While there is still some contention surrounding what qualifies as an “indie” game these days, this genre has generally been defined as games that come from smaller development studios that aren’t backed by larger, triple-A publishing companies. This definition gets a bit blurred, especially since many recent indie games rival some of the top triple-A games in the market in terms of quality and content.
For this list, we’ve rounded up several of the best indie games that have come out in 2016 thus far. We have not ranked these games in any particular order, since each one shines for different reasons. We will update this list as more quality indie games release through the end of 2016.
Hyper Light Drifter
Hyper Light Drifter draws inspiration from some of the best 16-bit games, blending contemporary fighting mechanics with a nostalgic pixel art aesthetic. It’s vibrant color palette and unique environmental designs create a world just begging to be explored. Players take on the role of a Drifter, an information seeker and adept fighter who must traverse the harsh landscape of Buried Time in search of its lost treasures. Your Drifter also happens to be afflicted by a debilitating illness that causes you to regularly cough up pink blood, adding a sense of urgency to the adventure.
Hyper Light Drifter is composed of four distinct regions, each with a particular climate and series of enemies. Using a blend of fluid sword-fighting and shooting mechanics, you must defeat tough bosses in each region in order to progress your search for answers. Boss battles are challenging, yet rewarding; you will need fast reflexes and a good grasp of your abilities in order to succeed in combat. Hyper Light Drifter is perfect for players looking to explore a gorgeous pixel art world, rife with hidden secrets and a story waiting to be told.
Imagine waking up on a strange, yet beautifully-colored island. You’re given no context as to why you’re there, but your surroundings appear intriguingly complex and purposeful. After tampering with a few lines on a glowing graph, you unlock a gateway leading to new paths and more seemingly purposeful puzzles. Nothing is pursuing you, nor are you urged to proceed further, but you do anyway. If not for the prospect of finding something fruitful at the end of your journey, you proceed for the pure satisfaction of solving each mysterious puzzle along your path.
This essentially sums up the workflow of The Witness. The core mechanic of each puzzle primarily consists of drawing lines in calculated patterns upon designated graph panels. Puzzle panels are usually connected by wire to other panels in its network, and for each panel you solve correctly, an adjacent panel will unlock further down the circuit.
While the core mechanic behind solving each puzzle is relatively simple, Jonathan Blow has done a remarkable job incorporating fresh and challenging ways to make the puzzles exceedingly complex or challenging. Puzzles throughout the island each have a certain theme that can indicate how to solve them, and there are even hidden line puzzles upon the terrain itself for curious players to stumble upon. Each puzzle starts out with easy panels that slowly become more challenging. When you reach the end of a puzzle set, you can’t help but feel like you’ve somehow gotten smarter, which is the satisfying feeling that most puzzle aficionados crave. Be prepared, because after a few hours into The Witness, you’ll start seeing those damn line patterns everywhere!
Anyone who enjoys farming games like Harvest Moon should definitely get their hands on Stardew Valley, which is currently available for both PC and Mac. In Stardew Valley, you begin as a jaded office worker who has recently inherited a small plot of farmland. Eager to drop your life as a corporate stooge, you pack up and move to the small town where your farm is located. With little more than some old tools and a watering can, you must learn to thrive on your own as an independent farmer. When the corrupt corporation you once worked for threatens to overtake local businesses in Stardew Valley, it’s up to you to restore the town and help it flourish.
Being a loner won’t help you be a better farmer, however. The relationships you form with NPC’s play an important role in your farming capabilities, and your reputation amongst the townsfolk can help or hinder your efforts. Every person in town has a distinct personality, and interpersonal relationships are fostered through dialogue choices and other interactions. The narrative also alludes to an eerie fantasy lore consisting of witches, dwarves, and unexplained events that add a creepy vibe to this otherwise cheery farming sim.
Firewatch puts players into the hiking boots of a man named Henry, who has taken refuge in the Wyoming wilderness to work as a fire lookout during the summer of 1989. His attempts to leave behind his troubled past come secondary to the mysteries that lie ahead. Aside from a few random encounters with rowdy park-goers, Henry’s only real human communication comes from speaking with his supervisor Delilah via handheld radio. Strange occurrences begin to peak Henry’s curiosity, prompting him to delve deeper into the woods in search of answers.
One of the best aspects of Firewatch is the quality dialogue. Conversations feel genuine and convincing, which works to immerse players into the story and promote reading between the lines. Henry is voiced by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, while Delilah is voiced by The Walking Dead’s Cissy Jones. Both actors deliver an excellent vocal performance that truly brings both characters to life. The vivid environmental colors and smooth first-person character animations help to draw players into the mystery that unfolds deep within the wilderness. Firewatch is perfect for players looking for an intriguing, story-driven experience, built upon quality dialogue and a well-paced narrative.
Playdead, the creative minds behind Limbo, have done it again. Players embark on an eerie and unsettling adventure in their latest 2D platformer, Inside. Players must guide a young boy through a series of dark factories and foreboding offices in an attempt to escape, or perhaps to simply find answers. It’s clear there’s something ominous afoot, and anyone who questions authority or steps out of line will be punished.
Slouching individuals will mindlessly slog past you, while other seemingly harmless background figures can quickly become dangerous. You’ll need to pay attention to your surroundings in order to solve various puzzles and to anticipate incoming threats. The puzzles themselves are rather cleverly constructed, and are never so difficult that they impede the pacing of the game.
Inside, like Limbo before it, does a great job at showing its story rather than telling it. The greyscale setting and intriguing environments convey the game’s overall themes, doing more to tell Inside’s story than some invasive dialogue ever could for a game like this. Environmental storytelling is an artistic feat worthy of praise, and is reason enough to try your hand at this melancholic gem.
Players looking for a satisfyingly challenging game that’s not another Dark Souls knock-off should look no further than Furi. Furi is a stylish twin-stick shooter that runs players through a gauntlet of difficult bullet hell boss battles. After having been captured, you’ll have to fight your way through a series of familiar enemies to eventually free yourself from the one who imprisoned you. The game isn’t particularly story-driven, as most of the story is told through exposition while walking between battles. However, the clever narrative twist may be worth sticking around for.
Furi is all about twitchy, hack-and-slash fighting mechanics, so you’ll need to have fast reflexes to keep up. The combat is complemented by an electronic soundtrack full of catchy earworms that shape each boss battle. The music amplifies the intensity of the fights while encouraging rhythm and pacing. The steady, driving beats are as important to the combat as the stylish visuals, acting as audio cues for your movements.
Since Furi relies heavily on muscle memory, we recommend playing through as many battles as possible in one sitting, so that you can remember the control scheme and can transition smoothly from one battle to the next. Taking time off in between each boss battle will only make this already challenging action game that much more difficult. However, given the addictive and rewarding nature of its arcade-style combat, it’s unlikely you’ll put Furi down once you get into the groove.
It’s rare to find games that are both calming and entertaining at the same time. ABZÛ manages to be as therapeutic as it is engaging, instilling a sense of wonder and awe in players throughout its brief journey. Speaking of which, ABZÛ was also created by the same art designer who formed the beautiful worlds of Journey and Flower, so it comes as no surprise that ABZÛ would have an equally charming aesthetic as well.
As an agile diver, players must make their way through stunning underwater environments, teeming with various sea creatures and other aquatic life. All the while, a great white shark seems to taunt you along your journey, while seemingly pursuing a goal of its own. Along the way, you'll discover that your arrival was not quite as random as you once thought.
There are some light puzzle mechanics to make each region a bit more interactive, but where the game truly shines is in the nuanced interactions between your diver and the other creatures. You’ll unearth quirky robots from the sea floor who mimic your movements and respond to your commands, while entire schools of fish synchronize with your gestures. There’s no talking in the game, but the subtleties in each interaction make you feel connected to the life in this underwater abyss.
The tranquil nature of the game is enhanced by the fluid swimming of the diver, who can power up and leap from the water with a few button taps. ABZÛ can be completed in just a couple of hours, but we found this game to be relaxing and enjoyable enough to warrant a second or third playthrough.
We will update this list as more amazing indie games release in 2016, so be sure to check back for updates.