Best Games of 2017
We do not come at this list lightly, and spent months in consideration of its final selections, which are pitted against one another and some overarching criteria that include originality, playability, design and execution, while also endeavoring to shine light on some under-covered titles and represent a diverse spectrum of genres.
Before we get to the list proper, it’s worth mentioning the biggest indie game story of the year, Studio MDHR‘s meticulously crafted ode to Max Fleischer animation and ultra-difficult Mega Man-flavored running-and-gunning: Cuphead.
Wow, what a game! And what an amazing success story for a true indie studio spread out across two countries. Over a six-year development cycle, they stuck to their guns and moved not one but two million units over the first six months. In fact, the second million happened after the initial marketing push and could be pegged entirely to word of mouth.
Between its jaw-dropping commercial reception and its passionate attention to detail, Cuphead stands in many ways in a category of its own, which is why – although it will make the top of a many a year-end list – you won’t find it in ours. (If there’s any question as to how much we adored the game, though, read our complete review of Cuphead.)
So while you may have heard and played some of the titles on this list, may agree or disagree with their position or be incensed about an omission, we must agree that it is impossible to include everything that should be here, and we thank you for spreading the word about your own favorite indies in the comments.
Thank you to the bullpen of IGR contributors and editors who worked endlessly to gobble up as many indies games as possible in a year positively overrun with new releases.
Special thanks and credit must be given to my colleague and partner-in-proofreading, InfinityWaltz, who contributed substantially to this article’s editorial content.
We did not include anything still in Early Access as of December 25th, 2017. We had to scramble to consider some that came out of Early Access as late as Christmas, which is when we were still looking for anything we might have overlooked.
These are by far not all of the best games of the year – there are hundreds. For one reason or another, however, these are the ones that did and will stick with us most from 2017.
Now we humbly present:
Top 10 Indie Games of 2017
10. X-Morph: Defense
by EXOR Studios
In a world of seemingly endless wave-shooters and SHMUPs and where the tower defense genre has been declared dead, how does a shoot-’em-up tower defense title with beautifully dynamic, internationally-themed, destructible environments and giant mech bosses get on the list? Oh, that’s how.
It’s amazing how EXOR Studios manages to cram all the lights, environmental effects and mobs onscreen while remaining buttery smooth, something that another favorite, Nex Machina, couldn’t quite boast. In fact, due to the sheer amount of madness and mayhem in each of X-Morph: Defense‘s 14 levels, all but experienced tower defense strategists – yes, that is a real job – will likely want to start in EZ Mode. The satisfying variety and the shifting maps, which can themselves be weaponized against the enemy waves, keep things stuffed to the hilt with seamless and constant action.
9. Hollow Knight
by Team Cherry
What started at a game jam and grew up through a Kickstarter campaign is now a darling of the indie world. People describing Hollow Knight overuse the word “charming,” but it does apply. The hand-drawn characters – anthropomorphic arthropods of various kinds – and cavernous environments spring to life despite the simplicity of the art style and minimal color palettes thanks to the clever use of dynamic lighting and shadows.
There’s so much more to it than the art – or for that matter, Christopher Larkin’s orchestral soundtrack – however. Team Cherry has built a world of side-scrolling combat and exploration by turns contemplative and frantic (thanks to challenging boss fights) in which travel never feels like a chore and even back-tracking seems like an organic part of the experience, rather than a grind to artificially extend play-through time.
The level design is the result of copious sketchbooks, and almost every detail of the initial sketches made it into the final version, a testimony of the effort behind the game’s world design. It’s that meticulously designed world, full of secrets to uncover and new caverns to plumb around every corner, that sets this platformer above the rest in 2017.
8. The Sexy Brutale
by Cavalier Game Studios and Tequila Works
Set during the titular masquerade ball within a mysterious mansion, The Sexy Brutale is an intricately designed clockwork puzzle made up of tinier, more intricately designed clockwork puzzles. As a murderer takes out the party guests one by one, the player is able to use a magical pocket-watch to reset time over and over again, painstakingly solving each homicide.
Beyond the fiendishly clever puzzles, The Sexy Brutale is a visual and auditory treat. With every inch of the playing field dripping with visual gems. With a score that straddles cabaret, sultry saxophone and campy horror works alongside the amber pools of light that hint at dark secrets around every turn, we couldn’t help but think of cinematic directors like Ken Russell or Neil Jordan. As our writer Kit Goodliffe put it, it’s “a painstakingly designed work of art beckoning the player to explore every nook, and every moment, of its beautiful world” and “a unique and incredibly engrossing mystery that is more than worth unraveling.”
7. Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!
by Vertigo Gaming Inc.
Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! is a chef simulator fan’s dream and an actual restaurant employee’s nightmare. It’s to the game’s credit, then, that it makes juggling the various stresses of restaurant management – from health inspections to kitchen fires, from irate customers to actually cooking the food – feel so much fun, when on paper it is a recipe – pun intended, of course – for a stress-induced heart attack.
The cumulative complexity requires you mastering a kind of management-fu, looking beyond the constituent parts and into the very Matrix of your mind’s capability to manage multiple tasks with varying patterns and degrees of long and short-term challenges. Don’t look down from the tightrope, or you will come crashing down, pots, pans and all.
You can use a gamepad like a cephalopod playing a frisky game of Simon, or you can get seriously deep and hack at it with a keyboard/mouse combo. However you decide to eat this elephant, it will demand nothing less than the best you’ve got to give. The hectic pace of managing multiple timers – from menu items on the grill or in the deep fryer to patience meters for each individual customer – is part of the fun.
IGR writer and resident cooking game expert Michael.Duhacek called it “one of the more stressful cooking games I’ve ever played, but I just can’t stop playing it.”
With a multitude of different restaurant types and cuisines to explore and an editor for customizing your own, Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! is stuffed full of variety, guaranteeing loads of replay value for “a sequel that dances delicately on the palette before bursting with flavor.”
by Alientrap Games
It’s tempting to view – or to play – Cryptark as an action-packed twin-stick shooter. It’s also a mistake. Yes, the central control mechanism in this procedurally generated game of raiding derelict spaceships will be familiar to fans of the genre, but Cryptark is less about the action than about the tactics and the constant re-prioritization of risk vs. reward.
Each ship is equipped with multiple automated defense systems that can be avoided or destroyed before blowing up the core – the main goal of each mission. On top of that, the shady benefactors funding interstellar tomb-robbing expedition offer regular bonus payments that can only be earned by upping the risk factor. As vicious squid-like drones lock on and claustrophobic corridors fill with proximity mines, each moment becomes a new calculation well before the first shot is fired or grenade launched. Stealth is often a safer approach than guns blazing, and discretion the better part of valor, cash bonuses be damned.
As we’ve come to expect from Alientrap Games, it’s also visually glorious, drawing on the best science fiction and horror archetypes. Metroid and H.R. Giger are particularly prominent influences. With its painstakingly hand-crafted normal mapping technique deployed to create the mesmerizing extruded look of the 2D levels, being torn apart by robotic cephalopods in the uncaring void of space has never looked so vivid.
by David OReilly
David OReilly‘s art piece is both a meditation on subjectivity and interconnectedness – the Buddhist idea of dependent origination – and an evolving process that learns about itself like so many nascent Pinocchio AIs in the real world figuring out how to become.
The deliberately – and hilariously – awkward and provisional locomotion of avatars in the game immediately betrays how its concern for authenticity lay beyond first impressions. Supported by a delicate score and interludes of seminars from philosopher Alan Watts, Everything re-teaches us how to play, wonder and change our minds as we embody things at every scale, from tardigrades to comets, with nary a sigh in between.
4. What Remains of Edith Finch
by Giant Sparrow
One might be tempted to cast What Remains of Edith Finch into the “just another walking simulator” category (or a downstream, prettier rendition of Gone Home), but they would do so in poor judgement. This is a masterwork in creative embodied experiences, flitting your consciousness from one tragic and Byzantine character to the next. The sprawling labyrinth that has emerged from an overly sentimental mother’s obsession with preserving the past feels like a hidden object game’s LSD-soaked fever dream.
As you navigate your way through its overstuffed corridors, your eyeballs stuffing themselves with pretty-looking curiosities and small suggestive horrors, you can’t help but fall in love in some small way with each of the specters that remain only by virtue of the things that kept them when they were among us. What Remains of Edith Finch subverts in some way all predispositions and assumptions, and by the time you reach something like an exit, you are as transformed as the patch of ground in what used to be a forest.
by Benedict Fritz, Greg Wohlwend, Joel Corelitz, David Laskey and Jenna Blazevich
You may not have heard of TumbleSeed in 2017. This is not your fault. This brilliant re-imagining of an old Midway penny arcade game suffered from underwhelming public uptake. We hope we can change that, because – and we can admit this now – this patience-demanding Roguelite with its dapper Superflat aesthetic had us totally captivated. In fact, it held its own in the final weeks of voting, sometimes taking our top position of the year. We hope that helps underscore how undeserving TumbleSeed is of facing oblivion.
Games like Keith Neimitz’s understated 7 Grand Steps or Rollers of the Realm, which turned pinball into an RPG, are cousins to this challenger that has you maneuvering a simple seed along a balance bar up a procedurally generated map of pick-ups and pitfalls.
As I stated in my original review, “Another aspect of the genius here is how the game preys on your frustration; my first two or three rounds were among my most fruitful – when I was analytical, careful, curious and focused. Once my perma-death kicked in, I was more eager to get back to what I had last achieved, except now the map was different and I was more impatient. The good news is your unlocks remain intact and so your efforts aren’t zeroed out completely, affording you a line to the past and line into never-explored futures.”
2. Night in the Woods
by Infinite Fall
There are tons of things Night in the Woods does brilliantly, but ultimately they all revolve around its characters and its story. Like Stephen King’s It updated for millennials, it’s a tale about what frightens us – whether that be ghosts, monsters or the disappearance of middle class manufacturing jobs in small towns – but just as importantly, it’s a coming-of-age story.
Protagonist Mae Borowski and her friends are richly drawn in every sense of the word, each imbued with unique and believable personalities and wonderfully rendered by Scott Benson’s hand-drawn, Richard Scarry-inspired character designs. (The characters are anthropomorphic animals, though that has no bearing on an otherwise mostly realistic narrative.)
They’re well-animated in multiple senses of that word, too. Night in the Woods has some of the best dialogue we’ve ever seen, sarcastic and character-specific and often laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, or both at once. And as far as literal animation goes, there’s a joy to Mae’s limbs-akimbo jumps and her friend Gregg’s noodle-armed excitement that contributes to our sense of them as people just as much as the dialogue.
Though the storyline is linear, the game encourages exploration and additional play within its world, sneaking in everything from a rhythm mini-game to a complete 10-level dungeon crawl, as well as tons of hidden secrets and lore to uncover (the world of Night in the Woods is just different enough from ours to have different saints and constellations, but similar enough to have Rust Belt towns where former factory workers end up in part-time retail jobs).
The gestalt of all these elements coming together is a place that feels lived in and that makes you want to live in it with the new friends you’ve made.
1. Slime Rancher
by Monomi Park
Alright, so how does a game about sucking and blowing pooping slime balls top our prestigious list of games of the year? That is a great question (and one we never anticipated having to answer when paying off those student loans). But here is your answer:
In a casual interview with the editor-in-chief at this old gaming site called Gamasutra, Slime Rancher lead designer Nick Popovich talks about the concept of “home” in games. His explanation is not what you might expect. We discovered that intuitively as a quick jaunt through the game’s “Far Far Place” turned into consecutive dusk-’til-dawn sessions that had us rekindling our Twitch channel just to share the merciless tickling of our dopamine addiction to see what came next.
You see, Slime Rancher is made to please you as a gamer by design. Released into Early Access very early on – in terms of version numbers, but hardly early in its development – Slime Rancher improved upon an already-satisfying cross-genre experience by paying very close attention to what the early audiences were throwing back at them, then dialing that up, and dialing down all the weak sauce.
What they have ended up with is a joyful, morally ambiguous, super-polished game full of intrigue, activity, adventure, action, strategy and emergent storytelling. Just when we thought we were getting somewhere, the tutorial newb phase seamlessly handed us over fully into the aquarium, and we realized we had barely scratched the surface at the 20-hour mark.
Channeling all the bratty horseplay and backyard adventures that got pumped to a Pixy Stix manic level through ’80s toys like Mad Ballz and Nickelodeon, this romp reaches across the toy box and shovels everything into the backpack. No wonder that the game maintains – at the time of this writing – over 14,000 “Overwhelmingly Positive” reviews on Steam.
Perhaps because it only came out of Early Access in December and perhaps because every release was eclipsed by the enormity of Cuphead in the mainstream lens, Slime Rancher is an unlikely and unexpected entrant into the fray, but for those already in the know…well, you probably aren’t reading this, because you’re too busy cross-pollinating Plort-makers and waiting for the right currency to pop in the intergalactic currency market.
West of Loathing
West of Loathing is much more than a follow-up or sproitual successor the underground browser-driven MMORPG that precedes it. It’s also a sprawling and well-designed single-player RPG in its own right, far more than a simple vehicle for joke delivery. The devs nailed it when citing Skyrim as a model for their ambitions. Play it. Come for the LoLz, stay for the epic adventure.
Tacoma sees indie critical darlings Fullbright push the “walking simulator” formula forward in space and time, literally. Set in a realistic, hard sci-fi near-future, the game explores nonlinear storytelling via AR recordings of a space station’s missing crew. An emotionally affecting experience, Tacoma sees the developer behind Gone Home continuing to perfect the art of environmental story-telling.
Tooth and Tail
by Pocketwatch Games
Taken on its own merits, Tooth and Tail is an immersive RTS game with constantly tuned online player matches and global leaderboards, with a rich palette of interesting anthroporomphized critters to deploy and help you attain victory. It is also a macabre, story-rich folktale about cannibalistic, war-mongering vermin that can be played as a complete solo campaign.
When you start to examine its pedigree, you realize that it is put together by some of the best the indie game industry has fostered in the past 15 years. Darren Korb joins Austin Wintory on one of the top five game scores of the year. Andy Schatz and the Pocketwatch Games team (creators of Monaco) designed the game and its glorious artwork, with Jerome Jacinto providing the character art and Adam DeGrandis doing the pixel art.
by Supergiant Games
Built around a three-on-three sport that seems equal parts pick-up basketball, Shufflepuck Cantina and the pre-Columbian religious games of the Mesoamerican civilizations, Pyre takes a seemingly bizarre concept and turns it into an amazing storytelling vehicle. Even without the sports component, Supergiant Games’ tale of a plucky team of exiles competing for freedom in a post-apocalyptic science-fantasy wasteland is memorable, strange and touching.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
by Ninja Theory
Stunning graphics and sound design help tell the tale of a Pictish warrior battling monsters and the voices inside her head. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice marries a surprisingly nuanced and effective portrayal of psychosis – Ninja Theory even hired a psychologist to ensure that they got things right – with sword-swinging action in an effectively grim portrayal of the Norse afterlife.
Thank you, Developers and Publishers for an amazing year of new game titles!
And thank you, Reader, for spending your time with IGR. We are going into our 10th Year Anniversary of Supported Independent Game Releases!
Please share your thoughts about this list, whether you played any, most, or all of these games, and what else you would love people to remember from 2017 in the indie game release slate.