All the indies I've played in 2018 are amazing and I need to talk about them
2018 is officially over, and with it come the endless rankings and lists, naming the best and/or favorite games of the year that passed. I've played some really good indie gems last year and really wanted to highlight them, but I felt a ranked list would be a disservice to whichever ones got left out (plus I didn't get to play that many games), so I decided that I'm going to talk about all the indies released in 2018 that I've played, in alphabetical order (because I really don't want to rank them). Hopefully you can find something in here that you haven't tried before and give it a chance in the lull before the big releases of 2019 start.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
There are two ways to recommend Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon to someone: the easy way is merely asking if they like Castlevania 3, and would want more of that; failing that, we have to actually explain the game and why it’s really good. In Curse of the Moon, you play as one of four characters with unique playstyles (who you can swap out at will) through a bunch of really good Castlevania-esque levels. Each character has a unique set of abilities (such as jumping higher, sliding, or freezing enemies) which allow you to access different paths on the levels, where you can find permanent upgrades or valuable resources. The trick is, if you die while controlling a character, that character stays dead until either you beat the level or the entire party dies (at which point you lose a life).
I think the original intention was that you need to keep your whole party safe if you want to go through the best paths, but with continues aplenty, I often found that it was easier to just die several times on purpose to reset my party when I needed one specific character for a section on the level, although just as often I opted to push through simply because the checkpoint was too far back to make the sacrifice worth the effort. Despite that, I found that this branching paths/tag team mechanic had far more benefits than flaws, and kept the game fresh through the entire playthrough, and the great level design more than made up for any inconveniences. Overall, Curse of the Moon isn’t the most unique or innovative of the games in this list, but it never really aspired to either, and it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do.
As a kid, I’d always imagine walls, murals, roads, any flat surface I could look at really, as a 2D level for some imaginary videogame character to bounce inside its edges. It’s no surprise then that Dandara immediately caught my attention when the first trailer came out. Not only was it a really gorgeous game being made by a brazilian studio, but it felt like my childhood daydreams had come to life. Movement is the star of the show here, as the titular Dandara can only stand on salt that’s spread on walls and ceilings of the game’s world, and so she must quickly hop from puddle to puddle, avoiding enemy bullets while shooting some bullets of her own.
Dandara follows the metroidvania school of having a single, gigantic maze-like level and making the player think “I know I can interact with this thing, I just don’t know how yet”, and as they progress, they’ll find new abilities that let them progress through new paths. Though most of the upgrades in Dandara are more akin to turning on new features in the world rather than abilities the character herself unlocks, don’t take that as a detriment, as these faux-upgrades radically change navigation and often activate new hazards on the levels, making progression a double-edged sword and keeping the difficulty up even after you thought you mastered an area. The world itself is also interesting, with characters and imagery that pull from Brazilian culture (both modern and classic) and lore that hints just enough about its dream-like world to make it enticing without delving into too much exposition or overexplaining. Definitely one of the highlights of the year for me.
Dead Cells’ premise sounds very contradictory: a procedurally generated roguelike metroidvania. To my surprise, the game isn’t a mess of poorly executed ideas, quite the contrary. Dead Cells definitely draws more from the “vania” half, with a stronger emphasis on combat and less on new abilities, which allows the game to play to the strengths that procedural gameplay brings. And what strengths: levels each have their own feel and style while still being unique from run to run, making areas feel familiar and new at the same time, while combat is incredibly satisfying and fast, with a ton of weapons that somehow all (ok, almost all) feel great to use, thus encouraging experimentation not only every run, but throughout each run.
The metroidvania upgrades are permanent unlocks, but feel a bit basic. I’d have liked to have seen more experimentation with them, maybe giving more combat or movement utility rather than mostly being themed keys to reach a new path (like summoning a vine at very specific places in order to climb them, or breaking the floor at specific spots with your stomp). There’s one (very small) issue I have with the combat too, and that’s the damage over time stuff (bleeding, poisoning, burning) doesn’t feel very useful, since most enemies die too fast for them to be relevant, although a lot of weapons and passive skills benefit from attacking enemies with DoTs, giving them a tangential benefit.
Someone orders donuts from a store. The raccoon that works there sends instead his remote-controlled hole, it swallows everything in the vicinity, and the raccoon writes a short description of each item swallowed in his trashopedia. That should give you a feel for the preposterous humor of Donut County. The story is told through small cutscenes in between levels, depicting the citizens that were all swallowed by the hole bickering and talking about how they ended up down there, while the gameplay involves swallowing objects with the hole to make it grow so you can swallow bigger things, until there’s nothing left in the level. There are some clever puzzles to solve by mixing stuff in the hole or spitting things back out, and at the risk of being the millionth person to say it, the whole experience has a bit of that Katamari Damacy feeling, not just in gameplay, but in style and atmosphere.
The writing is spot-on, playing its absurdities straight-faced with a great cast of characters, and the game is pretty much always experimenting new things each level. If I had to have a single complaint about Donut County is that it feels a bit too short, though I’m not sure “it’s so good I wish I had more” is a bad point. Rather than overstaying its welcome, it makes you feel like it ended before it could really explore all the ideas it presented, and makes you long for more levels.
You know what I said about imagining walls as levels to bounce things in? Holedown made a puzzle game out of it. An incredibly addictive puzzle game. Holedown is about throwing little ghost balls into bricks and wearing them down so they break and you can reach the center of whatever celestial object you’re mining, while you try to keep the bricks from reaching the top of the screen. The more the ghosts bounce in a single throw, the more ghosts you can throw at once in future throws, serving as a double incentive (alongside breaking the bricks faster) for aiming for clever angles.
It is incredibly cathartic and relaxing to throw two dozen ghosts and watch them get trapped under the level bouncing everywhere faster and faster until they manage to escape back to the top of the screen, like when you get the angle just right in Arkanoid and you just watch the ball destroy half the level by itself, but a whole game out of that. It’s hard to write a lot about such a simple game, but it’s the simplicity of its premise and gameplay that makes it so good, that makes me come back to it months after its release. It’s the perfect game for short bursts on the phone.
When you first start playing Iconoclasts, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’ll be a cute and bubbly action platformer through colorful levels and a lighthearted story, but it doesn’t take long for you to realize that the only thing that will remain true from start to finish are the beautiful, colorful levels and the great soundtrack that accompanies them. Iconoclasts tells a dark story (with its ups, to its credit; it’s not constant misery) that touches on the subjects of religion, environmentalism, classism, privilege, responsibilities, family, among other themes, and manages to not make the narrative a hamfisted, broken mess. Instead, the themes are woven naturally into the story, the pacing feels great, and characters on both sides of the conflict hit the sweetspot between relatable issues and character flaws, each driven by personal motivation rather than what the plot tells them to do.
And the gameplay! I wrote all of this without even getting to the gameplay! It’s got great platforming, some really clever puzzles that are genuinely fun to solve, and amazing boss battles. It’s also got a sprinkle of metroidvania, with upgrade materials scattered through the world that you might need new abilities to get to (though if I’m honest, a few of those felt a bit too well hidden, even with a pretty informative map). I can’t recommend it enough.
Into the Breach
I was never a huge fan of FTL. I recognize the quality in it, but it wasn’t for me. The odds felt too stacked against me, and I didn’t feel like I earned much (if anything) in my failed attempts. It feels like the dev team took that to heart, because Into the Breach follows a similar gameplay loop (albeit in a completely different genre) while giving the player more control over the difficulty and rewarding them more often. The gameplay consists of a series of turn-based, tactics-style RPG encounters lasting about 5 minutes each, where you must survive for X turns while protecting buildings from enemies and completing side objectives. The really cool part is how Into the Breach integrates movement and positioning into the strategy: you can knock grounded enemies into the water for instant kills or into each other for extra damage, move enemies into the line of fire of other enemies to protect cities or put them (or one of your units) on top of spawn points to block enemy spawns. And that’s all before you delve into all the secondary mechanics like smoke, acid, electricity, freezing, shields, etc.
The game really explores the limits of the possibilities that its core rules offer, without ever feeling overwhelming. As for the things I mentioned at the beginning regarding difficulty and progression, the game gives you opportunity for progression such as one-time challenges that earn you currency to unlock new playable squads, and choosing one of the characters you used through the run to be used in the next run. It also lets you choose which missions to play, and whether you wanna tackle the final mission ASAP or prepare more at the cost of making the game progressively harder.
If I had to pick a game to call my favorite this year, this would have to be it. What if you had to play a Zelda game 60 seconds at a time? That’s the basic premise of Minit. You pick up a sword on the beach and become cursed, dying after a minute passes, so you set out on a quest to rid yourself of the curse. Minit reminds me a lot of Link’s Awakening in how surreal the world feels and the funny characters and situations you come across. The 60 second timer is genius: it means every task in the game must be completable within a minute, which in turn means the game’s pacing is pretty much perfect, always giving you something new to see or do and always making progress, little by little. It “forced” the designers to clean up any unnecessary padding and it means dying and failure is never much of a setback.
It’s also a great introduction to speedrunning and the specific mindset you have to be in to speedrun, which I’m personally a huge fan of. The game’s length is, like the pacing, pretty much perfect (i clocked 5 hours to complete the game and new game+ with 100% completion), introducing new things and ideas at a steady pace and ending before it has the chance to become even the slightest bit routine, but not so soon that you feel you needed more. And did I mention it’s one of my favorite soundtracks this year? It’s one of my favorite soundtracks this year.
I was interested in Overwhelm from the moment I read the pitch: “reverse Megaman: you defeat the bosses and the enemies get the power ups”. What I wasn’t expecting when I played it was that it would be such a masterclass of bending genres through a series of small tweaks, and I’m sad that talking about it will spoil some of the fun had in realizing what the game really is. At first glance, Overwhelm looks like a sidescrolling shooter like your Contras or Metal Slugs, but it becomes quickly apparent that it’s a game about paranoia and, as the title implies, being overwhelmed. You die in a single hit, and each death makes the surroundings of the screen darker, limiting your visibility; you only have 3 lives, having to start the game from scratch if you lose all of them (it’s a pretty short game, don’t worry); enemies have random spawns just about anywhere you aren’t looking, so you must always be on your toes; there’s the aforementioned mechanic of enemies gaining power ups the more you progress, making the situation more tense with each boss you defeat; ammo is limited, with refill stations only at the hub area and partial one-time refills near each boss’ room, so you have to make each shot count; once you defeat a boss, you have to take its crystal back to the hub while still short on lives and ammo, but with new, stronger enemies along the way, and only then you are allowed some respite, getting a full ammo refill and setting your life count back to 3 before you set out in the small interconnected world again.
Overwhelm reminds me a lot of Aliens, not the gung-ho third act where aliens get mowed down by the hundreds, but rather the part shortly before, where the once confident marines enter the dark, claustrophobic alien hive and become increasingly panicked as the odds get stacked against them, the tension rising with each passing minute. So if you like that scene in Aliens and would like to see a game that really translates the fear and tension from it into gameplay, or if you want to see some of the best subversive game design 2018 had to offer, Overwhelm is for you.
Wizard of Legend
Despite what this list (and half of my purchases this year) might indicate, I have a far more complex, love-hate relationship with roguelikes and run-based games than I’d like to admit. I usually really like them until I get suddenly tired, and the reasons are usually bound to the length of the runs, the time it takes to get to “the good part” of the run, and/or long-term progression. I’d say all the games on this list manage to avoid that, but Wizard of Legend was probably designed by people like me, because it tackles those issues the most aggressively. Runs are really fast, you’re always decked out (literally) with great spells that you chose instead of starting out poorly and slowly building up with what the game gives you, and the in-game currency for unlocks comes at a great pace. But it’s not just systems and overarching mechanics that make it a good game: Wizard of Legend is an aggressive hack and slash where you select spells from a deck of cards to determine your starting moveset and take on mazes and bosses in fast paced combat.
There’s a flavor of wizard for pretty much every playstyle, from the slow hard hitter to the minion master, but the focus is always on offense being the best defense. While the game feels like it was forced to come out before its time to meet deadlines (two of the game’s five elements are missing from enemies, levels and bosses, the enemy and hazard variety could be wider), there is already a free expansion in the works, addressing a lot of the (small) shortcomings of the original release. Probably the most fun I’ve had with (and the most time I’ve spent in) a roguelike in a long time, and I’m looking forward to what the update brings to the game.