous sense of movement with painterly landscapes and beautiful, cinematic camera work to conjure the joys and occasional miseries of traversing lonely wild places, from the sense of awe at the view from a hilltop to the drudgery of trudging through mud in the rain to the sharp, painful shock of a suddenly twisted ankle.
This being an inkle game, there’s also the expected multi-branching narrative, in this case framed around protagonist Moira running away to visit her uncle’s lighthouse, a days-long hike from the home she shares with her mother, and the branching story components mirror the branching paths an alternate routes Moira can take on her journey, making this a game that rewards replays by giving players more insight into Moira’s personality, more snippets of Celtic myths and legends, and more beautiful visions of Scotland.
And those are worthy rewards indeed; in his review, TheOvermatt praised the game’s production values, saying that “between the visuals that look like classic Highland paintings, charming writing and voice acting, and a score by folk legends Talisk and Fourth Moon, it’s a genuine feast for the eyes and ears that immerses you in the game’s world for your entire journey.”
“I’m a big fan of inkle games and Celtic folk music alike, and I count my time on foot in rural Scotland and northern England as some of my most treasured memories, so it was pretty much a given that I’d fall in love with A Highland Song, and I did. Moira herself, the painterly backgrounds, and the beautiful animation in the foreground all come together to create a sense of person and place intertwined, each informing the other in subtle ways.
What I did not expect was how much I’d fall in love with the more mechanical elements: the running, the climbing, the leaping. Even the musical racing parts, set to jigs and reels and involving timed jumping, were joyful and exhilarating instead of the dissonant symphony of missed notes and missed hops that usually forms the soundtrack of my forays into rhythm games.
At times I even rushed past story elements to get back to the running and climbing, which is completely unlike me and a testament to inkle’s skill at creating inviting game mechanics, which often gets overshadowed by their admittedly masterful approach to narrative design.” ~ infinitywaltz
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Steam
Seemingly a straightforward magical coming-of-age story about a young island girl, Tchia is an incredible achievement for multiple reasons.
For one, it’s a clear love letter to New Caledonia, the small South Pacific island nation. Awaceb‘s founders, though now living in Canada, are originally from there, and the game takes place in a fictionalized and fantastic version of the archipelago, and references to the New Caledonian people, culture, folklore, and even language infuse the entirety of the experience. The developers even hired native speakers of the local dialect (a mixture of French and Drehu) for the voice-acting.
Though at first blush it may appear to be an islander simulator, it quickly shifts into something more imaginative – a world of shattered sky cities, steampunk helicopters, and paper minions out to lock you up.
Then there’s the possession mechanic: much like David Oreilly’s meditative Everything – one of our top 10 indie games of 2017 – you can possess and temporarily become nearly everything in Tchia, from crows and street cats to inanimate objects like rocks and gas cans.
This opens up plenty of opportunities for clever, outside-the-box puzzle solutions (though it is not a puzzle game) as well as inviting freeform play and exploration; Tchia is the kind of game where you get distracted from the main storyline because you accidentally spent an hour wandering around the ocean floor as a crab or grouper like Arthur in The Sword and the Stone (a charming visual note: the flower behind Tchia’s ear is transferred to any animal she possesses), gawking open-mouthed at the lush procedural environments, promising your homies that this will be the very last screenshot you will share, promise.
And all that is to say nothing of the incredible attention to detail throughout the game, not only in terms of geographical, ecological, and cultural accuracy but tiny details of visual and sound design, like the way your shadow follows you on the ocean floor when you’re swimming, the accurate splashing wake of your rafting, or the way that Tchia’s foot-falls sound differently on dry sand than they do on wet. It’s not unique to this game, but it belies a profound passion to capture an experience that is as transportive as it is masterful.
Platforms: Windows PC, Steam
by Black Salt Games
An unholy but captivating amalgam of fishing and inventory management, Dredge succeeds for two reasons: the thought and care put into these mechanics which too many other games view as afterthoughts, and the evocative, atmospheric pottage in which it all floats, a grotesque and heady mix of deformed sea creatures and mysterious maritime villagers that’s 90 percent Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and 10 percent Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.
We’ve seen few job sims this well-crafted, much less one this steeped in nautical horror.
“I never thought I’d see the day when a Lovecraft-inspired game about the terrors of the ocean would be the year’s ultimate chill-out game, but Dredge is just full of surprises. With its simple yet satisfying gameplay loop of fishing, exploration, and investigation and a strange yet surprisingly cozy coastal world to explore, it’s a game that defies categorization while still feeling welcoming. What else can I say? It’s taken over my mind, body, and soul, all of which I’ve given it willingly.” ~ TheOvermatt
“Dredge, like Beat Saber, is one of those: now that I see it it’s so obvious, but why didn’t anyone think of this before? Lightsabers swinging to musically-timed chopping blocks along a cyberpunk track in VR? Monster hit. Fishing with a chance of eldritch horror? OMG, OF COURSE!
Who hasn’t shuddered and squirmed at least once when stepping into a lake where you couldn’t see your feet under the greenish muck? Or tried to swim at night without questioning whether a tentacled thing may slip through the water towards you?
Dredge has you covered. But wait! There’s more. There are real personalities, stories, feelings, moods, discoveries, and adventures to be had. And your little dinghy is quite upgradeable. There’s a lot to do in this deceptively simple little map, and the rewards for your haul will be indelible.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Sony PS5, Microsoft Xbox, Windows PC, Steam