2017 was a fantastic year to be an indie gamer. It seems like there was something for every kind of gamer out there, from gamers who are really into the RTS genre to those who just want to chill and play the worries of the world away. The year was also a huge boost to indie developers with the release of the Nintendo Switch which brought a new breath of life into indie gaming with the consoles concepts of either on the go gaming or hooking up your system to a bigger screen.
This year, in particular, it’s worth noting that the smaller games managed to leave as strong of an impression as some AAA titles and were created by small teams who just so happened to capture the attention of a large audience.
Below, Goomba Stomps indie fanatics put together a top 20 list of worthwhile games from 2017.
20: Tooth and Tail:
It goes without saying the RTS genre has hit somewhat of a dry spell in the past few years. While Spellforce 3 is a notable new entry to the RTS library, Pocketwatch Games’ Tooth and Tail is more akin to the classics like Age of Empires and Rise of Nations. Set during the Russian revolution, the player must take control of the animal versions of the proletariat, bourgeois, religiously fanatical, and government obsessed factions of the highly toxic period in human history. Squirrels are Bandelier sporting drunks, skunks deliver deadly doses of chemical weapons, and owls bombard the battlefield with their decaying remains of their enemies. It all sounds very disturbing and grotesque, but the beautiful 16-bit art style and humorous dialogue make it an enjoyable experience.
Tooth and Tail isn’t like a traditional RTS. Bases are built on pre-existing structures and can be won and lost in an instant. A match between two players can take as little as five minutes, or drag on for two hours, depending on the opponent’s playstyle. This makes Tooth and Tail an addictive experience that, while challenging, offers an immense amount of satisfaction. Multiplayer is where the game truly shines, as the single-player has little to offer. The story is there but doesn’t really endear the player to any of the characters. Each faction is decidedly unique, which is a positive, but none of them are easy to get attached to. The choice to portray the Russian Revolution with animals is superb though, as they fight not for a new form of government but rather the right to eat each other. It’s this morbid sense of humor, along with easy to learn controls and rapid gameplay, that tie all of Tooth and Tail together, making it a memorable experience and a damn solid RTS. (Carston Carasella)
19: Code 7
If you are part of the younger generation, you might not remember what it’s like to play a video game without a mouse or a controller. For those who grew up in the MS-DOS days, many remember keyboard-only games quite vividly. Code 7 is not a game that is nostalgic for the 80s and 90s, but this indie hacking adventure does rely on the full use of a keyboard, bringing the old-school feel to a next-gen text adventure.
Code 7, developed by published by German-based studio Good Wolf Games, started as a one-week prototype during the Master Studies at the Cologne Game Lab in 2015. Since then, the game has grown into an episodic adventure that saw the release of its first official episode in August 2017. Players take on the role of Alex and, with the help of hacking partner-in-crime, Sam, will attempt to escape a space station while uncovering all the sinister secrets it hides within.
The basic mechanics involve typing commands directly into the computer screen or selecting dialogue options through a numbering system. A complete lack of use of the mouse makes the hacking moments quite immersive. Code 7 is also fully-voiced with super realistic dialogue delivered by a cast of incredible actors—one of the smaller indie games to fly somewhat under the radar this year, but by no means is it one that should be overlooked. With a few episodes yet to be released, Code 7 will have plenty more excitement to offer in the New Year. (Joanna Nelius)
It’s not an easy thing to tell a compelling story completely through visuals. Game developers must be on-point with what and how they communicate, trusting players to connect the dots. In a world that can be described as a futuristic ancient civilization, Hob does just that with interesting characters, personified landscapes, and an ethereal soundtrack to create one of the most memorable gaming experiences of 2017.
From the get-go, Runic Games wanted Hob to be about exploration, not collection and upgrades. They fully accomplished what they set out to do by utilizing subtleties in their visuals, whether world-related or camera angle-related. Along with a stripped UI, camera angles communicated objectives: where to travel next. Other tiny visual elements quietly inserted familiar characters related to the main character, which made a big impact on the story. The combat was simple, featuring unlockable skills that grew in complexity, but nothing to overshadow the exploratory, open-world focus.
Hob also marked a bittersweet end to Runic Games as, not too long after its release, the studio announced they were shutting their doors. While there won’t be any more games from Runic as a company, we’ll continue to see more great work from the sound designers, artists, and others who turned Hob into the amazing game that it is—and if any company is going to go out with a bang, Runic went out with a loud one. (Joanna Nelius)
17: Last Day of June
Over the last several years, many game developers have shifted toward creating emotional and enriching narrative experiences that hold their own against long-standing, traditional media. Last Day of June from Ovosonico is one of those games. An interactive, puzzle-adventure about love and loss, the game reaches into the very depths of the human soul, trudging up our own pain and healing journeys along with it.
Playing as Carl, Last Day of June gives players the ability to travel back in time in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past to create a better present. It’s a strong, philosophical take on the stages of grief that requires the player to abandon a classic video game strategy mindset and learn to understand the story. It’s in the story where answers to puzzles are found, the how-to the why—the meaning of life. The juxtaposing, soothing visuals are June’s paintings, which are also environmental puzzles in which players reenact actions of June’s last day on this mortal coil. It’s Carl’s job to re-order the past to prevent June’s death.
And if the story feels repetitive with traveling back in time to find the perfect sequence of events, it’s because that is what grieving individuals often do: repeat the same or different scenarios over and over again as if to help alleviate their guilt or change what happened. Bring your Kleenex; Last Day of June wants you to feel what it means to be human. (Joanna Nelius)
16: Cosmic Star Heroine
Despite contrary belief, there is not a shortage of JRPGs on the market. Type any word into the search bar on steam and there a guaranteed to be three or four cheap RPGmaker games that pop up in the results. These tend to range from quietly decent to offensively terrible. The JRPG market isn’t gone, it’s just oversaturated with garbage. Cosmic Star Heroine puts up quite a few of these telltale red flags. American made – just means you’re taking the J out of JRPG. “Inspired by Chrono Trigger”? Sure, honey, they all are. Against all odds though, the game just works. The developer, Zeyboyd Games, has been quietly making great games that subvert and celebrate JRPG tropes since the days of the Xbox Live Arcade. They’ve mostly stuck with crafting comedic games, with titles like “Cthulhu Saves the World” and “Breath of Death VII: The Beginning” (Note that Breath of Death one through six do not exist), but this time they’ve tried to make something on a bigger scale, listing inspiration from not just the classics, but from modern giants like Mass Effect.
So what sets this apart? It doesn’t waste your time.
The biggest JRPG flaw, one no one can ever seem to get right, is that sometimes you just get bored. The game flow usually goes like “enter dungeon, random encounter, press A until you win, walk a bit, random encounter” on and on for 40 hours. Cosmic Star Heroine takes about 15 hours. It doesn’t feel unnecessarily padded, and the battle system focuses more on strategy and less on hoping your numbers are bigger than the bad guy’s numbers. Every battle makes you think, and every town on each of the planets is visually distinct. It shakes up a genre that can sometimes feel lackadaisical and plodding and gives it a shot of adrenaline in the arm. It’s not perfect – no JRPG outside of Chrono Trigger itself is – but it manages to do the unthinkable and shake up a genre that everyone likes to say is dead. Cosmic Star Heroine is living breathing proof that there may never be a shortage of new ideas, especially when inspired by ideas of the past. (Katrina Lind)
Tacoma is the follow up to Gone Home, a game developed by the Portland, Oregon based company Fulbright, hence all the Pacific Northwest allusions in both games. Gone Home was considered a breakthrough in narrative-based indie games, by having the player piece together the plot by exploring their surroundings. Tacoma follows this same narrative structure, by dropping the player on the station Tacoma and having them explore and watch their surroundings to figure out the story at their own pace.
It’s hard not to think of Tacoma as a game or even a narrative piece, but the truth is that Tacoma is an interactive experience. It might not reward you in the same ways as other games, or books, or even plays. It’s a different kind of medium, where you get out of it what you put into it. I say play Tacoma, it might not tickle you in the same way it does me, but if you enjoy Sci-Fi and digging through people’s personal lives, you’ll dig ‘Tacoma’. (Katrina Lind)
14: Little Nightmares
Alone in the spotlight of a darkened stage, you are never far from the reach of a puppet’s grasp or the salivating mouths of monsters. Following the story of a child named Six, Little Nightmares stood out this year as a horror puzzle game with a setting that drips with the dark and unexplained, yet even more tantalizing is how Tarsier Studios tease their horror from the untrodden theme of gluttony. Whether fleeing the edge of a butcher’s knife, the sausage-swollen hands of The Maw’s gargantuan clientele or suppressing the groans of your own shrunken stomach, Tarsier Studios are playing with original ideas supported by brilliant execution from the game’s tense atmosphere and Tim Burton-esque art style. If it is let down by anything it is in the refinement of Little Nightmares’ platforming and stealth sequences, yet with more stories to come from The Maw and more gruesome tales to explore it feels like Tarsier Studios are just getting started with this series, and on the merit of its story alone the game falls amongst the most interesting narratives of the year. Little Nightmares is a short game, yet so disturbingly sweet. (Helen Jones)
13: The Long Dark
One of the common approaches to the “survival” genre is to develop different systems and mechanics that simulate reality. While not a bad approach by any means, it’s not the only one. The Long Dark opts instead for a metaphorical representation of survival. While you still have to manage resources and defend yourself from the harsh wilderness, the game doesn’t require a huge amount of multi-tasking or micromanagement.
The arcadey nature of the survival gameplay allows for the player to take in the environment. A lot of open survival games treat the environment as your enemy. While your surroundings are still a threat in The Long Dark‘, they’re also hauntingly gorgeous. The chill wind breezing past you, the crack of a branch in the distance, the sweeping mountaintop vistas: ‘The Long Dark’ emphasizes a sensory experience that captures nature’s duality. (Kyle Rogacion)
With today’s focus on high fidelity graphics, it can be easy to forget that strong gameplay is what separates a decent game from a stellar one. Despite being incredibly simple from a visual standpoint, the deceivingly charming Slime-San is easily one of the best platformers this year. The game’s striking 3-color art style isn’t just unique—it’s also ingrained into the mechanics. White surfaces are neutral, green surfaces can be phased through, and red surfaces mean instant death. Though this may seem simple enough at first, each of the game’s 400 rooms (800 for the New Game+ masochists) finds new ways to switch up the mechanics and give players a consistent challenge. Just like any great platformer, Slime-San manages to masterfully tread the line between tough and unfair; each level is designed so well that deaths are never a question of unfairness.
In terms of story, the game follows a little slime and his bird pal as they randomly get swallowed whole by a giant worm. Separated from their families and friends, the duo spends the game traversing their way back through the worm to its mouth to escape. Though the premise is inconsequential, it’s the way that it’s told that makes players care about the two friends. Fabraz has taken the time to create an interesting world both inside and outside of the worm, complete with a colorful cast of characters and a few extra environments that go a long way in adding personality to an otherwise straightforward experience. If you like challenging platformers that constantly introduce new mechanics (and manage to have a bit of heart along the way), you can’t go wrong with Slime-San. (Brent Middleton)
11: A Hat in Time
A Hat in Time is the Kickstarter darling of Gears for Breakfast. It’s a modern 3D platformer with retro vibes that pulls and refines ideas from across all genres. There’s an island stage that feels like it’s straight out of Wind Waker, a survival horror stage that pulls concepts from classics like Resident Evil, and even a stage that turns into a ridiculous Metal Gear inspired parody, complete with avoiding soldiers watching slideshow presentations and sneaking sections. A Hat in Time makes all of these stages cohesive thought, there’s never a sense of genre whiplash, and each level feels like a shiny new toy box to explore. (Taylor Smith)
With cyberpunk re-entering the mainstream, Bloober Team did their homework and captured the signature grittiness of William Gibson, the twisted futurism of Philip K. Kick and, of course, paid homage to one of the most iconic tech-noir films with casting Rutger Hauer as the lead character in Observer. (That film is Blade Runner in case the name slipped your memory.)
The year is 2084. Poland. Those not killed off by the lethal Nanophage virus have turned to drugs, virtual reality, and cybernetic implants—anything to distract them from life in The Stacks. And then there’s Dan Lazarski, an elite neural detective known as an Observer who can literally hack into people’s minds and sort through their memories to gather evidence. He’s also enhanced to the brim with other cybernetic devices, like Electromagnetic Vision, which scans for electronic devices, and Bio Vision, which scans biological evidence such as blood and can read DNA in seconds.
The crux of the story sends players on a long, nail-biting mission to find clues to the whereabouts of Lazarski’s son, whom he has been estranged from for many years. Observer is particularly masterful at creating an immersive environment. Each character players can interact with behind their locked, apartment doors are crucial to building the wonderfully decrepit, future world. Each computer holds information the Stacks’ tenants and reveals a world where people are classified into categories by the mega-corporation that controls their lives.
Packing in a couple of Layers of Fear-reminiscent scares, Observer is much more than a game; it’s a modern gateway to the greatest cyberpunk authors to come out of the 80s and holds its own next to them. (Joanna Nelius)
From the makers of Bastion and Transistor, Pyre pushed the boundaries of gaming genres this year by mixing two totally alien styles into a shockingly cohesive whole. Sports gameplay and visual novel-style storytelling are thrust together in Pyre in a wildly experimental move: one which is not only distinctly different from Supergiant’s previous games, yet which also dismantles sports gaming’s traditional focus on min-maxing stats and micromanaging your way to the top.
Pyre‘s lore-heavy world at first seems like a contradiction to its sports teams and roster-run gameplay, yet both the slow storytelling and the fast-paced matches beautifully tie together with Supergiant’s talents for world-building and quick, strategic gameplay which demands you to mix and match your approach. Coupled with a breath-taking art-style and yet another outstanding soundtrack from Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett, Pyre feels incredibly natural despite its unlikely origins. The wild highs and cruel consequences of sport come together with Pyre‘s compelling cast of characters to make each decision a torment. As outcasts, teammates, and heroes, the bonds you forge with Pyre’s characters make the game come alive and force you to play each match with heart in hand. The speed and challenge of Pyre’s ritual sport feel satisfying, but the game’s best move is that it forces you to change your playstyle and switch up your roster as an integral part of its story.
There are no good run/bad run options in Pyre, and just as the game gives you permission to fail it also puts the pressure on each decision you make in the heat of a match or as you say your last farewell to a close friend. Your future may be written in the stars, but Pyre reminds you at every turn that you’ll never know which path will give your friends their best chance at happiness, or to give the home you once knew a second chance at salvation. This is exactly how interactive narratives ought to be. Pyre is a powerful, stunning game that challenges assumptions about game difficulty and the price of failure. It’s one you need to experience first-hand. (Helen Jones)
Sundered came to me at a time when I needed it most. Fed up with games that followed a similar pattern and the monotony of games coming out in mid-2017, Sundered was a bright light in the darkness. I’ve always been a fan of both metroidvanias and difficult games, and this title from Thunder Lotus scratches both inches perfectly. It combines Lovecraftian elements with classic sci-fi to amazing effect, telling a tale that’s both dazzling and terrifying at the same time. The story of Ashe and her desperate quest to save her tribe from extinction is compelling, and the lengths she’ll go to secure their safety at the cost of her humanity are engaging to partake in. While there is no understandable spoken dialogue, the in-game text given by the demonic spirit that assists Ashe helps provide depth and understanding to the world they live in. It’s a game that made me reevaluate just how far indie games have come in the last decade and made me appreciate the hard work a small studio can put into a game like this.
What makes Sundered so special is not simply one thing, but rather a myriad of enjoyable mechanics that meld together into a fantastic game. Movement and combat are precise and fluid, and the leveling system is rewarding and addictive at the same time. Enemies can appear seemingly out of thin air, swarming over an absent-minded player with ease, and the variety put into each of the three main areas in breathtaking to behold. This is further heightened by the random environments generated after each death, making no two run-throughs the same. There are enough secrets and additional objectives to keep any completionist busy for weeks on end, and the three vastly different endings that can be acquired demand subsequent playthroughs. Sundered got everything right for me and just might be my favorite game of 2017. (Carston Carasella)
7: Golf Story
Australian developer Sidebar Games gave us one of the most enjoyable indie games released this year. The Nintendo Switch exclusive Golf Story quietly crept out on the eShop with barely any marketing push behind it and yet it managed to capture the hearts of almost the entire Goomba Stomp team who spent countless hours not only playing the game but explaining the rules of golf to those of us who have never played the sport in real life. In all honesty, this adorable RPG disguised as a golf game continually surprised us with the odd situations we were thrown into, whether it was solving a murder mystery, chasing a werewolf, battling zombies, digging up dinosaur bones, stealing from bandits and even playing a Pac-Man-like mini-game. Golf Story features solid mechanics, consistently sharp writing, expressive and lively characters and a touching story about a boy desperately trying to fulfill a lifetime dream in memory of his father. Here’s a game that has successfully captured the trappings of yesteryear’s RPGs, yet it ends up feeling fresh, and one of a kind. As sports games go (regardless of the sport), this one turns in a respectable showing, injecting some intelligence and witty humour into a story that easily could have succumbed to a flood of ‘struggling underdog’ clichés. As for its RPG roots, Golf Story is an eminently likable game, full of eminently likable characters and a leveling system that works for gamers of any handicap. Golf Story is well worth the addition to every Switch owner’s library. Its zany cast, catchy tunes, gorgeous sprites, inside jokes and easy-to-grasp gameplay make for an incredibly enjoyable time. (Rick Da Conceicao)
6: Hellblade: Sensua’s Sacrifice
If nothing else, Hellblade has changed the way we discuss the difference between independent games and AAA titles. The developer, Ninja Theory, has themselves stated that it is a cross between the two; an “independent AAA”, and released the title in a middle ground pricing to match.
To simply discuss the industry effects of Hellblade, however, is to do the game itself a disservice. It deals with themes not often seen in other works – grief, loss and mental illness. It does so not only through narrative and classic storytelling techniques but through how it plays as well. Ninja Theory manages to capture something that video games need to more fully embrace – immersing the player in a character different than them. The player experiences the horrific, frightening world through someone else’s eyes, and then processes that information as though it was someone else’s brain. This immersion is further improved by the lack of HUD or pop-style tutorials. This further blurs the separation between game and gamer, further engulfing you into the mind of a tortured young woman. What this develops is empathy for your character, a bond unlike most seen in games. Hellblade may be the best current example of video games as art, and while it might not always be fun in the classic sense, it’s importance to the medium of gaming cannot be overstated. (Katrina Lind)
5: Night in the Woods
Night in the Woods is the new great American novel as told by an anthropomorphic cat. You should know after reading that sentence whether or not it’s something you would enjoy.
The fundamental irony of the game – one that probably every review points out – is how human it is. While the game goes to some deep and sometimes frightening places, most of your time is just spent figuring out if you want to hang out with your alligator friend or your Fox friend. It’s also quintessentially a game about millennials, thematically rich with the angst that comes from growing up in small-town America. In many ways, that’s all you can say about
Night in the Woods without spoiling it too much. The game is about simply inhabiting this town that is both fantastical, beautifully animated, and depressingly familiar. For some people, this will amount to boredom as they wander aimlessly and wonder when the game will “pick up.” But for others, this quiet and quirky experience will be one they’ll never forget. (Katrina Lind)
4: Doki Doki Literature Club!
Doki Doki Literature Club is one of those rare pieces of meta-media where it stands firmly on its own merits. At first glance, DDLC seems like any other cutesy anime game. But still, waters run deep. Dan Salvato, the lead developer behind the game, has a love-hate relationship with the anime world. DDLC manifests that dichotomy as a slow descent into madness, wrapped in a cleverly deceptive cover.
The game is fairly standard visual novel fare: you meet characters, you click through dialogue, and you make choices that affect how the narrative progresses. Where DDLC sets itself apart is how it presents its story and mechanics. The game starts out innocuous enough: typical high-school slice-of-life romcom.
To say anything further would ruin the experience. Whether or not you like anime, this game is worth playing. (Kyle Ragocion)
3: Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Before the Storm is a prequel, taking place a couple of years before the story of the hit “indie” darling Life is Strange. This time around you play as Chloe Price, who was the rebellious sidekick to the protagonist, Max, in the first game. The central plot of this short series is mainly about Chloe growing into her skin two years after her father’s death while exploring her budding relationship with the most popular girl in school, Rachel Amber. On the surface, it’s a tale about teenage angst, punk rock, and rampant vandalism, but the deeper you delve into the story, it’s a treasure trove of literary and pop culture allusions that are so carefully chosen that it ends up plunging the teenage drama into a fully realized work about depression and loneliness. (Katrina Lind)
You’ve seen Cuphead. It’s been an E3 staple for years, generating buzz based on the art alone – styled after a Max Fleischer cartoon from the 1930s. Everyone else got excited by how pretty it was, but you knew better. “It’s gonna be all flash and no substance” you said, sneering, “no game stuck in development hell for that long could end up being good.” Years passed, Cuphead continued not to be released, and you chuckled to yourself, proud that you didn’t get on board the hype train. Then, against all odds, the game finally came out and proved you wrong.
Cuphead is an amazing achievement on so many aesthetic levels, which makes it easy to forget there’s a great game buried in there. Just as the art direction borrows elements from bygone works, the gameplay borrows from a fading genre – the run n’ gun. Cuphead explicitly recalls Contra, Mega Man and Gunstar Heroes in its gameplay, and makes subtle nods to everything from Street Fighter during the Ribby and Croak Boss, to a musical reference to the athletic theme from Super Mario World. The game riffs on classic animation and classic games to make something familiar – and this warmth is essential to keep you from feeling too beaten down by its brutal difficulty. All this adds up to make something you can never quite get tired of playing – It’s always a pleasure to look at, and there’s nothing quite saying “one more try” over and over until you hear the most beautiful thing in the game: “A KNOCKOUT!”
Against all odds, Cuphead is finally here – proclaiming itself to be a knockout loudly and correctly. (Katrina Lind)
1: What Remains of Edith Finch
While the initial trailer for What Remains of Edith Finch certainly stirred up some buzz, gamers could be forgiven for wondering what would set this walking simulator apart from the pile of them which had been released over the past few years.
As it turned out though, what set it apart was quite a lot. You see What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t just a walking simulator, it’s the next stage of evolution for the genre itself. It’s a flying simulator, a swinging simulator and an honest to god sea monster-writhing simulator.
It’s a game that asks you to do a mundane task with one hand while focusing on a much more interesting one with the other hand. It’s a game that sends you through a dozen interconnected slices of life in a house too magical to ever really exist. And ultimately, it’s a tragic tale of a family that seems to be cursed by the fates themselves to face one unfortunate mishap after another.
More than any other game on this list, What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that I would recommend to absolutely everyone. With its low asking price, short running time, and lasting emotional impact, this is a game that deserves to be experienced by any gamer who is at all serious about this medium as a means for artistic expression. (Mike Worby)
If 2017 taught us anything about the video games market, it’s that indie games have moved on from being a niche genre for a few gamers to compete with AAA titles. It’s probably the reason why we’re seeing a shift in the landscape, with gamers flocking to the PlayStation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, and Steam Early Access to purchase these hidden gems. If next year follows these trends, then we are looking for a bright and over-stocked future for indie gamers.