Top 10 Best Indie Games of the Year 2018

The 2018 Indie Game of the Year

In some way, every game on our list satisfies the following criteria: it is a labor of love, it is an art piece, it is unlike anything we have really seen elsewhere, and it is probably ontological or tests our perception of reality and purpose in some way. This wasn’t an agenda we laid out, it just sort of ended up that way…

We…probably spend way too time deliberating over certain aspects of this list, but the only ones that may be of interest to you are that – while we sometimes clearly do not include some of the best indie releases of the year – it is because we want to also represent some titles that have received less attention but are just as meritorious. It is always a hard thing to choose those sacrificial lambs.

Another is that we try to get a fairly diverse representation of genres, approaches and aesthetics.

Finally, we have pretty strict conditions: the game had to have it first full commercial release on any platform within the 12 month period starting January 1st and ending December 29th. It cannot be in Early Access, nor can it be a release on a new platform (for example, Nintendo Switch).

And order…well…don’t take it too seriously, these 10 and hundreds of others will appeal more or less to anyone. This year, this is how we best felt we needed to sequence it. This year’s list was deliberated upon by our current team of eight writers, with further suggestions and input from our alumni writers from all years.

OK, let’s get to it.

These are

Indie Game Reviewer’s Top Ten Indie Games of 2018

10. Book of Demons

by Thing Trunk

A wonderfully designed paper cut-out styled game that, by drawing on many popular game styles – from Diablo and Torchlight to the card-based combat of ZachtronicsIronclad Tactics – offers an easy-to-pick up, but eventually difficult-to-master experience.

However, developers Thing Trunk have made it extremely flexible to please hardcore and casual gamers alike. In fact, they even have a system called “Flexiscope” that learns your style and tailors a game for balance, whether you choose a short seven-minute session or a much longer one. Literally every game should implement this.

The action is a mix of giving orders and real-time clicker action. This is one pop-up book you do not want to miss.

Read our complete review of Book of Demons.

9. The Hex

by Daniel Mullins Games

The Hex is to Steam reviews what If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is to 12th grade book reports. Despite it a being postmodern destruction of the contemporary game lexicon, The Hex is actually stuffed with mini-games and multimedia in the truest sense of that wonderful 1960s term.

A more approachable way to put it, for those of you who were lucky enough to have missed the post-structuralist mania that invaded colleges in the mid-Generation X days is McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message. Here, the very media that you are participating in express the narrative and meaning of the play directly. Wonderful stuff.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak

“I’ve played a lot of postmodern indie games that tried their best to break the fourth wall and/or make a big point about ‘This is actually a video game about video games, man…’ but Daniel Mullins is the first developer to do this in a way that made me say, ‘This is really smart’ instead of ‘This thinks it’s really smart.’ It also has a lot more to say than ‘Early video games were like Pong, and then there were 8-bit and eventually 16-bit games!’ It’s a statement not only about games as a medium but also as an industry. The mini-games are fun, too.” ~ InfinityWaltz

8. Equilinox

by ThinMatrix

This is a refinement of many biome-inception games that have come before it – from Proteus to Will Wright’s Spore to Everything in 2017.

The low-poly look, stuffed onto a square world that has become the newest trend in games like Bad North and last year’s Wartile, is a minimalist playground, wonderfully rich with discoveries, assets and emergence. It has a deceptively seamless handle on the way everything interacts with everything else, mutates, evolves and grows. The Eno-esque score is perfect background music even for just leaving the game up as the world coolest and soporific screensaver.

This is the full package – smooth and well thought out UIs, enchanting creatures and fetching design, all over a well-implemented and complex AI that can slow the heartbeat of even the most anxious character, even while affording insight and education into emergence and evolution, science and experimentation. A great experience all around.

“What impresses me so much about Equilinox is that it’s incredibly relaxing while also being incredibly detailed. There are tons of numbers and inter-dependencies and conditions and achievements to explore and unlock, but it still feels meditative, combining the best of both worlds. It’s like Proteus if it were made by Sid Meier, or Everything if it were an engineering student instead of a philosophy major.” ~ InfinityWaltz

7. Dead Cells

by Motion Twin

Dead Cells is not just good because it’s fun and has a unique art style – it’s amazing because the game developers are generous. The moves are easy to make; the combat is easy to flow through; and hitting a second, third and fourth time is only more rewarding as the island shifts and morphs into never-before-seen configurations. This is a game that makes you feel assured that whoever is driving knows what they are doing. It feels good.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak

“Dead Cells stands out from other Roguelikes in the way in which effective and synergistic builds emerge on each and every play-through. It has been my experience that the random nature of Roguelikes often precludes the construction of fun weapon or skill combinations that work together in a unique and powerful way. Not so, here; in almost every play-through, I found a collection of tools came together that I could tweak in such a way as to create an interesting new way to play that was often incredibly powerful.” ~ Kit Goodliffe (from his review)

“In addition to the aforementioned generosity to the players, French developers Motion Twin are generous to their ’employees.’ Instead of a traditional company, they’re an anarcho-syndicalist workers cooperative (no bosses). In a year in which increasing attention has come to the toxic working environments at some game companies, I’m excited to see such an unquestionable success from a team that dares to take a radically different approach.” ~ InfinityWaltz

Read our complete review of Dead Cells.

6. Exapunks

by Zachtronics

Exapunks – the “ExA” stands for “Execution Agents” – has you running completely plausible pseudo-code that you are learning out of a digital ‘zine to achieve objectives for a shadow operator, in exchange for your meds (in a nod to both Neuromancer and Cronenberg films, you’re afflicted by a chronic cyborg illness).

What Zach Barth has managed to achieve this time around is an eminently playable, immersive experience. He even asks you to physically print out the 22-page ‘zine – which of course we did – and he was right: it makes it so much better.

“This game is so meta that it bewilders hypercubes. Zach is not one to ever play to the lowest common denominator. Heck, he hardly plays to the highest. But with Exapunks he finally made a game that feels smooth, feels fair, feels logical for anyone with the tenacity to roll up their sleeves and try stuff. The whole game is about poring through complete zines and finding challenges, ideas, solutions that you then deploy onto a grid – like Into the Breach – to mod a highway billboard or rob a bank or make a weird pocket video game. It’s…..mind-bendingly deep (unless you’re already an experienced programmer). Its pseudo-code engine can actually produce user-made custom games. And the whole experience is wrapped up in a cool-looking and sounding cyberpunk alternate history storyline. ” ~ Indie-Game-Freak

“Zach is kind of the game design equivalent of a ‘musician’s musician,’ like the Robert Fripp of indie games. What he does here is take the coolest elements from his most impenetrable programming games – like the print-it-yourself, era-accurate manual and assembly coding of TIS-100 – and combine it with the more accessible and visual elements of his manufacturing sims like SpaceChem and Infinifactory. The end result is accessible enough for us non-programmers to fall in love while still offering enough depth and complexity that coders already have Asteroid and Tetris clones running in it.” ~ InfinityWaltz

5. Forgotton Anne

by ThroughLine Games

“Utterly enchanting – the animation, the world-building, the voice acting, the score, the platformer and puzzler. Forgotton Anne is City of Ember done by Studio Ghibli. What kept bringing me back was the pathos around the ‘Forgotlings’ – little mutant composites of forgotten bedroom clutter as homunculi that populate this strange gaslit and steampowered world. Each with it own voice and backstory, I couldn’t stop returning to their strange existence and dark rebellion against the sadistic enforcers (including me, sweet little Anne in my Laura Ingalls dress).

Though some may find its endings unsatisfying, or some of the gameplay a little uneven, it is ultimately an interactive journey through the mesmerizing Forgotten Lands. Buoyed by an intoxicating score performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra and animation worthy of cinema, this leaves a new tunnel of memories in the mind.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak

4. Return of the Obra Dinn

by Lucas Pope

Return Of The Obra Dinn Screenshot 2018.12.26 -
“I am obsessed with historic trade routes and pirates during the Age of Enlightenment. The way that you are unpacking moments and then bookmarking clues from sketches is breathtaking. I wish it was a VR experience because it embodies – pun intended – every reason I care about the medium. Knowing that Return of the Obra Dinn was made by the brain that was the engine under Papers, Please makes me even more confident about proceeding on that journey.

The most impressive thing here is not the mere cross-hatching of so much data – and how every character relates to the others in time, place and intent – but also how Pope has crafted it into such an intriguing mystery that it pulls you forward into its dark secrets, and never feels like you are staring at an Excel spreadsheet (like he did for years).” ~ Indie-Game-Freak

Read our complete review of Return of the Obra Dinn.

3. CrossCode

by Radical Fish Games

CrossCode game screenshot
“Falling in love with CrossCode wasn’t difficult. Fans of SNES RPGS like Chrono Trigger will be immediately drawn into its visual charm. This puzzle/RPG hybrid plays a lot more like if NieR: Automata was set in the Sword Art Online universe. Using both melee and ranged attacks, these action-based battles happen fast and often, with boss fights that force you to think creatively. With a sci-fi story that sinks its teeth into players right off the bat, this RPG has enough charm to bring in the most seasoned RPG veterans as well as players new to the genre. The fluidity of the controls and the PS1-era RPG-inspired soundtrack provide the perfect dichotomy of a really special game.” ~ Michael.Duhacek

“Alongside a compelling story, likable characters and a soundtrack that deserves every bit of the praise we’ve heaped upon it, it did my heart good to see a modern game paying tribute to the top-down action of games like Secret of Mana as opposed to the usual halfhearted Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest homages. Environment-based puzzles add an element of contemplation to the the fast-paced but thoughtful combat.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak

2. Unavowed

by Wadjet Eye Games

A labor of love and Dave Gilbert’s biggest title to date. He spent the longest time on its development, recorded the most lines, and put the most at stake. The gamble paid off. With a host of remarkable characters, snappy dialogue and rich backstory, we will let our original reviewer explain:

Wadjet Eye just knows how to write a compelling adventure game; it’s why Unavowed is superb. Great characters alongside a supernatural, mystery-filled main plot. It has characters I legitimately cared about, which is a talent Wadjet Eye excels at.” ~ Fictive Truism

“This isn’t just an improvement upon the formula of admittedly brilliant games like Shardlight. It’s a quantum step forward in adventure games, combining the developer’s established skill in story, character development and puzzle design with a branching narrative approach inspired by BioWare RPGs – no small feat for a little studio without BioWare-scale funding.” ~ InfinityWaltz

Read our complete review of Unavowed.

1. Subnautica

by Unknown Worlds Entertainment

“As far as Subnautica…some of the most intensely immersive video gaming hours I may have ever spent. The devs (who come from Natural Selection 2, which we reviewed in this site’s very early days) state that they made a game with no abject violence or killing. And no puzzles! (Whee!) They state ‘One vote against guns.’ Even so, it was constantly nail-biting, transportive and mesmerizing. And I have barely scratched the surface. Some have likened it to Minecraft, but I played in in Survival Mode (obviously). I could easily spend 150 hours with this game.

The most extraordinary thing they have accomplished is to make the player feel as through they are truly deep diving on an alien planet. At no point did I not feel like I was really swimming, managing my breath and terrified and in wonderment at what living creature I may find next, and this went on for hours before I stood up for a break. Everything is operating in the ambrosia of an alien ocean, and you can feel it.” ~ Indie-Game-Freak

“This is what I wanted No Man’s Sky to be.” ~ Michael Duhacek

Honorable Mentions

Party Hard 2

by Pinoki Games, Kverta, Hologryph

Party Hard 2 plays into one of my favorite gameplay mechanics. As a huge fan of the Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed franchises, one of my favorite things to do in those games is stealthily sneak through a crowd of onlookers and silently take out my targets. Party Hard 2 let me do that, but it also let me get creative with how I could dispatch my targets. Armed with only a knife, almost everything in the environment can be rigged or used to do some killing without arousing suspicion. Several of the levels took me hours to complete, with a multitude of failed attempts, and that’s what kept me hooked.” ~ Michael.Duhacek

Read our complete review of Party Hard 2.

Graveyard Keeper

by Lazy Bear Games

Graveyard Keeper the Church and the Graveyard
Graveyard Keeper helped me realize I have pretty bad OCD. Not only is the crafting system incredibly deep and involving, but I fell in love with the dark story. This game will have you autopsying bodies, crafting paper out of their skin, selling off their flesh, visiting the Inquisitor to help him burn a couple of witches and then preaching to your congregation in church the next day. There’s never a shortage of things to do or items to craft, and the business is completely recession-proof. The bodies never stop coming, and I just can’t stop playing.” ~ Michael.Duhacek

Read our complete review of Graveyard Keeper.

Pig Eat Ball

by Mommy’s Best Games

pig eat ball screenshot
Nathan Fouts became a household name by being one of the most audacious but also talented developers to come out of the XNA XBOX Indie Games scene of the early Aughts. Mommysbestgames always guaranteed an eye-popping, totally bananas, and usually subversive experience for those who were in the know with the cult of XBLIG. In 2018 he returned with yet another game from the heart with Pig Eat Ball, a surreal and sometimes grotesque take that conjures up the likes of classic arcade games while still offering something totally fresh.

“Pig Eat Ball caught me by surprise this year. Simple controls and mechanics and the sheer size of the game make this arcade/puzzler a game not to be missed. There’s a lot more gameplay in Pig Eat Ball than initially meets the eye. Each zany world is filled with short levels to complete, with some international leaderboards to compete in. The style of this game is absolutely bonkers – I mean, this pig’s dad is a cake – and each world has a crazier theme than the last. I never thought I’d have so much fun with vomit-covered tennis balls.” ~ Michael.Duhacek

Read our complete review of Pig Eat Ball.

What do you think? What did you play? What did you love from 2018? Le us know! Here and via social media (Twitter at @IndieGameReview)

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