Dominic’s Indie Picks Of 2020
Because we should probably end 2020 on a positive note.
2020 was a trash-fire of a year in so many ways, but the videogames were great. Sure, there were a few big overhyped messes, but a few real gems too. What really shone brightest though was the indie sphere. So many smaller studios released amazing games, so as you liked my 2019 roundup so much, I present my personal picks from 2020’s bumper crop. Over sixty of them!
Update: And another 20+, thanks to all your support and kind donations.
By the way, this list took me FOREVER to assemble, especially as I did it twice over. If it helped you find something you really enjoyed, consider dropping me a couple bucks on Ko-fi or Paypal. Or just share this page with friends. Thanks!
- 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!
With that said; in no particular order, my indie picks of 2020:
Jet Lancer — $14.99
A frantic aerial arcade shooter that takes all the lessons learnt from Luftrausers and pairs them with with Macross style anime excess and a dash of Ace Combat.
Surprisingly story-heavy, with a sassy talking cat, rogue AIs, sky pirates and giant robot bosses to blow up. Also features a very good New Game Plus mode, and recently updated with an arcade survival mode, too. A fantastic soundtrack to boot — a common theme of this year’s games.
Library Of Ruina — $29.99
Still in early access, but with a huge amount of content to chew on already. An ambitious visual novel/card-battling RPG hybrid. The player is tasked with running a cursed library that holds all knowledge, but guests can only check out a book if they can defeat your librarians. If the guest loses, they become a book holding all their knowledge. Expect a dark story and lots of twists, both narratively and mechanically. Also a lot of boss fights. Some very long, very tough ones.
Library Of Ruina is also a direct sequel to Lobotomy Corporation, but thanks to its new protagonist, you don’t have to have played original to enjoy this. I do recommend checking out the official comic and web-novel series, though.
G String — $17.99
Weird title, but a great game if you’re in the market for a grungy Half-Life 2 style shooter set in an utterly decrepit dystopian cyberpunk world. G String has been around for a long time too, starting life as an HL2 mod not long after the game launched.
It absolutely feels like a mod, albeit an enormous and wildly ambitious one, featuring some setpieces that push the engine to its limits and even including a chunk of space combat. Work continues on the game, too. A major update just rolled out, further polishing a lot of levels and setpieces.
Horizon’s Gate — $19.99
Solo indie powerhouse Rad Codex delivers the third in a series of Final Fantasy Tactics-inspired RPGs. This one is the biggest and most ambitious yet, blending tactical squad combat with open-world fantasy Age of Sail adventuring.
Buckle swashes, trade treasures, discover lost ruins, become a pirate or an explorer or just follow the main quest thread. It’s up to you, and it hits a compelling balance of scale, depth and accessibility. Uncharted Waters fans, this one is an absolute must-have.
Frog Fractions: Game Of The Decade Edition — Free/$7 DLC
Remastered and saved from the death of Flash, this joke-a-minute screwball comedy adventure is worth every one of the zero pennies you’ll spend on it. Once you’ve had your laughs, you might consider picking up the suspiciously expensive DLC that lets the frog wear a hat.
Headwear is very important to amphibians, so you might find it to be a real change of tone. Hint, hint, nudge nudge. Seriously, buy the hat, but save it for a second playthrough. Also play this unrelated game about fairy forests.
MECHBLAZE — $9.99
Simple, unapologetic arcade mech action in the vein of Cybernator/Assault Suits Valken. Astro Port are a small Japanese indie studio who have been making games like this for ages. Mechblaze is probably the easiest they’ve produced yet (at least on Normal difficulty), but it can still be an intense ride on higher settings. Decently replayable, with mech loadout changing play-style dramatically, and with all the heft and chonk you’d want from a mech game.
Vertigo Remastered — $24.99
[VR Only] The original Vertigo was one of the first big indie VR games. Rough around the edges, but still pushing boundaries and impressively fun. This ‘remaster’ is closer to a complete remake in the style of the upcoming sequel, and is one of the slickest VR shooters around, rivalling Half-Life: Alyx for how smoothly it controls.
Tonally, imagine the original Half-Life meets Rick & Morty. You’re trapped in an abandoned pandimensional research facility with a legion of sassy killbots and a bunch of weird aliens. Run, shoot, puzzle, use your teleporter wand and survive. It also has a full in-game level editor and sharing system. Beefy!
∀kashicverse -Malicious Wake- — $9.99
A shmup for those who think pixel-perfect dodging has gotten too simple and rote. One of the most technical games in the genre, enhanced and finally released in english this year. As well as dodging bullets and managing a protective shield toggle, you have to enter fighting game style inputs to activate your bigger, most screen-clearing attacks.
Has a learning curve like a brick wall, but once you get the hang of it, there’s a deeply satisfying game, and a musical one at that. All enemy spawns and bullet patterns are synched to the beat. Your ultimate attack also transforms YOU into a bullet-spewing boss for a few moments, which is neat.
Petal Crash — $9.99
An adorable little action-puzzler in Neo Geo Pocket style. Don’t let the fluffy characters and heartwarming story deceive you though — this is a tough (Yoshi’s) cookie, especially at the higher difficulties.
Match blocks to cause explosions of flower-themed coloured blocks, which knock other blocks around, causing chain reactions and earning you more points. You’ll want to focus on combos, because that’s how you earn any kind of lead in the uncompromising 1v1 puzzle fights. Petal Crash also features a playable version of The Baz — the legend without a game.
Horizon Vanguard — $14.99
[VR Optional] If Sega still made ‘Virtua’ style arcade games, this is the kind of thing they’d be producing. A simple but stylish fusion of shmup and lightgun game. Steer between bullets with one hand while picking off targets with your handgun.
It’s brutally tough and could perhaps be a bit more generous with the extra lives, but difficulty is scalable. You can slow down the game to make it more manageable, tackle stages individually or just turn on invincibility to learn the ropes if that’s your thing. While playable with mouse and keyboard, I highly recommend VR for this one. Also has great music.
Project Wingman — $24.99
[VR Optional] A tiny three-man indie team (one core developer, one writer, one composer) set out to create a rival to the Ace Combat series and against all odds, succeeded. Extremely unrealistic jet action (mouse and keyboard or gamepad work great) set in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, with gorgeous graphics, great music and all the radio chatter and melodrama you’d expect from AC.
What this game may lack in CGI cutscenes it makes up for in content. The campaign has a second loop with much better armed and more aggressive enemies, and there’s a dynamic roguelike-ish mode where you get to build your own mercenary air-fleet from scratch. The game also has full VR support, which, while not essential, is fantastically immersive. Top marks.
Weird And Unfortunate Things Are Happening— Free
This game shouldn’t be free. A years-long passion project, Weird And Unfortunate Things is an excellent cosmic horror JRPG. The city of Daybreak has disappeared, and Alicia’s niece, Dotty, along with it. Being the Coolest Aunt, she sets out on a rescue mission, armed with a baseball bat and an assortment of psychic powers. It gets weirder from here.
Good character art, a banging soundtrack, finely tuned combat and a sharp script all hold this one together through its 25+ hour adventure. Impressively, it also manages to embrace all the fun parts of the cosmic horror genre while shedding almost all the problematic baggage. Fantastic and, again, FREE.
One Step From Eden — $19.99
A frantically paced mash-up of Mega Man Battle Network combat and Slay The Spire’s structure. Light on story, high on action. Pick a character, assemble a deck of spells as you bash your way through monsters and bosses, and slowly learn the many synergies and combos possible. What sets this one apart is the speed.
One Step From Eden, when firing on all cylinders, feels like a bullet hell shmup. Movement is grid-based, but enemy attacks are fast and aggressive and require focus to evade. There’s a huge amount of depth here if you’re willing to put in the time to learn its systems. Cool music, too.
Golden Light — $12.99
A viscerally unpleasant game to play, and one I cannot recommend highly enough. A horror-comedy action roguelike, still in early access but with no shortage of meat (heh) on its bones, Golden Light is a nightmarish adventure into a dungeon made of meat and rust in search of lost love. Also the dungeon is moody, so don’t upset it. Or do, but you’ll have to bribe it later.
By default, Golden Light’s first-person camera moves with a kind of drunken swagger. The entire game feels hazy, lightheaded, foggy. Monsters can literally be any piece of furniture, or doors, or the floor. Your body can change in ways that are both helpful and hindering. Your gun is alive and has three wriggling, independently aiming barrels. You can eat it for health.
Paradise Killer — $19.99
Forget about winter — take a summer break in paradise, and solve a few murders while you’re at it. Oh, just make sure you’re keeping up on your blood sacrifices to the Silent Goat. Paradise Killer is a first-person exploration murder mystery game set in an extremely cool and fashionable glam anime pocket dimension run by an eldritch death cult. So, a bit different from the norm.
As the exiled investigator Lady Love Dies, you return to Paradise to find out who had a motive to kill the ruling council (everyone) and to narrow down the list a bit. It doesn’t help that the authorities claim they’ve already found the killer, who is admittedly possessed by demonic bloodlust. Still, sounds too easy. Gorgeous aesthetics, chill exploration, amazing setting. Great game.
Pumpkin Jack— $29.99
Forget the recent and underwhelming remaster — if you’re a fan of the Medievil games, Pumpkin Jack is the one you want. Launched just in time for halloween and developed entirely by just one person, it’s a colourful Tim Burton-esque romp through spooky (but kid-friendly) environments, blatting skeletons and ghosts with a variety of weapons, and generally causing a ruckus.
While the combat can be a little stiff in places, there’s enough variety here in the environments and challenges to keep anyone bouncing around its 3D platforming world for a good while. It’s also gorgeous, featuring raytracing and DLSS support where many AAA games fall short. Again, solo developer.
Shrine & Lycanthorn 1 + 2 — Free
Four! Four retro first-person shooters for the price of NONE! All released (or in the case of Shrine 1, re-launched on Steam) in the space of one year, and all from the same lead developer — the inimitable Scumhead.
Scumhead is a fan of all things gothic horror, grungy and retro, so all four of these games share a surface aesthetic. The Lycanthorn games are the brighter and bouncier of the two, heavily inspired by the early Castlevania games. The Shrine games are darker, more detailed and with more of a cosmic horror bent. All four are faster, twitchier and more aggressive games than Doom.
The Dread X Collection, Year 1 — $26.97
Take a dozen of the best and brightest in the indie horror game scene, give them just a couple of weeks to create a short and spooky adventure, and then chain them all together with a Tales From The Crypt style overarching story. Now do that three times in just one year.
The Dread X Collection is as indie as indie gets. Often rough and unpolished but bursting with ideas from a huge range of creators. Each collection will easily fill a couple dark and stormy nights, and the shorts range from funny to action-packed to unsettling to a few positively nightmarish experiences. I cannot wait to see what this collective does in 2021.
Mega Man 8-Bit Deathmatch—Free
After a full decade in development, this monstrously ambitious fan-game is finally complete, with a spectacular finale and a heartfelt credits roll.
Built using the Zandronum online FPS engine, Mega Man 8-Bit Deathmatch is exactly what it sounds like. NES-styled arena FPS action, fast and simple. While always well populated online, there’s an enormous single-player campaign, punctuating the arena fights with the occasional setpiece boss battle or mechanical twist. It even has its own mod scene. The developer is considering an ‘epilogue’ expansion at some point, but for now, the game is self-contained, complete, and extremely good.
Project Starship X — $14.99
Much like peanut butter and jam (jelly to you yanks), roguelike and shmup are two concepts that shouldn’t work well together, but they mesh amazingly here in Project Starship X. It’s a vertically scrolling comedy shmup set in a world of lovecraftian weirdness, but everything is silly, so expect to go Space Bowling, visit Space Texas, and meet Cthulhu’s dear old grandma.
As well as continually unlocking new and interesting threats to add to the mix each playthrough, the big mechanical twist of Project Starship X is the Smash attack. You can dash forward (or diagonally) to make yourself temporarily invulnerable to bullets, and to smash certain enemies instantly. You’ll be amazed at how many ways the game finds of using that single mechanic.
Hylics 2 —$15
The original Hylics was an extremely bizarre, short and entertaining JRPG set in a nonsense world made of digitized clay. The sequel builds on it in every way possible, putting you in the pleather jacket of the moon-faced Wayne, adventurer and possible annelid clone, on a quest to defeat the evil lunar lord Gibby. Don’t try to make much sense of it — just enjoy the ride. It’s a good one.
This game is just an aesthetic trip start to finish, with a beautiful stoner-surf-rock soundtrack. It’s a longer and more coherent game than the first, with a comprehensible script instead of running it through a random synonym generator. While some might argue that takes away some of its dreamlike edge, they’d be wrong.
Amazing Cultivation Simulator—$24.99
A fascinating take on the Rimworld formula, inspired by Chinese Xianxia novels, TV and manga. Set in a world of Chinese Taoist myth, your goal is to lead a sect of would-be mystics to spiritual enlightenment, incredible power and even immortality. But first you’ve got to house and feed them, and make sure the floors are swept, and any local bandits suppressed.
It’s an incredibly complex, multi-layered strategy/sim game. The basic survival part is relatively easy by genre standards, but the path to immortality is immensely complex. You’ll have to find mystic scrolls to teach techniques, go on quests in surrounding lands, balance the feng shui of your structures to support elemental magic and occasionally throw down with giant screen-filling monsters. The English translation is a bit rough in places, but there’s no other game like it.
Slasher’s Keep — $13.99
Immersive sim meets action roguelike, with a quirky art-style and an offbeat sense of humour. Playing a bit like a less acrobatic version of Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, you play as a prisoner escaping the orc-manned and monster-infested Slasher’s Keep.
Melee combat is the heart of the game, and every sword and claw is physically tracked. If you want to block a swing, you need to put your sword between the oncoming attack and your fragile meat body. You can also thump enemies with your loot sack to knock them back, off ledges or into spikes, which is always satisfying. Or you can just set pools of oil on fire, zap stuff with wands or craft your own oddball weapons from discarded components. It’s neat!
If Post Void were a haiku, it would read:
Aaa AaA AAaaA Aaa Aaaa
AA Aaa aAa AA a AA AAAAA
aa aaA aaAAA aAAAA AAAA.
Post Void is an ultra-fast, ultra-short roguelike FPS. It costs the price of a cup of coffee and takes less time to play through than it would to drink one. Your health is constantly draining and you only have seconds to live. Violence refills it. Getting to the end of a level resets the clock and lets you pick an upgrade. Run, die screaming, repeat and bask in the lurid, sickly bright aesthetic.
Jets’n’Guns 2 — $14.99
Some people think shmups should be an uncompromising genre, where a single bullet is death and dodging bullets is a ballet. Jets’n’Guns 2 is a shmup for everyone else. A horizontally scrolling ‘euroshmup’ in the vein of Tyrian or other 90s shareware gems, this game is all about causing exploding everything to buy new guns.
Accompanied by a chiptune-metal soundtrack (by band Machinae Supremacy), this one is just pure brain-off nonsense fun. Bolt way too many guns onto your ship, upgrade them, repeat levels to hunt for secrets, burn through bosses in seconds if you min-max enough and generally fuel your ego. It’s tougher than the original game, and some bullet dodging is needed, but it’s a breezier game than most scrolling arcade shooters.
Yuppie Psycho — $16.66
Bending my own rules a little, as this one re-launched in 2020 with a hefty expansion that expands the story both in length and breadth, giving more options and leading to a whole set of new endings. And you’ll want to see them all, because this is an offbeat survival horror gem. Laden with the relatable anxieties of starting a first job — and a high powered office job at that — Yuppie Psycho quickly gets into the day to day grind of coffee, printers and witch-hunting.
As with many of the best horror games, there’s minimal combat in Yuppie Psycho, but no shortage of boss battles either. They’re puzzle-heavy, high on tension and are liable to drain your all-too-limited resources, up to and including saved games. Still, it’s not too hard, and well worth the trip.
Creeper World 4–$24.99
The latest — and first in 3D — in a long-running indie strategy series. If you’ve never played a Creeper World game before, you’re in for a rude surprise. No armies to shoot at here, no bases, either. You’re trying to fight a caustic ocean of goo.
The Creeper itself is a fluid dynamic marvel. It erodes at your defenses and can only be pushed back with vast amounts of laser and artillery fire. Your goal in most missions is to expand, secure and eventually push the goop back far enough to plug the hole it’s coming out of. Easier said than done, of course. There’s a puzzle-like aspect to most levels. Winning isn’t hard, but winning efficiently and quickly can be a delicate balancing act. Recommended if you want something different from RTS or tower defense.
VTOL VR— $29.99
[VR Only] Anyone who played games on the PC through the 90s probably had at least one combat flight sim. Back in those days, they were complex, yes, but didn’t require you to memorize an entire operations manual. Realism without being overwhelming. VTOL VR is a VR (obviously) attempt to recreate that feeling.
After just a few in-game tutorials, mostly focused on using the virtual cockpit controls and flight sticks (no HOTAS needed here) I was flying around and completing missions in a trio of hover-capable fictional aircraft. Chunky graphics means it can be pin-sharp, run smoothly and remain clearly readable on even moderately powerful PCs. There’s also a level editor, workshop support and a dedicated community supporting it, so endless missions.
Lair Of The Clockwork God — $19.99
One of the most consistently funny adventure games in years. Lair Of The Clockwork God is the latest in the quirky Ben & Dan series. While normally adventurers of the point-and-click variety, Ben has decided to branch out into indie platformer mechanics, letting him run, double-jump and push crates around. Dan on the other hand is sticking to what he knows — convoluted inventory puzzles and dialogue trees. And you can tag between the two mismatched heroes at will in order to solve many silly problems.
It is rude, crude, sardonic and extremely self-aware. A knowing parody of modern indie gaming trends, while still being extremely good at both sides of the paradigm it’s skewering. Despite enormously positive reviews, this one just hasn’t been selling as well as it should. You should probably change that.
Chex Quest HD — Free
Once upon a time, there was a game called Chex Quest. It was given away free in cereal boxes, and it was surprisingly great. Mainly because it was Doom with a kid-friendly coat of paint.
Despite Chex Quest falling from public view, one of the original developers kept the torches burning for the oddball FPS, including releasing an extended version with more levels. But that still wasn’t quite crunchy enough. Enter Chex Quest HD, a modern 3D remake of the original first episode, now with multiple playable characters, unlockable with codes in packs of Chex Mix (or just listed here), new secret areas and tons of terrible dad-tier puns. Corporate branding or no, this is an indie labour of love.
Dezatopia — $19.99
A shmup quite unlike any other. While on paper it’s familiar horizontally scrolling bullet hell stuff, Dezatopia is just packed to the gills with offbeat systems, art and story. For starters, your ship has four guns, each facing a different direction and with their own firing patterns. Maneuvering to use the right gun for the right situation is half the challenge. There’s also a shop system, letting you buy extra lives or powerups mid fight and also giving you a quick burst of invulnerability.
Difficulty is highly scalable, with novices sure to be able to see some endings, but more dedicated players will unlock more complex routes through the game, with new bosses, tougher enemy placements and extra bonus objectives. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s glued together with some seriously oddball art, character designs, and a surreal story about a fashionista conquering the world with an army of subterranean monsters.
World Of Horror — $14.99
There is no other game like World Of Horror. Part roguelike, part choose your own adventure, part tribute to the horror manga of Junji Ito and part tribute to the early graphic adventures of the PC-98 and Mac, all with a stark monochrome pixel-art aesthetic. There’s even a bit of tabletop RPG soul to it.
Playing as an investigator in an increasingly weird city (although the exact nature of the weirdness can change between playthroughs), you’ve got to investigate and survive hauntings and find the keys that’ll bring you to the lighthouse looming over the town. It’s tense stuff, replayable, and endlessly expandable. While still in early access the game is largely complete now, and thanks to native mod support, players can create new stories and scenarios of their own to shuffle into the mix.
Maiden & Spell — $12.99
A charming hybrid of shmup and fighting game. A cast of girls descend into a massive dungeon in search of a forgotten treasure, fighting each other on the way down. Cute dialogue makes way to a boss-rush style solo campaign, with each opponent breaking out a series of Touhou-esque magical attacks that need evading and breaking through.
Outside of single-player, it can be played in local multiplayer with friends, or online with full fighting game style rollback netcode. Each character has their own distinct set of attacks. Rather than punches and kicks, you’ll be sending out mix-ups of homing and space-filling bullets, trying to pressure your opponent into a mistake. It’s technical, compelling, but accessible even to beginners. As with so many games on this list, the soundtrack slaps, too.
Them’s Fightin’ Herds — $14.99
Originally a My Little Pony fan-game, up until Hasbro dropped a cease-and-desist on it. It should have ended there, but MLP TV showrunner Lauren Faust stepped in to offer them a set of copyright-free characters. Then the Skullgirls studio (RIP Lab Zero) stepped in to offer a top-tier engine.
The end result is a finely tuned four-legged fighting game and labour of love. The story mode teaches serious fighting game theory in a fun way, and a multitude of online modes and lobbies provide casual ways to get together and beat up cute cartoon horses. Pandemic problems? Punch ponies!
Unfortunate Spacemen — Free
I could have featured Among Us here, but that’s more of a force of nature than a game now. Instead, you should try out Unfortunate Spacemen, its even-older 3D counterpart. No, seriously — this one came first, and only just left early access.
Bring your friends. One of them is now a shapeshifting alien monster, ala The Thing, and the longer it goes undetected, the stronger it becomes. It’s good paranoid fun, and identifying who is the monster is just half the game. The panicked man/monster-hunt that ensues is always a good time.
As well as the usual range of social deception-focused modes, Unfortunate Spacemen has a full offline tutorial and even a short story campaign where you fight swarming alien critters, either solo or in co-op. Despite this glut of content, it’s also completely free to play, and supported through sales of DLC costume packs and other cosmetics.
Paper Beast — $19.99
[VR Optional] An award-winning game on PSVR that flew under the radar when it launched on PC. A terrible shame, as this is Another World director Eric Chahi doing what he know best — plunging players into a strange alien landscape with minimal knowledge and limited tools and asking them to figure it out.
In this case, the world is a surreal virtual universe inhabited by papercraft animals with their own behaviours and food chains. Learn what they like and use them to open new paths forward. It’s like an old-school point and click adventure, but designed around new technology. It’s satisfying to solve puzzles, an absolute audiovisual treat, and full of easter eggs and secrets. Now also available in non-VR form, although I’ve only played the full-fat version.
WGRealms: Demon Throne— Free
So neglected is the Duke Nukem 3D fanbase that their small, dedicated modding scene has mutated into producing whole standalone fan-games. This is one of the most ambitious, finally released this year after a small eternity in production. The cigar-chomping action movie lunk has been transported to a fantasy world to help with their demon problem, and the Duke Of Nukem isn’t one to back down from a fight, no matter how silly.
This game brings some light RPG elements to the Duke 3D formula, plus there’s a mountain of content to this game. 25+ large levels, dozens of enemy types (many ‘borrowed’ from other games), 10 bosses and two playable characters, each with a full arsenal. Thanks to recent engine improvements, it looks and runs pin sharp and silky smooth on modern machines, too.
Prodeus — $24.99
A recent early access release, but absolutely worth the money even with just a dozen or so levels and with a third of the guns. Prodeus is an unapologetically Doom-inspired FPS, but with an engine that feels like Quake 1 with a turbocharger. Lovely lighting effects, extremely loud and chunky guns and the most over-the-top blood effects. Weirdly, Prodeus is so gory it doesn’t feel anything like violence, and more like just spraying entire rooms with ketchup.
What really defines Prodeus for me is the level editor. Fully integrated, with in-game level sharing and even the option to create whole multi-level campaigns. Some of the stuff players have created with these tools is stunning, including a whole series of AAA-style car-hopping chase sequences. It’s impressive now, and will only get better with time as they add new textures, enemies, weapons and features.
A relaxing puzzle gem. You’re a monster that can push over trees and roll them around. By pushing them into the right places, you can create bridges to new islands, containing more trees and more rolling to be done. There’s also monster historical artifacts to be found, with adorable description text. It’s chill.
It’s also deceptively difficult. While it slowly eases you into things, A Monster’s Expedition will really tickle those brain-cells later on, although not to the same degree as previous year’s puzzle gems Baba Is You and Stephen’s Sausage Roll. In an amazing coincidence, there’s a discounted bundle of all three games called Baba’s Sausage Expedition, which is such a good name you should probably get it based on that alone.
Not every game has to be a massive high-stakes adventure where you kill gods by the dozen. Sometimes, you just want a small, cozy RPG like Ikenfell. Set in a magical school, a young girl discovers her own powers while checking in on family, and mystical adventures ensue. There’s also grid-based tactical combat, and an utterly fantastic soundtrack (vocal themes included) courtesy of the duo behind Steven Universe’s soundtrack.
As well as featuring a diverse cast, Ikenfell is a game designed to be enjoyed by whoever wishes to enjoy it. Battles can be skipped outright if you dislike the combat, optional content warnings are available to prepare people for the game’s few heavier subjects, and just about everything that could be configurable is. While I reckon the combat is satisfying enough to stick around, you’re free to play Ikenfell however you see fit, and that’s great.
EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER: BOUND BY ASH— $15
The second ‘season’ in a trilogy of oddball visual novels. Set in a twisted alternate earth where the sun has gone missing, giant robots are made by meat and fueled with blood, fascists rule the streets and gay disasters are… much the same, actually. Four queer heroes band together to escape their decrepit hometown, find new meaning in their lives, throw a shitload of fash off cliffs and maybe save the day.
Oh, and steal the sun. That’s pretty ambitious. While the first season had an action combat layer, it was a little bit rough. This time round, they roped in the developer of Lucah: Born Of A Dream to design the fighting this time. The results are obvious. The art is intentionally sketchy but much clearer and full of personality, and the mech combat has all the crunch you’d expect from meaty titans punching each other. Also, another kickass soundtrack.
Another recent Early Access entry, but absolutely worth every penny. When Ultrakill was first released, it had the jokey URL ‘DevilMayQuake’ linking to its Steam store page. That description is perfectly accurate. This is a low-fi, chunky 3D shooter with the movement speed and bunny-hopping of Quake, but the style-based scoring and combo focus of Devil May Cry, and it works so well.
Ultrakill is also effortlessly cool. The setup is laser-focused; you’re a future killbot, fueled by fresh blood. Mankind is extinct, on account of all the blood-thirsty killbots. Hell is just full of demons packed with fresh blood, so you’re going after them next. This leads you through a neon, PSX-tinged take on The Divine Comedy, starting at the gates of hell, descending through the briefly-idyllic Limbo and then into darker realms.
Right now Ultrakill is just the first of three planned episodes, plus an arena survival mode. There’s a level editor coming soon, though, which means this one could grow into a true monster of a game.
Going Under— $19.99
Going Under is an action-roguelike that just happened to be released alongside Hades, so understandably flew under a lot of people’s radar. This is a crying shame, because it’s a genuinely funny, squishy, cartoon take on the hell that is office life.
As an overworked intern, you’re sent a series of dungeons, each one representing a failed (and now cursed) tech startup. Your goal: Phone apps and coffee money. You get to fight over-caffeinated bosses, marauding ‘joblins’ and break a whole lot of cheap office furniture. It’s bright and charming and every new enemy and item is a treat to discover because it’s ALL jokes.
Double Kick Heroes— $19.99
We could always do with more inventive rhythm games, and Double Kick Heroes puts a fresh spin on the old concept by making each hit note a shot fired at an encroaching zombie/monster/mutant horde closing in on your band’s giant apocalyptic muscle-car, all while you steer up and own to aim. Featuring a lengthy story mode and a ton of optional tracks featuring guest bands, Double Kick Heroes is also significantly more metal than most rhythm games, which is neat.
I would recommend some kind of dedicated rhythm controller, or an arcade stick for this one. With a focus on heavy metal drumming, you’ll be asked to hammer out notes at a ridiculous rate at times, and it could easily wear down a more expensive gamepad. Still, ‘will wear a hole in your controller’ probably sounds like a selling point for a game this brutal.
Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children— $24.99
Korean urban superhero XCom, in a nutshell. In more words, this is a sprawling, story-driven tactical RPG featuring a bunch of stylishly dressed anime oddballs fighting crimes, monsters and robots in a comic-book universe. It’s immediately familiar stuff to people who have played Firaxis’ XCom reboots, but accessible for newcomers, and probably less intimidating. No rookies thrown into the grinder here.
The combination of tactical RPG and superheroic characters inherently leads to power inflation. The balance of the game is a fragile, oft-breakable thing, but it’s hard not to get a kick out of a single character wiping out a dozen enemies in a single turn. The developers are constantly tweaking, refining and tuning the game, even though it left early access this year, so expect more Troubleshooter in the future, too.
Nimbatus: The Space Drone Constructor— $19.99
Another game that escaped the gravitational pull of early access this year. Nimbatus is a faster and more action-oriented game than most construction sandboxes. Set across a dynamic galactic campaign, you’re assigned asteroids to mine, artifacts to recover, alien hives to clean out and more, and need to assemble the remote control spacecraft for the job. Or just recycle an existing design — I’m not your dad.
It’s simple and satisfying stuff, though, and easy to get into the swing of refining and tuning designs. The multiple playable characters also offer a huge range of play-styles for the campaign, including one that removes all construction limits and costs in exchange for not being able to control your units, forcing you to program your own rudimentary AI to get the job done in your stead. Not for the faint of heart, that one.
Total Chaos— Free
Many years in the works, and re-released this year with more levels, a New Game Plus mode and a fresh wave of polish. Total Chaos is a grungy and atmospheric first-person survival horror game inspired equally by Silent Hill and STALKER, and amazingly made using the GZDoom engine. Just watch the trailer and you’ll see why that seems implausible.
As well as looking and sounding great, Total Chaos is more restrained than the title suggests. Starting out as a resource-starved scavenger hunt where every few swings your weapons break, and gradually escalating to a gung-ho commando rampage through the final few stages. Total Chaos could easily be a full retail game, but the developer was kind enough to release it for free, entirely standalone. Well worth your time.
Make A Good Mega Man Level: Episode Zero—Free
The latest in a long-running series of Mega Man community fan-jams, and by far the most polished to date. Rather than include absolutely every level submitted, Episode Zero cherry-picks the best and brightest creators and levels and strings them together into a single enormous, cohesive whole.
Longer than several Mega Man games combined, this one gets a huge amount of mileage out of Zero’s abilities from both the Mega Man Zero games and the Mega Man X series, all condensed into an incredibly poorly drawn chassis. Don’t worry, you can reskin your character to look less terrible if you want.
MetaWare High School (Demo)— Free
The title is a lie — this is no demo, but rather a small, perfectly formed visual novel about a game’s demo. It’s incomplete, so as a prospective future player, you get to wander around and meet some of the characters pre-release. Wacky hijinks will ensue. At least most of the time.
Inspired by the hugely popular Doki Doki Literature Club (though a bit less edgy), this is a short, replayable and more-complex-than-it-looks adventure and exploration on the nature of free will and character interactions. It can be pretty funny, but be warned, the closer you get to the ending, the heavier things become. Whatever you choose to do is all on you.
A wonderful tribute to the platform arcade shooters of yesteryear, especially the likes of E-Swat, Rolling Thunder and Shadow Dancer. A measured kind of arcade shooter, where every enemy is deadly, but every shot is avoidable with care, and where a really good player can showboat while newbies fall into the grinder.
Huntdown’s 80s cyber-cheese setting is pure dumb fun. Sports themed war-gangs, pyromaniac lunatics and literal street samurai are just cartoonish enough to chew through without feeling bad. The sprite art here is notably excellent, with a mixture of dynamic and hand-drawn shading really bringing out the details. Backdrops are varied, animations are smooth, and voice lines in cutscenes are intentionally broken up into separate samples to replicate overtaxed arcade hardware. Ah, nostalgia.
At first glance, Noita is just another platform roguelike — a pretender to Spelunky’s crown. But this is a collaboration between the developers of Baba Is You, The Swapper and Crayon Physics, three of the smartest minds in gaming today, and Noita is proof of their combined genius. Every pixel in its world is physically modelled. Earth shifts, fires spread, wood crumbles, glass shatters, ice fractures.
And you get to manipulate all of this, because you’re playing as a spell-crafting witch, cramming spell components into an assortment of wands to create new and bizarre effects, chugging potions, alchemizing materials and generally reshaping the world around you. Noita’s depths only become clearer once you realise that there’s more to the game than just the quest presented. Sure, getting to the depths of the dungeon and killing the boss is impressive, but just try thinking outside the box with all that power. You’ll like what you find.
Spelunky 2— $19.99
Spelunky 2 drew some flak at launch for being largely more of the same, but harder. But as players dug deeper and acclimated themselves to the scalding waters of this sequel’s bizarre lunar caverns, they started enjoying themselves. Spelunky is about learning through failure, dusting yourself off and doing it again, and Spelunky 2 is even better at killing, teaching and encouraging.
I wouldn’t recommend a newcomer to the series start with Spelunky 2. This IS a longer, more involved, more technical sequel. There are more things that can go wrong, more moving parts, more item interactions to learn, and more secret areas to find. It’s more of everything in every possible direction. Even more players, as the game now has full online multiplayer with matchmaking. You’ll probably end up killing each other by accident, but that’s Spelunky!
Sometimes you just want to see the world burn. Carrion is a ‘reverse horror’ action game that caters to that urge quite nicely. Playing as a tentacled alien meat-monster, you’re on a mission to escape from the laboratory where they’re studying you, devour all the humans that had the nerve to poke you with sticks, and spread your biomass into every nook and cranny available.
Essentially, Carrion is a hyperviolent metroidvania with a focus on puzzles. As you explore you’ll pick up new abilities (the grossest of which allow you to mind-control humans and turn them on their own) that open access to new areas, but seal off other routes as you sometimes have to leave parts of your mass behind in order to squeeze into places. It’s not a very long or difficult game (I think it could have done with one or two more enemy types), but it’s very satisfying while it lasts.
Another slow burner in early access. Besiege has been around for years but only officially launched this year, and it’s a gem. At its heart, it’s a puzzle game, giving you a series of increasingly complex tasks to complete (many including demolition) and asking you to design the perfect siege weapon to do the job. Wheels, catapults, cannonballs, sails, propellers, wings or balloons?
But really, the joy of Besiege is just doing your own thing. Creating impossible, physics-defying monstrosities and sharing them online. Solving puzzles in the most convoluted and ‘wrong’ way possible while still achieving your goals. Just blowing up the whole map with a single button press. While it has some structured puzzle-game elements, Besiege is a sandbox full of exploding sand.
After years in early access, Factorio officially launched this year to a round of glowing praise and sky-high reviews. It’s a simple, compelling formula that has spawned dozens of imitators already; trapped on a hostile planet with only a pickaxe, you need to build a factory capable of turning the planet’s resources into a spaceship. That’s a whole lot easier said than done. Also you’re under siege.
Factorio is a game about systems, automation and lots of conveyor belts. While you could just carry materials from one machine to another, it’s always more efficient to just have a machine do it for you. And then another machine to sort those resources. And another machine to process them and deliver the product to another machine which will load them onto trains which will then ferry them to the front line and load the ammo you’re producing into turrets.
It’s one of those games you aim to play for just twenty minutes and then you blink and half a day has disappeared.
Streets Of Rage 4— $24.99
One could argue that as this is an old Sega license, Streets Of Rage 4 cannot be indie. I argue that the primary development duty was handed to Guard Crush, a tiny studio that previously made a hilariously awkward looking brawler with digitized actors, including The Nostalgia Critic. The surprising thing? Under the goofy visuals, it was a rock solid game. Guard Crush know their brawlers.
And so we get Streets Of Rage 4, a finely tuned modern arcade masterpiece. Backed up with Lizardcube’s art and music from the original Streets of Rage composer, this is a game which anyone can play, but only the dedicated will master. Higher difficulty settings seem impossible at first, but a skilled player will almost never take a hit. Naturally, it features local and online co-op.
Until You Fall— $24.99
[VR Only] A beautifully focused VR action-roguelike with a combat engine reminiscent of Super Punch Out. Sword duels are order of the day here, with a satisfying if artificial rhythm to it — parry by putting your blade over the oncoming attack markers, counter to knock the enemy off guard, then get in a few swings and then back off to avoid the swings of the other two enemies closing in.
This game is an absolute treat to look at and listen to, thanks to consistently over-the-top art direction and a great synthwave soundtrack. There’s not much story to it, but combat is fast, punchy and satisfying and there’s a real ‘just one more run’ spark to it, as with any good action roguelike. Your arms will get tired after an hour of swinging them around, though.
Disc Room— $14.99
Disc Room is a hyper-focused experiment in doing as much as humanly possible with an ultra -simple game concept. With a single analogue stick, you control a small character in a single-screen room. The room is filling up with bouncing saw-blades. The longer you survive, the higher your score. Straightforward, right?
And yet Disc Room manages to squeeze dozens of iterations of that simple concept out of the formula. Boss fights, escalating challenges, special abilities and some weird puzzle-box scenarios that force you to think and use your tools in very unconventional ways. And yet it’s never not about avoiding saw blades in a single screen room. Sharp art, a banging soundtrack (it’s Doseone, after all) and a huge number of online leaderboards round this one out.
Phasmophobia — $13.99
[VR Optional] The surprise horror juggernaut of the year. Entering early access shortly before Halloween, this game captures the essence of ghost-hunting TV. A squad of idiots wandering around a house, making noise and trying to rustle up any kind of evidence of a haunting. Only here, the ghosts are real.
The result is a social co-op experience unlike any other. Joking around and laughing with your friends suddenly turns to genuine panic as a ghost starts responding to things you said out loud, slams the door shut, locks you in and begins hunting. It’s still rough around the edges (especially in VR mode) but rapidly expanding, and hugely well populated online right now.
What kind of 2020 indie list could forget the multi-award-winning Hades? After a long trip through early access, Supergiant’s biggest, boldest yet is widely praised for redefining the action-roguelike. Every death, every victory and even every upgrade choice opens up new dialogues and story threads on demigod Prince Zagreus’ quest to escape from the mythical land of the dead.
It’s a masterpiece in almost every regard. The dialogue is sharp and funny and perfectly voiced. The music is amazing. The art is pin-sharp and full of amazing, creative renditions of Greek gods. It’s also extremely accessible, with tons of control and difficulty tweaking options. Everyone wins, especially those thirsty for perfectly sculpted god bods.
And that’s it for 2020, unless I go and add a few more late-comers to this list. 2020 is just full of surprises, after all.
Update: I did. I did another 4,000 words. Because I cannot help myself.
And once again, it took me ages to put this all together. All I ask is that if you share it with your friends, but if you’ve got money to spare, I could always use a few bucks to buy even more indie games. You can toss me a few virtual coins over on Ko-fi or Paypal.
Thanks for reading and happy holidays,