This is always hard…blah blah blah. Every year there are more games, more outlets, more tools, more ideas, more grammar. This is a good thing! We are here to try to sort through it all.
This is not a comprehensive list of the best indie games. This is the list we made after playing hundreds of games and substantial deliberation. By a process of debate and consensus, we have arrived at this list of 10 indie games we believe were among the very best of 2019.
We thus humbly present:
IGR’s Top 10 Best Indie Games of 2019
10. Hypnospace Outlaw
by Tendershoot, Michael Lasch, ThatWhichIs Media
From Jay Tholen, designer of Dropsy, comes a utopian world set in a parallel dimension that feels like the wreck of a Geocities fever dream where the player is tasked with being an uber-mod, patrolling the strange world of Hypnospace for bad actors.
The visual density and world-building provide a great walk back through time for those who either remember or never had the chance to experience the strange days of the early web. The experience turns increasingly puzzle-like, and you may find yourself retreading familiar turf a little too often, but the meta-layer here (everything in the ’90s was meta) is the commentary on contemporary life, creating just enough distance to take a fresh look at the colorful cages to which we have submitted.
9. Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark
by 6 Eyes Games
“Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark captures everything fun about tactical RPGs while dispensing all of the boring parts. Every character, from the heroes of your story down to your disposable hired hands, is heavily customizable from portrait to gear to dual-class abilities, so even a random mercenary picked up to fill out your party at the beginning of the game can end up as anything from a steampunk wizard to a Samurai healer by the time you’ve got some game time under your belt.
More importantly for a game in its genre, the turn-based combat is always fun, never cumbersome, and instead of wanting to skip the inessential battles to impatiently get one with the narrative, I went so far as to seek out extra fights – or replay battles I’d already won – ostensibly to test out new skills, theories and strategies I’d learned in the process, but really just for the sheer fun of combat.” ~ InfinityWaltz
8. Nauticrawl: 20,000 Atmospheres
by Andrea Interguglielmi
Born in a Rogue-inspired game dev conference, Nauticrawl at first bears little resemblance to that seminal ASCII-based dungeon crawler. Faced with an elaborate naval submarine control panel with no instructions, it quickly becomes evident that you are in some kind of vehicle, on the run from something in some kind of world. The specifics are revealed in snippets via your radar panel and periscope, though plenty is left up to the imagination. What isn’t ambiguous is that you had better figure out how to get out of there pretty darn quick.
A wonderful journey of perseverance, focus, logic and sweaty-palm inducing escape, Nauticrawl is full of atmosphere and excitement, and yet conveys so much with just a few moving parts.
7. Green Hell
by Creepy Jar
Green Hell looks so good that we had to do a double-take when we discovered it was made in Unity and not Cryengine. Clearly a labor of love – and the product of years of development – this Amazonian survival action game comes with a spooky mystery; constructible buildings; dozens of plants, animals and other elements to discover, craft, study and repurpose; and very smooth gameplay.
The production value is absolutely top tier, and we never had any glitches or tears or actors getting stuck in the copious foliage or outcrops of jagged rocks. Weather systems not only happen in the skybox and particle emitters but are also reflected in the very canopy of the jungle, the leaves of the plants and the depth of the river. An amazing feat and a generous campaign that can last several dozen hours worthy of accolades.
If you don’t want to deal with the story mode, there is a giant buffet of survival activity to take on in a richly populated world you may never otherwise get a chance to explore.
6. Ape Out
by Gabe Cuzzillo, Bennett Foddy, Matt Boch
The pacing, the monochromatic map, the rhythm, the aesthetically awesome obfuscation of corridors and exits (reminiscent of Teleglitch)…a frenetic dash for ideas. Improvisational, unexpected, risk-taking.
To have paired that with a dynamic and responsive jazz soundtrack is a stroke of genius. It isn’t that Ape Out has a cool score, it’s that the soundtrack highlights that Ape Out itself is jazz as a play-space. Each procedurally-generated level incrementally adds complexity, introducing alarms and environmental elements that you can fashion towards your pursuit of escape, and it does so wordlessly. The tutorial is implicit and not overt.
It’s about experimentation and flow state, man. It’s a living drum solo. It’s pure ludology. It’s energy on its feet. Think. Fast.
5. Pathologic 2
by Ice-Pick Lodge
“Revamping a cult classic game over a decade old is no easy task. Developers Ice-Pick Lodge had a hell of a fine line to walk between innovation and preservation when crowdfunding a sequel/remake to 2005’s Pathologic, and against all odds, they pulled it off.
The result is a survival horror game unlike anything you’ve ever played before. Rather than opt for jump scares or sanity effects, Pathologic 2 instead makes you dread the dawning of a new day. As you try to save a mysterious town from an even more mysterious plague, things perpetually go from bad to worse; your supplies grow ever more limited, you find yourself faced with legitimately hard decisions you might never have expected, and you constantly have more tasks to complete than you’ll ever have time for.
With more discussions than ever on the subject of how to create interesting difficulty in video games, it’s refreshing to see something like Pathologic 2 take the Dark Souls route of dropping you in a world where you don’t belong, giving you all the tools you need to succeed, and seeing what you make of it. The game will test your limits, and oftentimes you’ll fail, but at the same time you’ll remain hopeful that maybe – just maybe – you’ll be all the more prepared to faces the horrors to come.” ~ TheOvermatt
4. Kind Words (lo fi beats to chill to)
Sometimes in life, it is the little things that end up mattering most. A friend takes you out to lunch or brings over some fresh cookies or maybe sends you a birthday card by snail mail. Sometimes it’s just having a friend who can listen without judgment, who is there for you no matter what, because they know in the end, we are all human and will go through ups and downs and success and failure alike.
Kind Words, especially in times like these where there is so much fear and division, is a true salve for the soul: a small experience with a big heart in which you send real and anonymous letters into the world and a happy little deer with a postal cap delivers them for you and brings you news from afar. Other real people will write similar letters that you can choose to answer in exchange for small innocuous acknowledgments in the form of stickers and decorations for your apartment. As you progress, you will unlock more chill ambient beats to listen to as you go through the exercise. A self-policing community ensures that everything will be above the level, protecting you from cruelty and trolls.
Of course, writing and responding to these letters in this winsome yet laid back context is its own authentic self-therapy. Bonus points for even attempting such a delicate yet robust endeavor, a tenuous moment for an essential exercise. A clean and well-lit place for contemplation and exploration of thoughts and feelings.
An amazingly successful endeavor that does exactly what it set out to do, powered by human hearts, all of their anxieties and all of their generosity.
3. Outer Wilds
by Mobius Digital
“Outer Wilds begins simply enough: a walk through a small village populated by multi-bug eyed ‘aliens’ – that’s kindred to you – wishing you well on your upcoming space-faring adventure of discovery. Half a dozen mini-tutorials later and you have been introduced to an ancient race with strange mystical powers beckoning you towards some unknown call among the stars. Where the game begins to take off, if you will pardon the pun, is in the many ways in which you will explore very different planets, each with their own atmospheric flare. But it is perilous out there, and before you know it you will fail and discover yourself in a timed loop of progressive understanding – one that rewards courage, tenacity and curiosity.
Outer Wilds turns out to be transportive and memorable for all its ambition, yet chunky enough for anyone to pick up quickly and get things running.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
“Ever since I was a kid, the idea of exploring alien planets was fascinating to me, so I was quickly drawn to Outer Wilds since it is a game where the reward is not leveling up or kill counts. Instead, it’s a peaceful game where you learn about your protagonist’s world and the surrounding planets, the history of what became of those planets and the species that came before you. It’s a game that made me feel small in a wonderfully crafted nonlinear space exploration experience. There were heartwarming moments as well as instances that left me in complete awe.
There is also something poetic in the game’s main theme. This idea of death in the pursuit of knowledge. How throughout humankind, one of the main reasons we survive is thanks to that pursuit. I will fondly look back on Outer Wilds as a game that captured my imagination. It’s a sci-fi game I always wanted, and I’m grateful I got a chance to play it. Outer Wilds is without question my game of the year.” ~ FICTiVETRUisM
2. Heaven’s Vault
“Of course Heaven’s Vault has a brilliant, branching story. We wouldn’t expect any less from an inkle game, and it delivers with an epic tale of a history that never was, a lost interplanetary civilization and a religious philosophy based on a sort of eternal return, inspired by but not based on Jain, Buddhist and Hindu cosmology. And of course all that grandeur is brought close by the game’s focus on character, particularly our prickly anthropologist hero and her curious robot companion.
Heaven’s Vault is so much more than brilliant narrative, though. For one, there’s its deservedly praised translation system, revealing science fiction alternate history through mysterious glyphs that are almost impenetrable at first but become legible through trial and error. There’s also the interplanetary sailing mini-game, which is significantly less praised; some players and reviewers found it a cumbersome interruption, but I found it a mesmerizing visual representation of the game’s loftier themes that was also beautifully soothing.
An ambitious game in many ways, Heaven’s Vault is mechanically innovative, philosophically transcendent and – I bring it up again because it’s so important – an incredibly compelling story.” ~ InfinityWaltz
1. Baba Is You
by Arvi Teikari
From the moment we laid eye on this game jam title grown up, we knew we had something special. Our reviewer LudicRyan, who earned a Ph.D. on the theoretical links between games, play and narrative, perhaps summed it up best:
“It’s such an innocent game on the surface, but there’s so much more beyond that. It’s an incredibly difficult puzzle game that will push the player to their limits but will always invite them back for more.
But it’s interesting for another reason. In the game, there is always a three-word statement declaring who you are. For the most part, that’s Baba. For fun, you can change ‘You’ into the wall or a rock. In this way, you can also change what the victory condition is: from a flag to a rock or a rose.
There’s something so pure about the idea that the objective in a game is not hundreds of miles away or to eliminate every enemy, but to find the objective in oneself. To understand that ‘You’ are enough.” ~ LudicRyan
And that’s the top 10 we picked for many reasons, not least of which the hope that we could cover some titles that weren’t on most lists while also not penalizing others that grew in popularity and acclaim throughout the year.
There were literally hundreds of excellent games released by independent teams and single developers, publishers and distributors in 2019. We salute you all and are excited to move into another decade with you!
That’s it! What were YOUR favorite indies of the year, and what did you think of our picks? Let us know in the comments. And thanks for reading IGR.