Dominic’s Indie Bonus Picks 2020
Because 2020 never ends, for better or worse.
So, people liked my big 2020 Indie roundup! So much so, that a bunch of you kindly donated money on Ko-fi or Paypal. Money that I immediately and responsibly spent on more indie games from 2020 that I’d heard good things about, and wanted to say a few things on. Several binge gaming sessions later , let’s get listing — once again — in no particular order. But first, let’s just go over my criteria once more:
- These are only the games I played this year and liked. There is still a mountain of stuff on my wishlist that I’ve yet to find the time or money for this year.
- They were released in 2020. Either definitively, into or out of early access.
- I consider them to be indie — by a small studio — even if they’re published.
- To maintain professionalism, I’m not including any games I did PR for.
- Prices listed are RRP, as I can’t be arsed to update to adjust to holiday sales.
- Store links are to Itch.io if available, Steam second. Shop around, shop smart!
Note: At the time of writing there’s still a couple days left in the Steam, Epic, GOG & Itch.io holiday sales. You can snag these games for way below listed prices.
Lithium City — $7.99
A short but oh-so-sweet ballet of cyberpunk violence. Lithium City is a fast-paced and wordless series of action sequences, with the only downtime being the couple seconds you allow yourself before entering the next deathtrap and goon-laden room.
Playing a little like an isometric Hotline Miami (i.e. a twitchy twin-stick shooter/brawler), combat in Lithium City is fast and deadly, but you have a fast teleport dash and can soak up a couple minor hits before dying. Every room provides some fresh iteration on a concept previously introduced, layering challenges and surprises expertly. My only gripe is that there’s zero padding. Even with many deaths, I finished this in 90 minutes. The good news is that the developer has plans to double the length of the story in free updates, although the hell that is 2020 has obviously slowed those plans. Still, a wild ride even now, and it could yet grow into an even bigger gem.
There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension — $12.99
An exceptionally charming point and click adventure that blends joke-laden Lucasarts-style puzzling with the fourth-wall breaking silliness of Pony Island and The Stanley Parable and possibly a bit of classic Looney Tunes cartoon Duck Amuck, with its whole creator Vs character setup.
Starting out as a playful escalation between you — a curious player — and the game (which is quite insistent that it is not a game), you poke and prod at UI elements, breaking off chunks of well-drawn sprite art and using them as inventory items to solve (and create) more problems. It quickly escalates into a bigger and messier scenario, knocking down fourth wall after fourth wall. It’s just a joy to play, a constant stream of gags, and packed with puzzles that are satisfying to solve without being too tricky. I only had to use the in-game hint system once. While not long (maybe 5–6 hours depending on how sharp you’re feeling), there’s not a single wasted moment here. Good times.
A photography game. A low-fi sci-fi dystopia walking sim. A political statement. A collection of lurid neon cityscapes backed with offbeat jams. Umurangi Generation is unlike anything else I played in 2020.
Openly inspired by both Shin Godzilla and the aftermath of the Australian bushfires, Umurangi Generation has you snapping pictures of future New Zealand’s youth, oppressed by the government even in the face of possible extinction. It gets heavy. I also can’t recommend the ‘Macro’ DLC enough. As well as adding another four extra large scenes to photograph (including an extremely 2020 finale), it adds a huge range of new camera lenses, filters and options. Plus, the option to tag the world around you with luminous spray-paint because past a point, passivity is taking the wrong side.
Moose Life — $6.99
[VR Optional] Jeff Minter released a game this year, too. It is exactly what a Jeff Minter game should be. A psychedelic sensory overload filled with bleating ungulates, baddies from Robotron, incredibly daft puns, an overwhelming love of curry and tea, plus a gravity-defying, laser-spitting moose to control. As you do. It also supports VR, in case you want to experience searing neon ego death.
At its simplest level, Moose Life is a bit like Space Invaders, but you control the speed of the scrolling too. You can also hit a button to flip upside down and shoot from the ceiling. Your goals are to go fast, score high, make noise, and have your neon laser moose munch on a bunch of pills which are also powerups. Being a Minter joint, it’s simultaneously overwhelming nonsense but also a finely tuned, highly skilful arcade jam, and if you do have a VR headset, one of the weirdest trips you can go on. Just don’t expect to do well on your first go. There’s an art to enjoying Llamasoft games, and half of it is learning to filter out usable information from the chaos. It’s good, honest.
Black Mesa — $19.99
It feels weird to call Black Mesa indie, but despite Valve’s blessing, this is indeed the work of a dedicated crew of hobbyists working on a shoestring budget. The result? A modernised top-to-bottom remake and extension (arguably a full reimagining) of the original Half-Life. I’d even recommend it over the late 90s original now.
On top of proving that commercial fan-games can exist outside of the Touhou series, Black Mesa is a stunning piece of work. What if Half-Life had been made in 2008 instead of 1998? Not only does Black Mesa mimic Valve’s style expertly, it fleshes out the thinner parts of the game. Gone is the awkward jaunt into Xen, the alien dimension, and replaced with several hours of all new adventuring through varied alien landscapes. Where there were once bland and blurry textures, there’s now finely detailed environments. It’s fully moddable, too, with a few notable HL1 mods being adapted at present.
MiniLAW — $14.99
An extremely DOS-styled hybrid of platformer, police sim and roguelike RPG. Playing as a janky improv hybrid of Robocop and Judge Dredd, you’re given just one day (give or take via difficulty settings) to gather intel from the gangs around mankind’s last city and track down where a ticking nuclear bomb is hidden. Your character is unwieldy, your controls overly complicated, and your objectives frequently overwhelming. Your UI is a cluttered mess of noise and info overlays and you get mission updates on an early 90s pager. It’s rad.
There’s a lot of depth and replay value here, with missions, available upgrades and the ultimate final goal of the campaign being randomized. The city has gangs of mutants, psychics, corporate enforcers, combat cyborgs and just plain old mohawked punks with knives, and ideally you want to bring them in alive through a mixture of shouting, fisticuffs and shin-shooting. It’s darkly satirical, pointedly British and unlike anything else I’ve played this year. Worth a try if you can stomach playing as a moderately bastardly future cop.
Bugsnax — $24.99
From the team behind the fumblecore gem Octodad comes… a first-person immersive sim about muppets, depression and edible pokemon. So, just another day at the office for Young Horses. A lot of folks played this one, as it was a PS5 giveaway on the console’s debut, but well worth a look otherwise.
Bugsnax is a light, semi-freeform first-person puzzler with a wide array of mechanical and narrative inspirations, although fans of the long-abandoned Ape Escape series might find a home here. Each of the tasty critters around Snaktooth island has likes, dislikes and weaknesses that need to be exploited to catch them. Then you feed them to the right muppets, so they’ll open up to you and help you unravel why their snack-hunting expedition collapsed, why their village is half abandoned, and why everyone hates each other’s guts. Despite being cute and fluffy, there’s some complex and emotionally candid themes here, and the final act is a truly wild ride. Good LGBTQ+ muppet representation too.
Super Bogus World II — Free
A wildly anarchic collection of minigames, strung together into a loose approximation of a story. The original Super Bogus World launched in 2011, and stood out amongst the increasingly polished indie crowd. These days, experimental low-fi screwball stuff is more common, but this is still a gem, and very funny.
There’s a real devil-may-care attitude behind this one. The minigames range from surreal jokey vignettes just a few seconds long to extended freeform skits with social media sharing. Design advertising, escape paying bills with a rhythm game, solve puzzles or just frantically button mash through the minigames, success in which (sometimes with multiple possible solutions) is rewarded by unlocking more of the explorable town, games and story.
Please note that this game does have some mildly NSFW content, not limited to but including poorly drawn/modelled male nudity and a minigame where you whittle artisanal old-timey wooden dildos to deliver to needy townsfolk.
Sands Of Salzaar — $14.99
Still in early access, and only just recently translated to English (from Chinese), this one is still a fascinating blend of genres. Part Mount & Blade sandbox, part Heroes Of Might & Magic style questing, part Dynasty Warriors, part hotbar-based action RPG.
While potentially overwhelming, Sands Of Salzaar lets players choose how deep they want to dive into its vaguely middle-eastern mythological sandbox. Either start out as a lesser Sultan managing and defending your own town, or as an itinerant wizard on a story-driven quest. There’s a huge number of character classes, and on top of a four-character main party, you can command some impressively large armies. There’s still some rough edges, UI clunkiness and some bits yet untranslated, but it’s impressive how much this game is doing while still holding together. I’m excited to see how it develops.
Estigma — Free
Last year, I stumbled upon Tamashii, a strange, lurid little puzzle-platformer set within a weird horror universe. Estigma is a bridge game — a nightmare arcade puzzler to fill the gap between Tamashii and its upcoming sequel. But it also holds some secrets of its own, and fans of meta-narratives should check it out.
On the surface, Estigma is a fast-moving puzzler. Your little flesh-blob needs to paint the whole map red before time runs out, but once a square has been traversed twice, it becomes impassable. Given that you’re constantly under fire for most of the game, it’s an entertaining challenge. Fast thinking under pressure. But it’s short, and before long it’s all over... At least until you go poking around the game data files. Well worth exploring, if you like your puzzles esoteric, spooky and convoluted.
Omori — $19.99
Released on Christmas day, over six years after a successful Kickstarter. Once thought vaporware, this psychological JRPG is now widely praised. Omori opens with a content warning due to it tackling themes of depression, suicide, anxiety, isolation and other such childhood bad vibes. That’s not to say it’s an overly bleak story.
Omori is largely set within the pastel-shaded scribbled dream-world. The withdrawn and monochrome protagonist goes on adventures with their pajama-clad friends, fighting magical bunnies (through a simple but tactically interesting combat engine), climbing the ladder to space, having picnics and occasionally confronting the darkness lurking just beneath the facade. The jokes are good, the good times are great, and there’s always this uneasy sense that cold, bleak reality is going to collide headlong with these childhood dreams. Those moments where Omori stares reality in the face are harrowing.
Pendragon — $16.99
A complex choose-your-own-adventure cunningly disguised as a simple tactics game. Pendragon is, ostensibly, a simple turn-based tactics game about rallying aid in the final days of Camelot, and saving King Arthur from the villainous Sir Mordred. But this is by Inkle, the team behind 80 Days & Heaven’s Vault.
While Pendragon sometimes gives you a multiple-choice dialogue option, the majority of its story-defining choices are hidden within the tactical layer. Do you push forward and strike an enemy down? Circle around them and try to bypass them? Hold a stalemate to buy time for reason and diplomacy? A single turn can lead down wildly different routes, and each of the many playable characters has their own story to tell and retell. Pendragon may seem short on a single play-through, but there’s a mountain of stories hidden here.
C.H.A.I.N. — Free
Yet another compilation of ‘Haunted PS1’ horror shorts, in the vein of this year’s Dread X Collections. What sets Chain apart is that all twenty vignettes here connect to form a single ongoing narrative. Some are more entertaining than others, and there’s a few rough patches in the overall story flow, but overall it makes for a wildly varied and creative spooky evening.
What makes this collection especially wild is the Exquisite Corpse format it follows. While C.H.A.I.N.’s many games make up one story, the developers weren’t allowed to communicate with each other — each completed chapter is handed off to the next creator in the hopes they’ll know what to do. The resulting story is chaotic, unplanned and always at risk of going off the rails.
Also by the Haunted PS1 collective was the 2020 Madvent Calendar. Also free. 24 wintery spooky shorts that unlocked one a day through December. Well worth playing while the nights are still cold and the days short.
Othercide — $34.99
Othercide answers a question nobody had been brave enough to ask: What if Into The Breach had a moody goth phase? A tactical roguelike set in a monochrome (with red highlights, because goth style) nightmare realm. Humanity’s greatest warrior has fallen, but in death she has spawned a squad of ‘daughters’ to continue the fight against the Essence of Suffering. Hardcore.
White hair, dark eyeliner and angst thick enough to cut it with a knife define this one. As with Into The Breach, you’re given a lot of information each turn as to what enemies will do, and foes follow strict, predictable rules. If you internalise all this, you can breeze through a fight without taking a hit, which is good, as the only way to heal from injuries (on Normal mode, at least) is to sacrifice a Daughter of equal or higher level to restore the wounded one. Nothing in this game comes easy or free. Fun, if you like making tough calls.
Radical Rabbit Stew — $15.99
Sometimes you just want something simple, arcadey, and looking and sounding like a long-lost Amiga game. Radical Rabbit Stew is a cute, silly action-puzzler about a little blue chef that wants to slap bunnies into pots with a set of spoons.
Of course, these are deadly, carnivorous bunnies that will eat you if you don’t cook them first, and the spoons are giant and offer a variety of powers, like smacking bunnies through blocks, launching yourself off bounce pads, grappling onto distant items or just dropping bombs. As you unlock more abilities, the levels get more complex. Where there was once just one solution, there’s now multiple, but it never gets too hard or too bogged down. Short and sweet, with multiplayer and level editing/sharing to extend the fun.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker — $24.99
It’s not brain science, it’s rocket surgery! From some of the developers of the original Homeworld comes something very different. A first-person blue collar spaceship demolition simulator. You’re underpaid, undertrained and underequipped, but you’re here to carve up derelict spacecraft, salvage any expensive bits and melt down the rest. It’s work, Jim, but not as we know it.
While Hardspace could have so easily become a tedious experience, the sheer danger of breaking down spaceships without so much as a safety rope is thrilling. One cut in the wrong place can decompress a hull, throwing objects around wildly. One spark can ignite a fuel line, and ship reactor cores need to be jettisoned safely into containment immediately or risk a violent meltdown that can vaporise an entire ship, and you with it. And while you could take it easy to minimise risk, you’re also trying to pay off a debt and use your ship bay rental time efficiently. You’re going to rush, you’re going to make mistakes, and you’ll have many stories of zero-G misfortune to share.
Necrobarista — $19.99
Like a perfectly brewed espresso, Necrobarista is short, earthy, invigorating and best served with some nice italian biscuits. Or maybe I’m just peckish. This one’s a short-but-sweet visual novel, about Maddie, an amateur necromancer and semi-pro barista, and the cafe in Melbourne that she runs — The Terminal — a final rest stop for the recently deceased, plus anyone else that fancies a hot drink.
Aside from unlocking a few text-only optional vignettes and side stories, Necrobarista is purely linear. Some might argue that isn’t not a game, but those people are boring, and whatever Necrobarista is, it’s worth experiencing. Presented in a unique 3D webcomic-ish style with sparing but effective use of animation, it’s a character piece. The story itself is short and simple, mostly an excuse to introduce a small but eminently loveable cast of characters as they tackle some heavy subjects, like saying your final goodbyes.
Slap City — $19.99
Dan Remar and his studio Ludosity have produced a lot of indie gems, with a ton of weird, fun characters. But the chance of any of them getting into Super Smash Bros is about nil, so they made their own Smash-like. It’s unsurprisingly pretty great.
Charmingly goofy characters aside (featuring the Goddess Of Explosions and an alien assassin from freeware classic Iji), this is one of the most fleshed out Smash-alikes around. Local and online multiplayer (with good netcode, too), single-player arcade and story modes for each character, and every bit of high-level movement tech that Smash pros demand. It’s a good, clean, knockabout party game with a decent bit of single-player meat on its bones too.
Dandy Dungeon — $18.99
Originally for mobile, brought to PC and Switch last year, and now expanded to double the length this year (so it counts), Dandy Dungeon is a charming little casual roguelite puzzler with a whole lot going on. Schlubby thirty-something Yamada has dropped out of his day job to develop his perfect videogame, clad in nothing but his underwear. It’s something we can all aspire to, really.
The heart of the game is quickly drawing out a path that clears every single tile of the dungeon floor. Miss tiles and miss rewards. Take too long and you lose health. But after each completed dungeon, feature creep sets in and Yamada codes in some new feature. Items, upgrades, shopping, NPC side-adventures, and the complexity and jokes steadily ramp up. Characters from Yamada’s life begin to intrude into his game design, the dungeons get bigger, and the one-more-go itch gets stronger. Casual, meaty, great fun.
Fight Crab — $19.99
One of the greatest things about indie games is that sometimes a studio just commits 110% to a gag and takes it well past all reasonable limits. Fight Crab is a fumblecore crustacean wrestling sim, and latest in a series of silly seafood-themed games by Calappa Games (formerly Nussoft) that starts almost straight-laced and escalates into absolute anime idocy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
While you could just dive into the deep end with Fight Crab’s anarchic multiplayer modes, the single-player campaign is well worth a sideways shuffle at. Starting out just asking you to (awkwardly and floatily) bash and pinch other crabs until they can be flipped on their backs, it eventually opens up to reveal RPG systems, equipment loadouts, magic abilities and even a bit of vehicular mayhem. The controls work JUST well enough to make you feel cool when you pull off a good hit, while always feeling just slightly too wild. It’s arguably just one big joke, but it’s told well in a thousand different ways.
Cloud Gardens — $8
Launched into early access recently and still rapidly growing, Cloud Gardens is a chill, low-fi game about post-apocalyptic gardening. Playable either as a completely free sandbox and photography game, or as a more directed lightweight puzzler, the heart of Cloud Gardens is planting seeds and messing the place up with litter, but in an aesthetically pleasing kinda way.
Each seed you pick and plant grows on a different kind of surface and has different space requirements. Placing trash within a certain radius of a plant encourages it to grow. Your goal — in puzzle mode, at least — is to create a set amount of greenery using a limited number of seeds and garbage. You’re also encouraged to make it pretty, so you can take screenshots and share it on social media, because why wouldn’t you? Unless the game’s scope increases further, there should be over a hundred puzzle-garden vignettes to solve in the final version, and around ninety to get your teeth into now.
Monster Train — $24.99
Once again, ending on a big no-brainer indie hit. Of all the deck-building imitators that Slay The Spire spawned, Monster Train is one of the best. Fast, punchy, fun. You’re building a force of high fantasy demons, riding a train through the frozen-over remains of hell, right into a final confrontation with heaven’s armies. Rad.
Each turn, angels infiltrate your train on the bottom floor, take a turn attacking your troops there, then ascend to the next floor. At the top floor, they get to take a swing at the train core. The puzzle, then, is mitigating losses while eliminating enemies as quickly as possible, and thanks to the huge number of cards and possible demon factions to play as every player will have their own style. Monster Train puts a huge emphasis on enhancing the cards you have between battles. What was once an expendable minion can be turned into an aggressive meatgrinder, then cloned and made the lynchpin of your deck. It’s a game of hard, complex choices made fast, accessible and cool.
There you go, yet another 20+ notable indies from the year that we all wish we could forget. And yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I skipped on some really experimental stuff, like AI Dungeon and Blaseball. There’s a mountain more that I just didn’t have time to play. Raji: An Ancient Epic looks fantastic, I’ve only played a few minutes of Gunfire Reborn, but it seems a rock solid FPS roguelike. Teardown is in a lot of people’s favourites lists despite it being a recent early access debut, and speaking of early access, it’s been kind to giant robot games this year, with both Phantom Brigade and Dual Gear shaping up to make 2021 a very mecha year. There’s dozens more from 2020 I want to get my teeth into, and my backlog only grows with every week of new releases.
I could try and list more games that I’m looking forward to, but my Steam wishlist alone is over 1000 items long, many of which don’t even have release dates yet. 2021 is probably going to be pretty rough too, so let’s huddle together, be excellent to each other, and play a boatload of weird indie games.
As with my previous and even bigger 2020 roundup, if you liked this article and want me to go hunting for more, feel free to donate via Ko-fi or Paypal. Barring any personal disasters, I promise to spend any donation money on more indie games to write about. It’s the least I can do.
And lastly, thank you for reading this far. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think someone would get a kick out of it. Thanks for making it worthwhile.