Over the last few years, the indie games sector has grown in stature and quality, so much so that it's now often hard to tell which games are independently produced and which come from the big studios.
There is usually one surefire way of telling spotting the difference: indie is where the true innovation lives. Here, we see developers trying out new mechanics, taking risks, and just generally doing things differently.
Without the burden of courting mainstream appeal, independent studios push the envelope, which makes some of the upcoming indie games of 2017 the most exciting games of the year.
Rise & Shine
The first major indie release of the year is a particularly slick-looking one. Rise & Shine aims to do for games what Wreck-It Ralph (and, to a much less well successful extent, Pixels) did for movies with its story and setting, which is very much geared towards long-time gamers. “Gamearth has been invaded by the evil forces of Nexgen!” — Yes, it’s that sort of thing. Expect an onslaught of classic video game references, homages, and knowing humor.
Add to this interesting take on platforming with a puzzle solving slant, plus a strong visual aesthetic which incorporates a hand-drawn, cartoonish art style, and you have an intriguing package that could set an optimistic tone for the coming year.
One of the most anticipated indie titles of the year, this Xbox One exclusive has had a pretty protracted development. The long wait has only heightened the buzz, though, heaping a lot of expectations on what is at its heart a pretty standard Metroidvania-type side-scrolling platformer.
But if the type of game is one we’ve seen many times, the aesthetic is staggeringly innovative. The idea of replicating the visual style of 1930’s era cartoons, complete with painstakingly hand-drawn-and-inked characters, is inspired. The game’s look manages to be both childishly naïve and also darkly sinister at the same time — like if Mickey Mouse had a nightmarish, drug-fuelled hallucination, or something.
Anyway, Cuphead looks to be one of the most polished indie offerings of 2017, so when it finally gets a solid release date, and if developers, Studio MDHR, get the mechanics just right — and so much hinges on that with this sort of game — it could be one of the standout hits of the year.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Billed as an AAA wolf in sheep’s clothing, Hellblade certainly has the caliber of a top release, having been developed by Ninja Theory, the studio behind the 2013 Devil May Cry relaunch, Heavenly Sword and the criminally overlooked Enslaved: Odyssey To The West.
Aside from the buff production values, Hellblade intrigues most with its protagonist, a woman who struggles with dark and powerful hallucinations as a result of her fragile mental condition.
Ninja Theory certainly have a tricky task to blend these subtle themes of mental illness with the slick hack-and-slash combat we’ve seen before from them, but if it’s mixed just right, it could amount to one seriously satisfying cocktail.
The sequel to the game that jump-scared a million YouTubers, developer Red Barrels now has some pretty serious expectations to live up to with Outlast 2, something that the original game never suffered from.
Gone is the eerie psychiatric hospital of the first game, giving way to a brand new setting. The game opens with you crash landing in the Sonoran desert, which is bad enough, but when you encounter a creepy doomsday cult inhabiting a dilapidated village, you just know you’re having just the worst day ever.
Despite the changes, much of what made the original so successful remains. You still play the part of an investigative journalist (just a different one from the first game), and you’re still armed with only a night vision camera and your cunning. Bring on the sleepless nights.
A list of this year’s hottest indie games wouldn’t be complete without this throwback gem. Created by a Playtonics, a small studio comprised of some of the former Rare staff who worked on classic platformer Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee has been the subject of fervent interest since the developers’ wildly successful Kickstarter campaign.
The new game is intended to be a spiritual successor that honors the original franchise while updating that quintessentially late-90s ‘collectathon’ platform style for modern audiences.
It remains to be seen whether Playtonics can replicate the magic of Banjo. But here’s a thing: Yooka-Laylee features a one-eyed, pants-wearing snake salesman called Trowzer. With comedy like that, how can it fail?
In 100 years, mankind will be clustered near the equator following an unscheduled ice-age. That’s the premise of Artika.1, the latest title from the people who brought us Metro 2033.
This Oculus VR title has some insane production values, with slick visuals proficiently fleshing-out the post-apocalyptic world. The game also makes use of the Oculus Touch controllers launched last year, so picking up weapons, firing, and reloading will all be handled with those new doodads, making the experience as immersive as possible
Despite the relatively low-key release, developers 4A Games Malta are shooting for a AAA standard from top to bottom. The top-notch graphics are there for all to see, but there’s also talk of an involved story with a length that can compete with any major console or PC release. This would certainly contrast strongly with most VR experiences, which have so far been firmly in the bite-sized camp.
We Happy Few
Another Kickstarter favorite, We Happy Few premiered on Steam Early Access last year, and immediately suffered a mini-backlash of sorts when many gamers and journalists were disappointed that the game was not quite the Bioshock homage they were expecting (but was never actually promised by the developers). As it turned out, the game was actually more of a procedurally-generated survival game. That’s the continuing risk of letting everyone in on your early-Alpha build, then.
Early access negativity aside, the premise still grabs. Playing as Arthur Hastings, you begin the game wiling away your days redacting newspaper stories for a government that has the minds of the population enslaved with a hallucinogenic drug called Joy.
You quickly get wise to the situation, and presumably, that’s where the story will take over, but that’s one of the aspects that still needs developing. What is there, is a really strong visual aesthetic that definitely evokes the twisted-retro feel of the Bioshock games. Now as long as it can move out from the shadow of those expectations, there’s a good chance of fulfilling that early promise.
If last year was the year that independent games came of age, then 2017 could be the year when the line between independent releases and those from the big publishers is blurred yet further. These picks, in particular, are some of the most polished indies ever seen. There’s fun, there’s innovation, but there’s also an incredible level of quality.
And the exciting thing about the independent scene is there are hundreds of more titles scheduled for release, always with the chance that one will pop up out of nowhere with little fanfare to delight everyone who discovers it. And in gaming, is there anything more exhilarating that a nice surprise?
You can follow Andy on Twitter @AndyJHumphreys