Indies have been huge this year, and easily taken the place of some of our favourite games in 2020. If you're looking to check out some games made by smaller teams, then absolutely give these a look.
No Straight Roads
Publisher: Sold Out Games
Genre: Rock Opera
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
The best use of music in an action game you’ll ever see, and fully equipped for Christmas.
I have ummed and ahhed about this for weeks but No Straight Roads is probably my personal favourite game of the year. It’s buggy, it has some lame levels, two player is an exercise in learning to hate your partner. And I still love it.
Partly because I listen to the music, basically all the time. It’s great, you should do that too.
But it’s just such a cool experience. The sheer level of style in this game is so powerful that it deserves respect. The voice acting is lovely and the characters really grow on you. But best of all, playing it makes you feel at one with its incredible soundtrack.
Playing through the boss battles when I just want to have a wonderful experience is still so satisfying and engaging. I can’t get enough.
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
Publisher: Thunder Lotus
Genre: Management sim/platformer/heart expander
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch
Create and captain a ship of souls until you long for a better life.
Spiritfarer hit me in a way basically no game ever has before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game deliver so well on every aspect of what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a beautiful, poignant, light, fun, dark, and breezy adventure.
I remember when I stopped playing Spiritfarer I felt so empty. I was so ingrained in the life I’d created for myself in this world. So in love with my ship, my adventure, my journey. I had a distinct moment where I thought that I would give up every inch of my material life to lead one like this one instead. I longed to be the Spiritfarer.
No Straight Road takes out my favourite game of the year, but Spiritifarer was the best game I played this year. To me, in many ways, it was perfect.
Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
Platforms: PC, PS4/5, Apple Arcade, Mac
Experience elegance as a spiritual hunter fighting to bring back the light.
I’ve gotta admit I’m a sucker for good traversal in games so The Pathless won me over instantly. In this game you run, and regenerate stamina by shooting floating talismans all around you which auto target. Once your arrow hits them, you get a boost as well. It’s a constant alternation of running and shooting which propels you across this beautifully eerie world.
If getting around feels good then I’m usually a pretty happy camper and this system has such good flow to it that I can’t help but be all in.
The main premise is you’re a hunter, fighting back against an evil god and restoring the spirits in your forest. To do this you’ll complete puzzles to restore towers and take on corrupted spirits. You also have an Eagle spirit companion who helps you in your journey and also lets you give her really tactile feeling pets.
There’s no death and no time limit. It does wind up having a bit less substance than I’d like, but it’s a cathartic experience of elegance I couldn’t ignore in 2020.
I have played precisely 30 minutes of Hades and had to stop because I did not have time to lose my life to that beautiful looking game. Ring of Pain is the coolest and creepiest card based roguelike I’ve ever played.
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Genre: Action roguelike
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Fight your way through the Greek underworld with the help of the gods and piss your dad off while doing so.
Who would've thought: a game adored by critics and the public alike that was made without harmful working practices? Yes, Supergiant Games has done it again, they've made another fantastic game, all while looking after the people who worked on it.
Hades excels in way too many areas to adequately list off here, a brief rundown of our games of the year. One area definitely worth mentioning here is that Hades nails the one-more-try loop with more than satisfying combat and skill progression.
Every time you die and revive, another layer of the world's mythos is peeled back. Whether this is through a story flashback, or another interaction with Hades' rich cast of characters, you'll want to keep going and learn more about what's at stake.
Also, there's a boss fight that is oh-so-clever in its gameplay and narrative implications.
Plus, everyone in Hades is ridiculously good looking.
Lair of the Clockwork God
Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Size Five Games / Ant Workshop
Genre: Platformer, point-and-click adventure, comedy
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS4.
Platforming plus point-and-click adventuring collide in this hilarious genre mash-up that wears its inspirations proudly while taking the piss out of said inspirations at every step.
Lair of the Clockwork God is an extremely funny, extremely meta experience that is as much a love letter to gaming as it is a send-up of the many game elements we take for granted.
On a quest to find the cure for cancer, Ben and Dan — fictionalised versions of the game's creators — find themselves caught in the apocalypse to end all apocalypses. Only by recalibrating a mechanised deity can they prevent the end of the world.
It's a wild premise, for sure, but mainly exists as a vehicle to crack observational and fourth-wall-breaking jokes — some witty, and some completely crass, which is just how I like my humour. Games can be funny, yes, but it's rare to encounter a game so confident in its writing and absurdity to actually pull it off (phrasing) so successfully. The hybridisation of the two old-school genres is absolute genius, too.
I've never played anything quite like Lair of the Clockwork God, and now I can't wait for what Size Five Games does next.
Developer: Route 59
Publisher: Route 59, Playism, Coconut Island Games
Genre: Visual novel
Platforms: PC, Apple Arcade
A supernatural ode to Melbourne, friendship, moving on, and artisanal beverages.
This is one of the best realisations of Australia I've encountered across any medium — especially games. I've written before about how many video game depictions of Australia don't quite capture our culture, so this makes Necrobarista extra special.
I reviewed Necrobarista for Player 2 earlier in the year, praising how effortlessly Australian the dialogue and characters are, plus how well it captures the best parts — while cutting out the problematic aspects — of anime and visual novels.
Oh, and in addition to the writing, the art and cinematography are superb. Necrobarista is the gold standard for how stylish visual novels can aspire to be.
Special Mentions: Too many to list! Rogue Legacy 2 is currently in Steam Early Access, but is already shaping up to be a worthy successor to the first. Murder By Numbers is a wonderful combination of Phoenix Wright sleuthing and Picross puzzles. Nowhere Prophet is a great roguelike deck-builder that cleverly welds gameplay and narrative elements together, which I'm a big fan of.
Moon: Remix RPG Adventure
Developer: Love-de-lic, Onion Games
Publisher: Onion Games, ASCII Corporation
Genre: RPG? Puzzle? Adventure? Love???
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
A 20-year-old PlayStation 1 game comes to the West for the first time and brings with it the meaning of love.
In 1997, a group of veteran RPG makers known as Love-de-Lic released a parody of what they’d known as the JRPG to be until that point. It’s a bizarre adventure game in which the puzzles are reliant on learning to love and understand a strange new world.
Those who have played Chu-Lip will understand the day night cycle, alien catching, puzzle solving, friend making gameplay. The modern, first-time official translation on Nintendo Switch is hilarious, heart-felt and the game puts a fun and still relevant spin on how we look at game tropes today.
Example: With no hint or prompt by the game (other than that everyone had their own day/night cycle through the various days of the week) I get to know a palace guard named Fred. Every now and then, in the middle of the night, he’d sneak into the throne room to perform a full Freddy Mercury impression. It was stunning. Finding this meant I was rewarded with an item and information to solve a completely unrelated puzzle I hadn’t found yet.
Developer: Kaizen Game Works
Publisher: Fellow Traveler
Genre: Vaporwave investigation simulator
Platforms: PC, Mac, Switch
In a vaporwave paradise where an immortal cult of humans kidnap regular humans, what happens when their leaders are murdered?
I’m a sucker for Vaporwave. I even interviewed Kaizen Gameworks recently to learn more about their influences, and how the artistic direction and all its aspects came together.
The game itself is a murder mystery at heart, where you play as the detective. Lady Love Dies is tasked with discovering who murdered the lead members of The Syndicate (an immortal cult of humans who worship dead alien Gods). Every few millenia, the island they’re on dies, and they move to a new one. This unfortunate premise happened on the eve of moving to their new, perfect paradise and so, Lady Love Dies is called from exile to uncover something much more than your basic whodunnit.
It’s somewhere between adventure game and visual novel, with the interview portions consisting of questioning a cast of characters, each with their own goals, and putting together information and figuring out exactly what’s going on. To get there, it’s a sort of parkour around a surreal, dreamlike yet-very-empty paradise in an action/adventure segment, finding clues and uncovering plots.
Developer: Route 59
Publisher: Route 59, Playism, Coconut Island Games
Genre: Visual novel/coffee making/necromancing
Platforms: PC, Mac
In a world where the dead can roam the Earth for 24 hours before they pass on, what better way to spend the time than in a suburban Melbourne coffee shop?
I’m going to be honest. Necrobarista hit me on a deeply personal level, which is why it’s so high up the list. I wrote about it on goto.game, but to summarise, I’ve had a lot of weird interactions with death. An entire game, in familiar Australian slang, all about bizarre interactions with death and the strange feelings about it that follow is kind of my jam.
Essentially, the dead get 24 hours to wander around the area they lived before they’re forced to ‘move on’. Whatever that may mean. Maddie, coffee shop owner/necromancer/illegal activity enjoyer is introduced to recently deceased Kishan, and a bizarre, distinctly Melbournian underground.
The game is primarily a very immersive visual novel, in which the player is shown pieces of, all connecting together over a period of 24 hours. There’s also plenty of supplemental information to hint at the lore of the world. And then debt collector literal Ned Kelly shows up and he’s a really nice guy. And then you’re forced to confront the very nature of your own existence through well written fictional characters and beautiful camera angles to form a quirky narrative.
Best Friend Forever (dogs! Dogs! Dogs! dogs!)
Hades (yeah ok it was great but I liked these more, I’m still bitter that I got carpal tunnel from playing it on Switch in handheld mode)
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout (Surprisingly fun and refreshing in a world of Battle Royale’s where you just shoot each other)