IGR’s Top 10 Best Indie Games of 2021
You know when you go to find a recipe for your new breadmaker and the blog post leads off with five paragraphs of padding to talk about their dog and mother-in-law and other random stuff no one cares about before you get to the actual ingredients? We are gonna skip doing that. We will note, though, that we saw a whole lot of card-based, deck-building Roguelites and procedurally-generated levels this year. We tried to find a diverse representation of styles and ideas for our list!
So please enjoy – after excessive deliberation and playing hours invested – IGR’s lovingly crafted and considered top 10 games by indie developers fully commercially released in 2021. Thanks for reading!
10. Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights
by Live Wire, Adglobe
The Metroidvania genre has had no shortage of meaningful entries this past year, with even the first half of its namesake making a triumphant return to the AAA gaming space for the first time in 17 years. Imagine then what a pleasant surprise it was for Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights, a Japanese indie effort first released into Early Access in 2020, to prove to be an extra special entry into a genre where we’re already spoiled for choice.
Combining the exploration and backtracking fans of the genre crave with the melancholic world-building of peers like Hollow Knight and Dark Souls, Ender Lilies would have been a solid experience just via the sum of its parts. However, it goes a step further and adds ability customization which lets you play to your own style, something not often seen in a genre whose gameplay is often content to play it safe and cozy. It also walks the line between difficulty and accessibility masterfully, managing to provide a solid challenge that never feels outright punishing; a rare feat nowadays.
Add in a suitably melancholic and stunning soundtrack by Japanese indie outfit Mili, and Ender Lilies becomes a whole package that proves style and substance need not be mutually exclusive. Ending on discussing the music is probably the aptest way to go because the game is like when your favorite band releases a greatest hits collection that also features some excellent new tracks and rarities. It’s everything you want and even some stuff you didn’t know you wanted until you got it. ~ TheOverMatt
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Microsoft Xbox, Windows PC, Steam
Check out the official trailer for Ender Lillies below:
9. Tainted Grail: Conquest
by Awaken Realms Digital
At first Tainted Grail: Conquest seems like a highly detailed and expertly crafted eyeful and earful of overdesign wrapped around yet another deck-builder. You will die and die often and ask yourself – beyond unlocking villagers and characters and porting forward new card and character types – whether there is more to it than that.
And then you will try a different character class and realize you are practically playing a different game. We loved moving from the starter character to the Summoner, whose many minions and their wide variety of attacks, buffs, debuffs, wards, DoTs, and AOEs made for endless rounds of fun. But that’s again just one of many such classes with heaps of customization available. Of course, the more you progress, the more you unlock – in every respect – and you don’t ever truly start from scratch. You are always scratching your way forward, inch by muddy, bloodstained inch towards new territory.
There were criticisms levelled at the game for certain characters and skills being overpowered, and though it is a fair concern, it won’t be true in all scenarios, and leaving certain classes underdeveloped and utilized might suddenly leave you in a lurch.
Add to the huge diversity of classes a wide array of procedurally-generated map elements and a huge compendium of monsters, card combinations, layered effects, and customizations that would make Path of Exile‘s talent tree give you a second look, and you have something that is eminently replayable.
The voice acting and the incredible score are often praised by users who have put some time into the game, but again, beyond the truly top-tier production value, there is a fascinating and challenging deck-based RPG here. Ultimately of the many deck-builders we played this year this is one we tended to return to most. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Windows PC, Steam
Check out the trailer for Tainted Grail: Conquest below:
by Wormwood Studios
Following up Primordia with their second game in partnership with venerable modern adventure publisher Wadjet Eye Games, the folks at Wormwood Studios deliver something equally atmospheric, albeit a lot more eerie.
Combining a dark carnival atmosphere a la Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes with elements of psychological horror, Strangeland stands out for not holding the player’s hand, narratively speaking; its tale of a mysterious woman trapped by an evil force leaves lots open to interpretation.
Not up for interpretation, however, are the game’s streamlined inventory puzzle design or its cinematic voice-acting, both of which make for a compelling experience that makes this one stand out far and above any other point-and-click adventures we came across this year.
Platforms: Windows PC, Steam
Check out the launch trailer for Strangeland below:
by Studio Pixel Punk
Every once in a while, a game comes out that catches you completely by surprise, both in terms of its existence and where it ultimately takes you. Unsighted was one such experience.
Unsighted is a game equally about tight gameplay and hard decisions. After a moody and action-packed intro that introduces you to its fascinating top-down world and immensely satisfying combat, the game hits you with its biggest twist on the formula. You see, every character in this destroyed world, including yourself, is an android living off of a dwindling power source, and time passes actively while you explore. If someone runs out of power, they become a bestial threat to everyone around them that has to be put down.
This is a wrench thrown into the action-adventure game framework the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since first playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the N64. Suddenly, every area you backtrack to becomes an exercise in using up time you might not have, and even if you find resources to extend the lives of you and your fellow androids, decisions have to be made. Do you extend the life of the character you find the most useful? Maybe the one you like the best personally? Or do you forsake them for your survival, because maybe saving the world is more important than one robot surviving?
If it sounds stressful, it’s only because Unsighted respects the player’s intelligence and emphasizes choice in a meaningful way. The only other game I can think of in recent memory that pulled this off is Pathologic 2, and that game didn’t have combat this good or a world this full of secrets and upgrades. Thankfully there’s also an Adventure mode that makes the time limit much more forgiving, meaning even those who don’t want to be emotionally tested have no reason to pass up this complete gem. ~ TheOverMatt
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Microsoft Xbox One, Windows PC, Steam
Check out the launch trailer for Unsighted below:
6. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
by Greg Lobanov, Alexis Dean-Jones, Lena Raine, Madeline Berger, A Shell in the Pit
Chicory: A Colorful Tale comes at you like a wholesome, sweet, blunt object that you might share with your young niece on Christmas Eve when you want to spend some time together having some laughs, being creative, and having harmless fun. And it is that.
What surprised us, however, was the depth of this Splatoon-meets-Zelda-meets-Animal Crossing hand-drawn world rife with delightful characters who always seem to have something new and story-progressing to say when you revisit them. It has interesting level puzzles that don’t feel unintuitive and unfair, it has heaps of creative expressivity in that you can color all the scenery wherever you go, and heaps of whimsical add-ons that serve as useful tools or cheery embellishments, like unlockable wardrobe, a camera, art that you make that appears in the world, and more.
The game, though, deals with more complex themes about mental health and management of depression, obligation, expectation, and recovering hope, but never in an overt or heavy-handed way. Nonetheless, the timbre is there as you fill a world that has lost its color with your magic paintbrush.
Chicory is an open-world game. It is nonlinear. It is full of wonder and terrific music and worth the time of a gamer at any age. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Sony PS5, Windows PC, Mac, Steam
by Fulcrum Games, Hydroflame
You have a monochromatic map of the world and the local city networks, and you can write scripts that execute on vulnerable servers and run even when you leave the game, so you can return to wads of cash and hacking experience. But be careful you don’t get caught.
The irony is that it’s an “incremental” or “passive” game for the most part. You know, like idle clickers? But it is far from it. By allowing you to set something and then let it run in the background, it is more akin to a crypto-miner or a crawler bot scrobbling around for vulnerable nodes while you alt-tab to your other affairs.
Scanning through the Git repo is awe-inspiring, as it reveals the scope of work on offer here. Check out the Bitburner documentation (created with Sphinx) to get a sense of what you are signing up for. Forget all that Hot Topic fashion show cyberpunk stuff; this is real cyberpunk. To recognize that among all the input and complexity that the final product is so tidy and well-executed (eep…pun intended) is to offer this title the respect it deserves.
Did we mention that it’s free? Free not as in beer but as in a true labor of love.
Some of us at IGR have coding experience and so this was much easier to pick up, the nods and winks easier to parse and enjoy, and the uptake quicker. Mileage may vary for those who do not have a basic coding background; however, if you have ever been interested in what coding is about, then why not start off here? Just remember to not take anyone’s money that isn’t yours through a backdoor they left exposed. Unless of course, you’re playing a game like Bitburner. Because you will be tempted. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Linux, Steam
4. Road 96
When he reviewed Road 85 back in August 2021, IGR writer Kit Goodliffe wrote:
“Road 96 is clearly a labor of love, telling a powerful story with lovable characters. Through the use of classic road trip tropes and some genuinely magical moments, Road 96 crafts an adventure that will be well worth experiencing.”
In this surprise indie hit from French indie development studio Digixart Games (also known for Valiant Hearts: The Great War), you progressively build upon the road trip you experienced and directed the times before as you make a break for the border to escape the tyranny of an autocratic, despotic government. Along the way, you will make decisions about how you want to travel – be it hitchhiking, taking the bus, or taxi, hoofing it on foot, or even stealing a car. Perhaps more importantly, you will decide how you interact with and affect the opinions of others you meet along the way. Often you may pretend to be someone other than who you are or misrepresent your values to get through difficult situations. The game seems to manage this tension and metastatic layers of engagement as you close each chapter of your attempt to find higher ground.
And then you will do it again, as another character on the journey. This form of procedural legacy-iterating framework is a trend you will find among the top four games on this list.
Progress meters will eventually fill up for the stories of a variety of characters you will meet along the way, albeit in different incarnations and thereby of their relationship and reactions to you. It is astonishing how deftly and seamlessly it all comes together, like ten Telltale Games stacked on top of each other (it looks and feels at least as good as any of the later Telltale Games, if not better).
The ability to collect cassettes with a wide array of musical styles, to play real games of Pong with other characters who react in kind to each point score, to fire nailguns at pirates, hack safes, go on high-speed chases, or spend a quiet night chilling with other vagrant kids make this nothing short of a great memory-maker, complete with emotional imprinting services, and far beyond what we expected from the back cover.
Any one of the top games in the list could have been in first position, depending on what you’re into. Road 96 is a marvel. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Steam
by Daniel Mullins Games
Inscryption, Inscryption, Inscryption, what are we going to do with you? Creative as sin, tough as nails, original AF, and so sexy in its execution. Why is this one of the coolest and most interesting deck-building games of the year?! It’s not supposed to be that. That part is supposed to be a GIMMICK, a means to tell a larger, much stranger story. But it IS. The game of navigating up the procedurally generated map like Slay the Spire to a bunch of repeating bosses is so familiar but somehow feels so different. And why is it so hard? It is like a ball-in-a-cup trick where you could swear you followed the ball, but somehow it got away from you. And when it does, the bad guy is gonna take a picture of your beautiful corpse to remind you when you return.
Oh, but it doesn’t end there. Because Daniel Mullins is to indie games what Italo Calvino is to a 9th-grade English lit class: a moment where the words slide off the page onto the floor. It’s not so much about breaking the fourth wall as it is creating uncertainty that you are on a floor at all. We literally can’t say more about it than that, because the less you know the better.
But can we get away with confiding that your past will eventually come back to haunt you?
We loved the execution of the controls, the way the camera glides in and out between various positions and uses little zooms and changes in lighting to keep you immersed in this very dark and sinister scenario, the televisual cues, the mise-en-scene, the bold, imaginative sound design, the legacy elements, and the meta-story. Secrets, clues, and clever tricks abound, and lest you think it’s a gimmick, we dropped dozens of hours playing through the card part before the train left the rails.
A masterpiece. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Windows PC, Steam
Check out the official trailer for Inscryption from Daniel Mullins below:
by Worldwalker Games
When we first heard about Wildermyth, we actually scoffed. Oh, it’s “a party-based procedural storytelling RPG where tactical combat and story decisions will alter your world and reshape your cast of characters?” Uh-huh, good luck with that.
Except…it IS. And it’s so much more. Its legacy element is huge. Characters develop visible physical scars, they go grey, they fall in love, they have children, children remember the things that happened to their parents. The custom avatars you create appear perfectly in the comic panels that, though often reusing story elements and dialogue, feel distinctly unique every time you revisit them because the characters themselves feel so deep and unique. It is excruciating seeing one of your characters fall in battle, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to switch out of Easy mode to Permadeath mode for this reason. Mercifully, you can go back and revisit your old heroes in the Hall of Legends and even bring some of them back into new stories with new relationships.
Maps are indeed generated from random seeds, offering you a new world every time you start a campaign, much like in smash hit Don’t Starve.
But what is really at work here is that elusive magic element of connection to the characters, their relationships to each other, and how their uniqueness, like Cabbage Patch Kids, makes the competent tactical combat fascinating, interesting and memorable every time. Even when it IS a grind. Which sometimes beating back swarming armies of corruption can become.
There is too much to expand upon in the scope of this year-end round-up, but we don’t take our list lightly, and after the smoke cleared, Wildermyth created one of the deepest gaming memories of the year. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac, Linux, Steam
1. The Forgotten City
by Modern Storyteller
The making of The Forgotten City is as incredible a story as what the game offers us. A lawyer in Australia takes up modding Elder Scroll V: Skyrim to create an underground city with a time-loop that he expects will get maybe a few thousand plays.
But the mod does well. Really well. It accumulates over seven million players and gets the attention and accolades of mainstream game media. Being that he is a full-time established lawyer, he deliberates for almost a year whether to even think about taking it into a standalone version, especially concerned about the fact that he doesn’t know the first thing about coding a game beyond modding one.
He finds an expert Unreal dev to help him out, and a few years later, in addition to consulting with various deep experts on ancient Roman culture and architecture and figuring out really hard things like deeply interdependent conditional character-driven dialogue, complex and believable talking-head animation, and rich puzzles within a time-loop, he releases it at the start of 2021.
So if you have heard the lore about the game Forgotten City and that it’s a “Skyrim mod,” it isn’t. It started as one a long time ago. Crushed it. Then it became a stand-alone, built-from-scratch, gloriously well-designed adventure, puzzle, open world, mystery, horror game in its own right, vastly enriched by its accuracies in Roman myth, culture, and design.
The facial animations are beautiful, the voice acting is great (despite using the standard English accent instead of what I guess would have to be a Latin accent in English), and the interweaving cause and effect of your interactions with the cursed townsfolk are incredibly well-handled; every time you return in the loop, you have clean and concise option to skip or review the parts you have already covered but the unlocked dialogue trees always feel like a continuation of the story rather than merely being tacked on. It is this sort of meticulous attention to detail and the flow that makes The Forgotten City so outstanding.
The game does not pull punches and often veers into the troubling subject matter (which we redacted to avoid any spoilers whatsoever), but unlike games where death is just a score counter, here you acutely feel its emotional gravitas. The game is not action-heavy, but when the action comes, it is heart-pounding, sweaty-palm-inducing. Forgotten City is another five-year journey labor of love that feels like a generous gift, and an emotional, intellectual, and historic ride you will not soon forget. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Check out the official trailer for Forgotten City from Modern Storyteller below:
We won’t go into descriptions of all of our honorable mentions but will point to them to discover and explore for yourself. There were dozens of games we wish we could have included in our cutthroat top 10 process, and we congratulate everyone who managed to deliver a game this year.
2021 Short-listed Indie Games Worth Checking Out
Rift Wizard by Dylan White
TOEM by Something We Made
OPUS: Echo of a Starsong by SIGONO Inc
Toodee and Topdee by dietzribi
Artful Escape by Beethoven and Dinosaur
Lake by Gamious
Gloomhaven by Flaming Fowl Studios
Midnight Protocol by LuGus Studios
What were your favorite indie games released in 2021? Please let us know in the comments!