IGR’s Top 10 Best Indie Games of 2020
We work hard to cover a wide variety of genres and expose to you some games that may not have been on your radar.
All games on this list are the product of significant debate by our writing and editorial team. 2020 was overwhelmingly replete with incredible new games from independent developers — so many that there’s no way we could have even been aware of them all, let alone covered them all. There is no doubt, however, that genres are consolidating in interesting ways, and the entire medium continues to evolve and improve, even as do the tools which become more readily available.
The bar is higher than ever, and yet our top game features graphics that harken back to the days of isometric 4X titles like Alpha Centauri and Command & Conquer. In other cases, we saw fundamental frameworks like the original ASCII-based game Rogue turned into something so spectacularly evolved that it is hard to fathom. Some of these games we couldn’t stop playing long enough to even think about making the rest of the list; others were short and sweet but lingered with us long after the end credits.
Whatever the case may be, we truly hope to inspire your search and extend your catalog with this year’s Top 10 list, and we look forward to bringing you much more indie game coverage through 2021.
I also want to thank all the IGR writers for the work, and give an extra cherry on top to my co-editor InfinityWaltz for all the hard work he contributed in helping to pull all of this together into something semi-coherent.
Editor-In-Chief, IGR 2020/2021
10. The Red Lantern
by Timberline Studio
Ostensibly a dogsled simulator – not a walking simulator – The Red Lantern is a dogsled journey through what feels like a dream state where you build relationships with each of your chosen sled dogs and their histories during an often bumpy but contemplative ride through a gorgeously lit artic northern world.
From its simple yet evocative score, perfectly written narration (by Ashley Burch of The Last of Us fame) to its lovely use of color in a snowy – but never drab – landscape, it is visually and emotionally powerful but somehow fragile, and despite constantly dwindling supplies and other survival game elements, it’s less a survival simulator than a meditation on solitude, the wilderness, and communion with silence. A real heart piece, made by veterans of the indie game trade, and a salve for troubled times.
(And yes, you can pet the dogs.)
“The Red Lantern seemingly came out of nowhere, an Epic exclusive that later showed up on Switch. We jumped in to give it a shot, and didn’t get up for the next five hours – until we finished one version of the story.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Xbox, Windows PC, Epic Games (Exclusive)
9. Iratus: Lord of the Dead
Despite some similarities to Darkest Dungeon – like the single 2D row-based combat and sanity mechanic – Iratus: Lord of the Dead inverts the modern dungeon-crawler by putting players in control of an evil necromancer rather than the tortured heroes out to end his reign.
This provides an opportunity to focus and expand on party management and customization in deliciously gruesome ways, like building undead monsters – Frankenstein-style – from the remains of your slaughtered foes and infusing them with harvested brains for faster level increases. The Wrath of the Necromancer DLC adds even more variety.
Between the monster management and a tactical combat system that takes full advantage of synergies among party members, Unfrozen has created a worthy and innovative addition to the old-school fantasy tactics revival, this time inspired less by Lovecraft and Victorian moodiness than by over-the-top zombie movie gore. And it’s challenging even for seasoned RPG players, so you’ll have to use your brains…your delicious brains…brains…BRAINS!
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Linux, Steam
8. Paradise Killer
by Kaizen Game Works
Start with that concept: an other-dimensional island ruled by immortal worshipers of alien gods and powered by human sacrifice. So far, so Lovecraft, right? Except instead of tentacles unfurling from non-Euclidean angles, the island in question looks like a high-proof distillation of ’80s-worshiping Vaporwave neon populated by the most self-consciously bizarre anime characters from the past three decades or so.
With excellent writing and character development that makes NPCs feel like real people (despite some of them being skeletons or goat-headed information brokers, for example), Kaizen Game Works create a world that’s somehow familiar and lived-in while also being completely alien.
Add to that a murder mystery that requires you to pay attention to actual clues and conversational details – no inventory puzzle hand-holding here – and we have a game that respects players rather than pandering to them, though there are additional options to help you if you happen to get stuck.
As TheOvermatt stated in his review, “Paradise Killer is a unique experience. It’s one that likely isn’t going to appeal to everybody, but for my money, this is one of the most interesting and refreshing games I’ve played in a long time.”
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Steam
7. The Pathless
by Giant Squid
The devs at Giant Squid again show their strengths: creating beautiful open worlds for players to wander through, awestruck. This time around, the creators of ABZÛ take us into an Oriental-inspired fantasy world, and on the back of a giant eagle, no less!
Stunning cartoonish visuals reminiscent of Genndy Tartakovsky’s work on Samurai Jack combine with an Austin Wintory score – complete with hints of Mongolian throat-singing – to create a world that’s a pleasure to observe, but there’s lots more than just observation here.
There’s action a-plenty, and an archery system that focuses on timing rather than aim helps to seamlessly blend character movement and shooting, leading to a game that makes you feel graceful from the get-go. And the lack of mini-maps, among other adventure game standards – helps The Pathless feel more like an open world and aids a storytelling approach that relies more on action than text or dialogue.
And did we mention the giant eagle?
“A wonderful game that’s inspired by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where you’re free to explore and solve puzzles, it plays to the strengths of video games – interactivity, with no audio diaries or long-winded text to read.” ~ FICTiVETRUiSM
“Giant Squid have always delivered marvel-inducing worlds and level design that comes in stray and lyrical angles. The Pathless is a visceral triumph that wants you to enter a flow state. Despite its brevity, its memory will linger.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Sony PS4, Sony PS5, iOS, Windows PC, Mac, Epic Games (Exclusive)
by Thunder Lotus Games
Much like The Red Lantern, this game proved to be an unexpected balm to the sorrows of this past year; our reviewer, Kit Goodliffe, calls it “the game 2020 didn’t know it needed.”
Essentially a game about death and closure wrapped in the guise of a ship-management simulator – said ship is Charon’s ferry to the land of the dead – it features mini-games and resource management to provide structure around a character-driven series of bittersweet individual stories, a few of which are likely to have you reaching for the tissues.
Between the heartfelt writing, strange but all-too-human characters and the jaw-dropping visuals we’ve come to expect from Thunder Lotus Games, think of this one as a cross between mellow management sim and Studio Ghibli film.
“Spiritfarer has such a gentle and endearing approach that runs through almost every facet of the game, from the characters to the narrative, action and aesthetic. I’ve seen other games that are strong contenders and could certainly outmatch Spiritfarer in different arenas, but for me, at least, Spiritfarer felt like the right game at the right time.” ~ Kit Goodliffe
“Like Mutazione and Oxenfree, Spiritfarer takes you on a boat ride to strange and wondrous new places. Except here, the journey – among the spirits of old family and friends, while you try to attend to their particular tastes and wishes – is truly the reward. Heart-stopping illustration and laugh-out-loud yet nuanced dialogue make this work sing.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Microsoft Xbox One, Windows PC, Mac, Steam
5. Risk of Rain 2
by Hopoo Games
Transitioning from the 2D side-scrolling of the original was a gutsy move, but it proved worth the risk – pun intended – for Hopoo Games. Retaining the first game’s signature time/difficulty ratio – enemies get tougher the longer you take in a given level – the sequel adds loads of additional characters, a multi-player mode and more, not to mention eye-popping, cel-shaded graphics and a hard-hitting score by Chris Christodoulou.
“Risk of Rain 2 is the latest 2D classic to make the jump to 3D with flying colors. The gameplay is tight, the amount of content to discover and unlock is staggering, the presentation is top-notch, and above all else, it’s just an absolute blast to play (especially in multi-player). It’s a testament to how a solid core gameplay loop can keep you coming back for hours, and while there was tight competition in the Rogue-like genre this year, this was probably the game I personally played the most out of anything.” ~ TheOvermatt
“Risk of Rain 2 slams the pedal to the floor, and from the very first Easy-mode rookie drop-in, you are in the thick of the action, your back against the procedurally-generated wall, trying not to get distracted by all the amazing creatures and environments they are throwing at you while you try to find the damned beacon. There are countless power-ups, and nothing makes you feel like more of a rock star than having a small battalion of drones keeping you company along the way. That is until you hit insane mode, and then…well…I just can’t help you there. This is pure unmitigated adrenaline fun time.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Microsoft Xbox One, Windows PC, Steam
by Supergiant Games
Arguably the biggest indie game story of the year has been the massive success of Hades, an action Rogue-like set within the underworld of Greek myth. Its setting – perma-death is significant in a different way if you’re already in the land of the dead – makes for an ideal melding of procedural design with the narrative style Supergiant Games established with such previous hits as Bastion and Transistor.
On top of the larger-than-life pantheon – pun intended – of its characters, most of whom have proven popular enough to result in pages upon pages of fan art on Twitter – Hades offers tons of smooth, visceral hack-and-slash combat, and its array of weapons, upgrades, boons from the gods, etc. provides plenty of variety and different approaches to play-style without sacrificing comprehensibility.
As TheOvermatt put it in his review, “Hades sets itself above the crowd through a seamless blend of Supergiant’s unique narrative style and superb gameplay.”
“Hades is about someone struggling to find their place in the world – someone who wants to escape – and then ultimately evolves into a game that touches on relatable issues about family and relationships. And on top of that, this game features a fantastic combat system with plenty of options that had me hooked. I think Hades sets a new standard for Rogue-like games: it’s not only fun to play, but it has a substantial narrative that will keep you engaged.” ~ FICTiVETRUiSM
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Mac, Steam
The latest story to receive the inkle treatment is the legend of King Arthur – and in particular, the very end, in which Arthur is slain by his traitorous son (no spoiler alert, as the King Arthur narrative dates back to the 12th century) – surpasses the already high bar set by the studio’s previous games 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault.
Combining sparse but exquisitely written sections of dialogue and flavor text and telling the story from widely varied points of view, Pendragon encourages replaying.
Unlockable characters – from the famous to the infamous and everyone in between – provide subsequent play-throughs with alternate points of view, each character’s perspective a fractal element of a narrative whole, all combining in the player’s imagination to create a new version of an oft-told tale.
Little details like encounters with villagers adjusting to the reign of the usurping King Mordred flesh out and ground a setting often too wreathed in mystical Medieval mist, giving the game a sometimes-chilling relevance as well as exploring its universal themes of love, honor, loyalty and betrayal.
Don’t get us wrong, though, there’s still plenty of mist and magic, too, provided via stylized character designs inspired by stained glass and illustrated manuscripts and a score that ranges evokes everything from the confusing clash of battle to the melancholy of a mourning queen.
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Steam
by Nolla Games
If you don’t often think about Rogue-likes, 7DRL, physics simulations, procedural generation and emergence – or haven’t played hours of Terraria, The Swapper, On Mars, Miner Dig Deep and Dwarf Fortress – then Noita (a Finnish word for “shaman”) might appear bewildering, maddening, overly difficult and odd-looking. But if you do know and/or appreciate the aforementioned ideas, then you’ll recognize it for the mesmerizingly extraordinary achievement that it is.
You see, in Noita, every pixel for sand, water, fire and even vaporous gasses is simulated. Fire melts snow; acid pulverizes gold ore; it goes on and on, and everything is destructible and can cross-contaminate or demonstrate causal effects. Creatures and their environments are veritably alive, teeming with artificial intelligence.
Some might complain that the scope of complexity is overwhelming and inaccessible, but the gameplay allows you to fluidly fly, shoot, warp, sneak, mine, swim and even cast combinations of spells that you create yourself at your own tempo. What you get is a new kind of experience that can easily turn a few fast perma-deaths into 10-hour runs.
Enormous amounts of customization around every component you could imagine – and even tools for observers to make decisions about your world generators on the fly – mean that this game is of infinite potential, a seemingly endless variety of mobs, wands, spells and even chainsaws to create a rare gem of an experience that we will be playing for years to come.
If it weren’t for the fact that Factorio – itself a once-in-a-lifetime logistics masterpiece – also came out of Early Access this year, then Noita would have been the Game of the Year. In fact, just pretend that they are all sitting side-by-side, not front-to-back.
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Steam
by Wube Software
We covered Factorio when it was still in alpha, all the way back in 2013, and even then we could tell it was addictive enough to steal multiple nights’ sleep.
Beginning by unceremoniously plopping the player down on a hostile alien planet, the game quickly shifts from seeming survival game mechanics – gather wood and rocks, build a forge – to managing automated manufacturing processes and overseeing a one-person industrial revolution. Sure, this is very much a game for people who like conveyor belts, but what begins to unravel is far beyond swiping barcodes at the checkout counter…
Like the actual Industrial Revolution, all of this manufacturing leads to unintended side effects, with more pollution leading to more aggression from hostile alien fauna, so on top of building, expanding and overseeing increasingly complex crafting systems, players also need to balance in environmental factors.
While the game technically has a “win” condition (building a rocket and escaping the planet) the pleasure – and the agonizing, addictive madness and ecstasy – is in the journey and the building. Much like Minecraft, a robust community has formed around the game, with people sharing their creations and mods, and developers Wube Creations are equally involved, constantly tweaking, updating and improving things (and thereby gaining even more player loyalty).
“First of all, I can usually expect Factorio to be pinned to the Discord ‘Now Playing’ message for several of my sysadmin friends. They have been playing it for years. They do it to stay sharp. They do it to release the tension of managing hundreds of global servers. This is their idea of fun.
Second of all, you haven’t lived until you have attempted to master driving the car that you build with YOUR OWN FRICKIN’ HANDS in Factorio. I mean…am I really that clumsy? Stupid? Why is it so hard? Why? Oh, OK, I’m a bit better at it today.
Third of all: I may not be smart enough to build worlds within worlds like some Factorio aficionados do, but I’m self-aware enough to think about where I will die due to playing this game for just one more night (What is breakfast? What is sleep?). Still, I must explore yet another corner of the map to bring back material to deploy in my ever-better-optimized Rube Goldberg sequencing so that I can expedite the creation of not only components but garrisons against the hostile native space bugs. It’s every weird little engineering pipe dream, toy and classroom scribble I ever had, and it looks like Alpha Centauri but better. I forget what I was saying…Factorio is life. I surrender.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Linux, Steam
by Art in the Heart
Like ’80s sequels, GONNER2 is bigger, badder, and better than its antecedent. The gloriously fluid procedurally-generated levels continue their delightfully illustrative abstract cartoon alter-world while affording a relentless but balletic romp through a series of dreamlike challenges. Pure platforming joy for those who want something fresh, and despite the expected constant dying thing, the wall-jumping is totally tolerable and even enjoyable. In short doses, GONNER2 is a perfect palate cleanser for any occasion, and as a feat of coding and design, a masterpiece, again.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Microsoft Xbox One, Windows PC, Mac, Linux, Steam
by Nicolas Meysonnier
Halloween-themed platformer Pumpkin Jack is at its core a 3D platformer, but what a platformer! From lush visual design reminiscent of classic Disney films to wonderfully cartoonish animations – not to mention occasional grotesque moments like Jack’s detached head pulling itself along the ground with its vine tentacles – it oozes both charm and triple-A polish (it’s more polished than a few recent games from actual triple-A studios, in fact). It even uses ray-tracing, which is all the more astounding given the fact that it was created almost entirely by one person.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Xbox One, Windows PC, Steam
by Mason Lindroth
“Hylics 2 is a surreal trip into the strange. Its use of claymation and soothing guitar music make for a game that just oozes style. It’s a world so unique, it makes just entering a new area a joy to explore. It’s a well-crafted turn-based RPG for those looking to play something out of the norm, but also narratively grounded in a surprising way.” ~ FICTiVETRUiSM
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Steam