Another year, another staggering lineup of promising indies to look forward to. Independent games have been thriving more than ever in recent years thanks to companies like Nintendo and Microsoft having dedicated indie-focused presentations, greater ease of access in general, and the rise of the Switch as the hottest little indie machine around.
Between Indie World, ID@Xbox, the various PAX events, the Game Festival demos following 2019’s The Game Awards, and the hundreds of titles that release on Steam every week, it can feel nearly impossible to keep up with the most interesting indies of the bunch. Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Here are our picks for the most anticipated indie games currently slated for 2020.
For as prevalent a role as time travel has had in RPGs over the years, Cris Tales completely reinvents the concept by presenting the past, present, and future all on the same screen. It’s bizarre in theory and shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, but the hour-long Steam demo released last year proved otherwise.
The story follows a young orphan named Crisbell who stumbles into becoming a time mage and must save the world from a gruesome future. Along with an eclectic crew of companions, players will have to learn from the past to make key decisions in the present that will influence the future. Time travel will also play into the game’s stylish turn-based combat system, allowing players to do things like put an enemy to sleep, wait until they wake up, then turn back time to when they were still asleep.
As well as this concept is integrated, however, Cris Tales’ substantial production values are just as impressive. There’s full voice acting for every word of dialogue, clean UI design, and an absolutely jaw-dropping visual style that seamlessly transitions between time periods and different environments. Here’s hoping the story is just as polished as everything else.
If Spiritfarer puts joy at the at the center of its appeal, Garden Story goes all-in on coziness. Autumn Town has been ravaged by a sinister force known only as “the Rot,” and it’s up to a little grape named Concord to help the surrounding community as much as possible. The catch here is that instead of mainly fending off monsters (though there’s a bit of that, too) Garden Story is mainly themed around rehabilitation.
Much like portions of Stardew Valley, the name of the game is to scavenge materials and help townspeople with different types of requests (be they combat, exploration, or gathering-focused). The more kinds of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into the game’s world and history.
Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, developer Picogram already delivers on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.
The original HuniePop transformed the dating sim by incorporating light RPG elements and addicting match-three gameplay into the core dating loop. Players ended up coming for the “plot” as much as they did for the puzzles and cast (a cast that was popular enough to eventually spawn a slightly less risqué spin-off).
As a direct sequel taking place two years after the original, HuniePop 2 will move away from the college town of yesteryear to an all-new tropical resort setting. There’ll be at least 13 girls to romance between old favorites and new additions, and each will be fully voiced yet again. If the writing retains the same bite and charm as the original, this has the potential to unironically be one of the best puzzle games of the year.
ForHarry Potter and Little Witch Academia fans, the pitch for a magic school RPG practically sells itself. Although it’s doubtful that the ever-elusive Witchbrook will release this year, Chevy Ray’s Ikenfell might be just what fans are looking for in the meantime.
Originally Kickstarted in 2016, Ikenfell is a turn-based RPG that takes place at a magic school where students study hard to master different spells and enchantments. One day, a top student suddenly goes missing, and it’s up to you and your fellow classmates to search for clues, fight magical creatures, and ultimately get to the bottom of the disappearance.
Eschewing a deep narrative for a more gameplay-focused experience, Ikenfell’s main selling point is its use of a wide range of spells for an inventive take on grid-based combat. Couple that with creative enemy designs, charming environmental puzzles, and the steady progression of learning new magic, and this is surely one to keep your eye on.
Röki thrives on its ominous fairytale-like atmosphere and mysterious snowy backdrop. This is a moody exploration game through and through, complete with all manner of puzzle-solving, riddle-answering, and even a bit of crafting here and there.
For all its beauty and atmospheric mastery, however, the Scandinavian folklore-inspired adventure didn’t fully click until I was able to go hands-on with it late last year. Walking through the ominous snow-covered forest and cracking the code to a few genuinely head-scratching puzzles made me a believer. Be prepared to bang your head against the wall a couple times when Röki comes out later this year.
The general concept of Spiritfarer is deceptively bleak. As a ferrymaster to the deceased, it’s the player’s job to fulfill the final wishes of spirits before seeing them off to the great beyond. While the premise might seem gruesome, however, the world of Spiritfarer is one of the most delightful I’ve seen in quite some time.
In what can only be described as playing a cartoon, every facet of Spiritfarer is imbued with charm and personality. From the gorgeous hand-drawn animation to the ambient sounds of the sea around around your ship, the entire experience screams “cozy” loud and clear. (There’s even a hug button!)
Then there are all the things you’ll be able to do in the meantime. Though helping spirits ascend is your end goal, you’ll also have the chance to befriend them, fish on the open seas, farm, cook, craft, and more along the way. Combine this with the studio’s emphasis on creating bonds and experiencing moving stories with the spirit passengers and this has all the potential of being a deeply heartfelt gem of a game.
2017’s Golf Story still stands as one of the funniest games on Switch. Its golf mechanics were strong enough to create a standalone multiplayer mode out of, but it was ultimately the “story” part of “Golf Story” that made it one of the most beloved indie titles on the platform.
Now equipped with a bigger budget and more than a two-man team, Sidebar Games’ Sports Story looks more ambitious than their previous effort in nearly every way. This time around the unnamed protagonist will take part in the decasportathon and will thus likely switch between playing 10 different types of sports. So far we’ve seen glimpses of golf, volleyball, tennis, soccer, and baseball, with fishing expeditions having also been confirmed.
That said, it’ll really come down to how well all of these sports are balanced and how they play into the overarching narrative. If the team can pull off making each sport fun in its own right while still delivering over-the-top setpieces, this could easily be another hole-in-one.
Wooden Nickel is a quaint narrative adventure set in the Old West. Back in the old days, a local newspaper was one of the only ways for strangers to stay up on happenings around town. Developer Brain&Brain took this concept to its limits and designed both the narrative and progression of Wooden Nickel around interacting with newspaper ads.
See an ad for a special at the spitoon? Players can click it and go there to chat with patrons. Read about a job opening at the local printing press? Transport there and apply with the tap of a button.
The newspaper interface, like the rest of the game, is wonderfully minimalistic and sleek. In fact, the entire game takes on a minimalistic aesthetic reminiscent of Brain&Brain’s last game, 2017’s Burly Men at Sea. If you ever wondered what life was like for one of the NPCs in Red Dead–or simply want a quieter, more meditative experience–this might be worth keeping an eye on.
You know what type of indies don’t get enough love nowadays? Beat ’em ups. 2019’s River City Girls went a long way in reigniting interest in the genre and, while Streets of Rage 4 looks to mirror its success, it’s Young Souls that really seems to be pushing the genre forward.
The adventure centers around twins Tristan and Jenn as they uncover a portal to an underground world and try to prevent monsters from destroying life on the surface. By day the twins can chat with locals, shop at different stores around town, and shop at the underground stores for things like weapons and armor. Once night hits, it’s time to travel to the underground world and run 70+ hand-crafted dungeons–no procedural generation here.
Interestingly, one of The Arcade Crew’s biggest pushes is that Young Souls is story-driven. There’ll be story-focused dungeons, people in town will develop over time the more you talk to them, and Tristan and Jenn themselves will start to change as time goes on. Nearly all the characters shown so far burst with personality (thanks in no small part to yet another stunning hand-drawn art style). The last couple years have been great to beat ’em ups, and it’s encouraging to see something as promising as Young Souls releasing in the near future.