AAA blockbuster video games are expectedly what get the most attention, especially with highly-anticipated titles like God of War: Ragnarök and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom on the horizon, but there are plenty of top-notch games in the indie space. By nature of being labeled an indie game, these titles are made on tighter budgets with typically smaller-scale development teams, but that’s often led to some truly imaginative premises.
They’ve become memorable games that transcend whatever logistical constraints they were made with, alongside a level of care, attention to detail, and production value that makes them feel like AAA experiences in their own ways. The likes of Hades, Hollow Knight, and Disco Elysium are a few of these standouts.
The roguelike genre has seen a variety of great games, combining different subgenres to make their incarnations their own, but 2020 was arguably the year of Supergiant Games’ Hades. This Greek mythology-inspired roguelike combines the addicting dungeon-crawling gameplay loop that’s typical of the genre with equally compelling storytelling — something that’s usually secondary for this style of game — that rivals many AAA games.
Character-driven narratives are thoroughly immersive and emotional, complemented by superb voice acting and stylish character designs. And, as roguelike fans would expect, Hades features a thrillingly high-octane combat system that encourages the “one more run” mentality and dozens of hours of content as engaging as any blockbuster release.
Fans are still anxiously waiting for its sequel Silksong to release, but Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight is one of the most enduring games today thanks to its replayability, inventive premise, and amalgamation of subgenres. Modern indie renditions of the Metroidvania and Souls-like subgenres can admittedly feel played out by now.
However, Hollow Knight manages to tastefully blend those two influences for an adventure that’s as similarly fulfilling as the brilliant and higher-budget Metroid Dread and Dark Souls trilogy. Playing as the titular insectoid knight, players traverse a somberly beautiful world with subtle worldbuilding and grippingly challenging combat.
Developed by Studio MDHR, Cuphead also took the gaming scene by storm as a game that mixed ingenuity with nostalgia. Playing as the titular Cuphead and/or Mugman, players go through a sidescrolling run-and-gun game reminiscent of the 8- and 16-bit era of video games filled with delightfully tough levels and boss fights.
Visually, Cuphead takes heavy inspiration from the hand-drawn ’30s cartoon aesthetic and the height of the Jazz music age. Combined with fast-paced gunning gameplay, meticulously hand-crafted visuals, and a substantive DLC expansion, Cuphead is a thoroughly entertaining, dense, and endlessly replayable game that feels like it has a grander scope than it has technologically.
Another one of the most recent indie releases, developer Acid Nerve’s Death’s Door feels like a triple-A game in the age of classic The Legend of Zelda games. With its approach to action-adventure gameplay conventions and isometric perspective, it would feel right at home alongside the likes of A Link Between Worlds and Link’s Awakening.
Players take on the role of a reaper crow working in a bureaucratic commission tasked with reaping souls into the afterlife, but a conspiracy surrounding the organization begins to unfold. The gameplay loop is Zelda-esque with its combat, equipment upgrades, level progression, and puzzle-solving mechanics.
Transitioning to a first-person-style game, Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds was widely praised for its breathtaking sci-fi-themed adventure. The player character is an astronaut who explores a solar system that’s trapped in a 22-minute time loop that ends with the sun going supernova. The gameplay revolves around the protagonist uncovering the mystery of what caused this loop.
Free-flowing exploration is the core of Outer Wilds, as the player uses a variety of tools along the way to solve logic puzzles to unravel the mystery behind the time loop. The clever use of the game’s mechanics and stunning atmosphere are impressive on any budgetary level of a video game, especially with its Echoes of the Eye DLC expansion.
Inspired by classic role-playing games, developer ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium proved to be a juggernaut of its genre when it launched in October 2019, regardless of scale. Taking place in a grimy watercolor-styled urban fantasy setting, Disco Elysium puts players in the shoes of an amnesiac detective trying to solve the mystery of his own past as well as a murder case. And, in a rare choice, the game forgoes any actual combat, opting for excruciatingly-detailed dialogue-driven gameplay.
The story is gripping, and the writing is extremely clever, combining to become an immersive game that can stand toe-to-toe with the most expansive AAA RPGs in the modern fantasy genre in terms of worldbuilding and narrative style. The same applies to gameplay, as there’s a myriad of approaches players can choose to shape their protagonist and the story at large.
Perhaps the most recent example of an indie game dripping with the level of care players would hope from an AAA game is Andrew Shouldice’s Tunic. Like Death’s Door, Tunic is a game that hearkens back to the days of classic high-profile The Legend of Zelda games — along with the addition of tastefully implemented Souls-like elements.
Playing as an endearing fox, the level progression and equipment are reminiscent of the former since players are encouraged to backtrack and unlock new areas after gaining new tools in a 3D space. And in Dark Souls fashion, Tunic features an enticingly subtle and cryptic story and combat that demands players to manage stamina and blocking.
Its success has paved the way for a sequel next year, and part of that strong reception is thanks to how Darkest Dungeon creatively meshes the rogue-lite and RPG genres together. Set in a gothic dark fantasy world, the protagonist sets out to quell the evil monstrosities that have been let loose from the manor they’ve inherited.
From there, the player manages a party of characters to make runs down the catacombs fighting monsters and managing character stress levels — with the threat of permanent death looming. The level of depth of the party management systems and turn-based combat mechanics is another great showcase for how indie RPGs can measure up to their high-budget contemporaries.
In terms of visuals and overall production value, Moon Studios’ Ori and the Will of the Wisps arguably lands in the highest tiers of indie games. Its predecessor, Ori and the Blind Forest, also deserves a shoutout, but Will of the Wisps is noted for taking an already-acclaimed formula and somehow improving it.
As with other indie games influenced by classic franchises spanning generations’ worth of gaming consoles, Will of the Wisps is a refreshing rendition of the Metroidvania subgenre and is as rich of an experience gameplay-wise as the aforementioned Metroid Dread and any other of Samus’ beloved adventures. However, the emotional and vibrant level of artistic expression was a particular high point of the game, with the story and characters providing one of the most touching narratives in the subgenre.
Another sequel, Unknown Worlds’ Subnautica: Below Zero is a follow-up to the original underwater-themed survival game. The game has an exciting sci-fi premise, with the player forced to explore, collect resources, and fend off creatures after the protagonist smuggles herself onto an alien planet to investigate the death of her sister.
The scope of Subnautica: Below Zero is impressive as is, with the survival gameplay loop open-ended enough to allow for creativity. Likewise, the sense of discovery, the beautiful scenery, and tense alien encounters make for a satisfying open-world game that similar AAA games could learn from.
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