Oh man ya’ll, the indie game scene is huge. It’s a little ironic, considering how much smaller than their AAA counterparts they can be. And I don’t just mean indies are getting a lot of attention — they are, but that’s not the point. The point is you could easily miss out on the best games of the year in the unending sea of independent content. Even people with their ear to the ground can just completely miss an indie in a way it would be hard to do for a AAA title.
Indies are also intensely personal. Because there are so many varied games, you can find a game that’s actually your exact brand of vodka. This list then, won’t be a comprehensive survey of everything worth picking up in the future, but more a personal guide through my recommendations. If you aren’t into story-driven experiences or delightful hand-drawn aesthetics, you might want to check out my insights on what this summer has in store for the industry’s biggest names. But, even if I am a sucker for a good painterly art style, there’s a good range of games to look forward to for any indie lover.
Spiritfarer – The warm embrace of the afterlife
Every time this game’s demo is available to play, I play it. Why? Because it is fantastic and is absolutely my most anticipated 2020 indie game.
You’ll take the helm as the most huggable grim reaper ever seen. Well, grim reaper is a bit harsh. You won’t be taking any lives, but you will sail the spirits of the recently deceased towards their final resting place. For all its focus on death, Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus games is actually a heartwarming and peaceful game. You can build up your boat to accommodate the needs of restless spirit passengers, grow crops, cook good meals, explore the seas, and request hugs from all your newly dead animal friends. Whatever helps you push them to cross over.
You can pick up Spiritfarer later this year on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. It’s even coming to Xbox Game Pass so you can pick it up for free if you already have a subscription.
Tunic – Forget that wolf, Link is now a fox
To put it as mildly as possible, Tunic is a Zelda-inspired action-adventure game. To put it less mildly, this game is Zelda AF and lone-developer Andrew Shouldice isn’t even trying to hide it. And why should he? It looks fantastic.
Taking its cue from the beloved series for its world, character, and style design, Tunic seems like a familiar comfort. Its vibrant aesthetic and endearing protagonist will hopefully dispel any fears of the game being a stale copy-cat (or fox). And despite its cheery vibrant world, the combat is no joke from the looks of it. If the idea of donning an adorable fox-sized tunic and raising your mighty, miniature battle arms to go dungeon delving gets you excited, Tunic is the game for you.
Though the developer has been tight-lipped about the game’s release date, Tunic did make an appearance at PAX East before gaming conventions went virtual. Let’s hope that means the game is ramping up its media campaign for a big announcement soon.
12 Minutes – The longest 12 minutes of your life
Imagine if the last disastrous moments of your life kept repeating. Your sight fixed on your claustrophobic apartment as you hover above, like a ghost in an out-of body-experience. You know that any moment now your simple romantic dinner will turn deadly. It has happened so many times before already. Hopefully, this is the time you set things right.
12 Minutes is an intense-looking thriller by developer Luis Antonio that throws you into a terrible time-loop. Failure is a guarantee, but each time you repeat the past you are able to change how events will unfold and potentially break the cycle. The game aims to release this year, though no official date has been announced. You can expect to find it on Xbox One and PC, but the 12 Minutes website indicates the developer may be looking at other platforms.
Hoa – Trying to out-Ghibli Ghibli
There’s not much to go on for this game except a few screen shots and even fewer notes from the creator, but that’s enough for me. It looks completely stunning. Hoa’s trailers depict a pint-sized creature in a cloak platforming its way through personality-laden plants and rocks.
Knock on wood, but it is common for indie games to just fizzle out and that’s the best explanation for the game’s over year-long silence. But call me a wild optimist because I’m going to keep checking in on this game throughout the year.
[Update, 5/25] Give a point to the wild optimists because Hoa is up and at ’em! The team sent out a tweet detailing their plans to show a little of their game at the Wholesome Direct along with a new snippet of trailer. You can find out where to watch the direct and more information on this summer’s gaming calendar here!
Röki – The Norse gods are striking hard this year
Way before we got a first look at Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Polygon Treehouse was already delving into Scandinavian folklore. This updated take on a point-and-click adventure follows Tove as she searches for her family.
I got my hands on the playable demo earlier this year and immediately noticed a dark chill in the air despite the level’s mostly-sunny landscape. Sun glints off specks of snow, there is a fairy-tale glow around most everything, and red and white dotted mushrooms pop out from the frost. It’s easy on the eyes, no doubt, but something sinister is simmering in the narrative which a demo wouldn’t fully reveal.
The game encourages exploration with useful objects sometimes hidden in the back or foreground. These objects, true to the nature of point-and-clicks can be used to solve puzzles or help others. Everything I saw made me want to pick up Röki when it releases this year on Nintendo Switch and PC.
A Space for the Unbound – Indonesia in the 90’s, just how Cthulhu remembers it
I first played this as part of the Steam Game Festival: Spring Edition and, frankly, didn’t expect too much. I’d had my fill of pixel-laden adventures for the day, but the end of the fest was looming, so I pushed on to one more game. I gave A Space for the Unbound a go completely blind and it might have been my favorite discovery of the event.
Why? The game gets real weird. Starting off, you combat the anxieties of a younger writer with the help of a magic book that would be a psychologist’s dream. It lets you jump into a person’s mind and tinker around with things. Sometimes you might help a target get past bad feelings, other times you might be manipulate a guard into a well-timed nap. There is some great potential here. A mind-jumping book is kind of a red flag that something supernatural is happening in the game, but, at this point, it was understated. It wasn’t going to stay that way.
In a failed attempted to save a friend from drowning, I sadly begin sinking under the water myself. I sink and sink. I sink through unusual landscapes. I sink through familiar objects. Finally, I reach the bottom and see my friend cradling a warm light and…I’m in my classroom having a light-hearted conversation. Did I doze off and imagine the whole thing?
I have no idea and I love it.
Carrion – Monstrous looks, buttery feel
Carrion is not my typical game. If there is beauty in this grotesque science experiment gone awry, it’s for other people to find. What I am absolutely willing to admit is: you should play this game. Carrion just feels fantastic. It nails the horror-inducing feeling of that moment in the sci-fi movie when our heroes confront the man-made terror — except you aren’t the hero, you’re the terror. And it’s perfectly smooth mechanics make it feel so good to tear these horrified scientists to bloody shreds.
For what I played of it, there is no outright story, but you get the gist easily enough. I wouldn’t be surprised to get heavily invested in the blood-drenched tentacle creatures’ success. The game is certainly all about those ‘Frankenstein isn’t the monster even though it’s killing things’ kind of vibes. If that’s for you, you can check out Carrion on Xbox One or PC sometime this year.
Cris Tales – I mean, look at it
If I knew nothing else about this game, the screenshot would be enough. However, it also promises a time-bending JRPG experience, so there is a lot to like right upfront.
Luckily, you don’t have to take my word on this one because there is a demo available on Steam right now. Go check it out and see if this game will be worth picking up for you this year. If you don’t have access to Steam don’t fret, Cris Tales will also release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Stadia.
Inkulinati – Manuscript mayhem
Let’s get Medieval. Seriously, I love when these unique games pop up. Like I’m going to turn down the chance to be a Middle-ages scribe’s fever dream?
In case you need more facts than that, Inkulinati is a turned-based strategy game where you play as inky manuscript creations come to life. Being developed by Yaza Games, a small team based in Poland, Inkulinati is far from ready, but you can check out about 16 minutes of gameplay here.
The group is launching a Kickstarter to help make their fantastic idea a reality and, with luck, it will go well. Then the battle for the pages between donkeys, rabbits, and dogs can begin.
Sable – Exploration, minimalism, and that sweet hand-drawn look
I’m really hoping to hear more about this game soon because it’s media presence has been dark for a long minute. Originally announced as releasing in 2019, the game has been quietly pushed back into this year. With all the critical attention it garnered so far, I’m really looking to see this game make an appearance during one of this summer’s gaming events.
The game reminds me of Rey on Jakku, but unlike the scavenger-turned-Jedi, Sable, the game’s titular character, scours her desert landscape voluntarily as a rite of passage. The gameplay looks compelling — you can ride your hoverbike, scale cliffs, or investigate ruins — and the graphics certainly are, but one of the most intriguing concepts of Sable is player agency. The journey is 100% yours. If you want to search every nook and cranny, you can. If you want to turn towards home after a quick tour, you can do that too. Sable is all about exploration, not combat, so expect the action to come from the thrill of discovery.
The Last Campfire – Ewoks play through Dark Souls
Nintendo’s latest Indie World Direct showed us The Last Campfire, the No Man’s Sky developers’ next project. Announced as coming in summer 2020 to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC, the game focuses on tiny creatures exploring a big world full of puzzles and.. that’s really all we know about it so far. Well, that and the art has a kind of cozy lushness that is right up my alley. From the brief trailer Nintendo aired, The Last Campfire has all the earmarks of a real tear-jerker. Might want to bring some tissues.
Embr – Because what could go wrong outsourcing public safety
Inspired by companies like Uber or Grubhub, Embr is a game about what would happen if fire fighters where brought to you via an app. Don’t worry, they are all totally trained professionals.
Sure you need to save lives and protect homes, but the main goal of Embr is to grab that sweet sweet cash. Respond to the most lucrative contracts to upgrade your gear and gain access to the big scores..or uh help innocent citizens from house fires.
Embr enters early access for Steam and Stadia on May 21 and will hopefully smooth out its rough edges, making it fun and mechanically sound when it releases fully in spring next year.
Among Trees – The meditative beauty of starving to death
Among Trees is a survival game set in the most breathtaking of forests. The rich greens of the trees, the red-stained sunsets, the comforting coolness of the blue shades could almost make you forget death is just waiting for you.
Announced at The Game Awards in 2018, Among Trees has been running through its closed pre-alpha phase this year. The game has no official release date, but will be coming to early access on the Epic Games Store this summer. It will also be an Epic Games Store exclusive for the first 15 months after its launch, and you can bet I’ll be eagerly watching for news on when that will be.
Minute of Islands – Colorful and mysterious
Something is wrong on this island, but it’s not the art style. I don’t know how many ways I can restate how much I love a stylish hand-drawn world before you tune out, but it looks like I’m going to find out because Minute of Islands’ aesthetic has its hooks in me.
Gameplay-wise we are looking at a platformer centered around solving a series of puzzles to discover what is causing the world to collapse. No big deal. The heroine, a mechanic armed with a special omni tool, will explore the decaying world in a race against time to fix some ancient machines supposedly built by giants.
The narrative seems to promise some interesting twists when Minute of Islands releases this year. It won’t be too hard to find either, since it’s basically coming to everything including: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
The Pathless – Birds are an archer’s best friend
Giant Squid, creators of ABZÛ, are ready to hit the action genre running. Announced for PlayStation 4, the Epic Games Store, and, interestingly, Apple Arcade this year, The Pathless has you play as an archer with her bird friend on a mission.
Besides the wonderfully evocative woods you’ll find yourself exploring, I might be the most jazzed about the way you’ll be able to glide by hanging onto your bird like some giant living sail. It won’t be your main form of transportation, but that’s seriously epic sounding. How could you not be up for some bird surfing, arrow shooting adventure?
Going Under – Get this, a Silicon Valley dungeon crawler
Being an intern in one of the world’s most expensive regions could lead you to do almost anything for success, including going into a Fortune 500 company’s basement bare-handed to fight monsters.
Don’t worry, your hands aren’t empty for long. Some of the fun in Going Under is picking up random office accouterments and discovering whether that giant pencil or the stapler gets the job done quicker. Anything laying around is free game but you can also buy more damage-dealing weapons at the in-dungeon store. That’s right, apparently your new employer let the problem go so long that some entrepreneurial monsters have even set up their own money-making ventures. Typical upper management, am I right?
I don’t know how well it will hold up through hours of play and I’m uncertain of the progression loop, but the short hands-on time I spent with Going Under was super fun and well worth a purchase when it comes out on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC around fall 2020.
Spirittea – Spirited Away story in Stardew Valley setting
This game won’t be done for some time since the Kickstarter only closed at the end of January this year, but I was so intrigued I backed this game immediately on seeing it.
The story follows a writer who moves to the country to find inspiration. However, things take an unexpected turn when, after drinking out of the wrong teapot, the character gains the ability to see restless ghosts. So, what do you do with this power? Fix up a decrepit bathhouse and cater to your newly-discovered clientele, of course. Again, Spirittea is still in development, but we’ll learn more about this game’s day-to-day action as the year goes on.
Inmost – Don’t let the pixels fool you
There is something deeply unsettling about playing Inmost. The game is set to release on PC and Switch sometime in 2020, but launched on Apple Arcade last year and recently put out a limited-time demo.
Setting the sinister world aside for a moment, the sound design is really doing its job here. Mostly sounds recede into the background just lingering on the outskirts of your mind, but when you interact with something metallic, it pounces out. Actions like cutting grass with a scythe or moving a obstacle are attention-grabbing, if not outright jump scares.
In fairness, the game is designed to put you in the jumpy mood. Moments of quiet isolation are punctuated by ghoulish figures or tension-building narrative. All aided by the fact that you have no idea what’s going on. The game jumps from protagonist to protagonist.
You play characters like a small girl trying to find a space to hide in her house, a bearded man inexplicably exploring an abandoned building, or a dark-hearted ninja blazing a trail of pain. One of the most inexplicably frightening moments of the game involved an old man making excruciatingly slow progress descending some stairs while a young off-screen girl narrates a messed up fairy-tale. Whatever story thread weaves all of them together, Inmost is going to be worth picking up.
The Wild at Heart – Luigi’s Mansion and Pikmin meet in the woods
The Wild at Heart caught some eyes back in 2019 when it was a featured indie on the GDC floor, but the wider audience has only had the opportunity to get their hands on it during the Steam Summer Festival. Made by a small team of indie developers, The Wild at Heart is a homely game about being lost in the woods.
The main character is Wake, a young boy who finds himself in an enchanted wood that needs his help. Auspiciously, he is an inventor who has created a trusty vacuum to suck up crafting items and also has the knack of making tiny woodland friends. By crafting items like bombs from honey, pop rocks, and tin cans, he can overcome some of the obstacles in his way. Other things can be taken care of by his ever-growing horde of sprites.
A silly story on the surface, The Wild at Heart’s narrative may prove to have insights on heavier themes as it unfolds. And while the game is simple, it plays incredibly well. Solving the environmental puzzles and successfully navigating combat by sticking found items together or throwing tiny creatures at the problem is satisfying. The sounds design is wonderfully filled with the relaxing sounds of the forest, and everything is crowned by the outstanding art style. The game is targeting a 2021 release date for PC and Xbox One for anyone looking to pick it up.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this list will grow as the year goes on, so keep checking in if you don’t want to miss out! Indie fans can learn more on what good games have been presented this summer here. For more on the bigger games, why not read about which places were chomping at the bit to partner with every major summer showcase in 2020 or the large list of predictions for the summer’s ‘not-E3’ shows.