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Indie Games You Might Have Missed in 2018

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When I was thinking about my game of the year for 2018 last month, one thing that stood out was the number of great indie games that I played over the past year. I’d go so far as to say that some of the best games I played last year were not major AAA titles, but indie games produced by smaller studios. I once heard someone express an apt sentiment about indie games, that the best indie games focus on a single aspect and perfect it.  There are obviously other pieces to these games, and some are able to do many things exceptionally well, but there's always one part that is near perfect. The three games here each embody this characteristic in their own way.

Moonlighter is a top-down, dungeon exploring role-playing game and was one of the indie games I was most looking forward to last year. Near the cozy town of Rynoka are a series of mysterious dungeons. For a time, the town was sustained by the adventurers who scoured the dungeons and the merchants who sold the wares the explorers brought back. However, in recent years the town has suffered as adventurers stopped exploring the dungeons and merchants ran out of items to sell. Players control Will, a shopkeeper turned adventurer who sets out the single-handedly revive the town. Moonlighter’s defining feature is its core game-play loop -- explore, sell, upgrade. Players explore the dungeons, fight enemies and collect items those enemies drop. They then return to Rynoka to sell the items to the townspeople and then use that money to upgrade the town, their shop, and their gear. It is a fairly straight-forward game-play loop, but Moonlighter executes it in an incredibly satisfying way. Every time you escape the dungeon with a backpack full of loot, you know those rewards will be the fuel to make your next expedition even more successful. At the same time, it never feels like the game really attempts to evolve this loop. As you venture into later dungeons, the enemies get stronger, but you're now equipped with stronger weapons and more health and armor. Similarly, upgrades become more expensive as the game progresses, but so too do the items players can sell in the shop.

I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of pixel-art and feel it is somewhat overused by indie studios, but even I can concede that when its done well, it can look gorgeous. Moonlighter is one of those games where pixel-art is used exceptionally well to create a beautiful product. Each level has its own unique theme and the enemies and environments work together to make each one feel distinct. However, one area that falls short is the game’s combat. I mentioned earlier that the game-play loop doesn’t change throughout the game. Part of what contributes to this flaw is that your character never changes or gets new abilities. Will starts the game with a sword and shield (technically he starts with a broom, but that gets quickly replaced..), but players can purchase any of the initial weapons soon after. Beyond weapon choice, there isn’t a lot of depth to the combat. Although the game does not restrict players from changing weapons, the upgrade system puts pressure to pick a weapon and stick with it. Don’t get me wrong, the exploration and combat are fluid and feel great, but you approach every encounter more or less the same way which can start feeling repetitive by the end. While the combat leaves a fair bit to be desired, the sales side of the game is surprisingly involved. Selling items isn’t just a matter of returning to your shop and throwing things on a shelf (although, don’t get me wrong, the game keeps track of the price items sell for, so you can just do that). Players need to zero-in on the ideal price for each item. Sell for too little and your excursions into the dungeons can cost more than you make. Price too high and you won’t sell the item, or worse, you’ll sell the item but have a negative effect on its demand which reduces how much you can make on subsequent sales. The shop side is just as much a part of Moonlighter and players spend a solid chunk of the game figuring out how much is each item worth, adjusting those prices based on demand, growing the shop, and dealing with the added challenges that a busier shop brings, such as customers with unique demands, special order, and shoplifters. Taken together, the two halves create a charming whole.

Hollow Knight
Originally released for PC in 2017, Hollow Knight is a hack-and-slash adventure and exploring game with a healthy dose of platforming in the style of side-scrolling Metroid and Castlevania games. Hollow Knight tells the story of the Knight, a silent and emotionless protagonist on a mission to explore and uncover the secrets of the once mighty insect kingdom known as Hallownest. Hallownest was previous inhabited by a number of bug species, but in the time since, has mostly fallen into disrepair. I think it is more than just the fact that I’m not a big fan of bugs, but Hollow Knight’s visuals and world somehow sit in the balance between stylistically cute and subtlety creepy. The game is never very explicit about much of its story, but players are able to get an idea of the events and conflict that transpired by piecing together the narrative scattered throughout the game’s world. Players journey to a number of areas, from rocky caves to overgrown forests, to abandoned cities and the sewers beneath. Hallow Knight’s stylistic use of color sets these areas apart and makes the game stand out. For instance, when players first dive into Hallownest, they’ll be greeted by mostly black and white caves accented by shades of dull blue. I’ll admit, this initial area is not very impressive and will make you question why Hollow Knight has received such high praise. The game never really deviates too far from this dark style, but expertly uses accenting colors to make the different areas feel unique. For instance, vibrant greens overflow in the city’s overgrown gardens while the mines on the outskirts brighten the deeper players explore from the glow of exposed pink crystals. The use of color gives the game a very distinct and beautiful style.

Like many games in this genre, players are thrust into this adventure with a fairly basic toolkit and access to only a limited number of areas, but open up more of the world by progressing through the game and unlocking new abilities and moves. I’ll admit that there were more than a few occasions where I found myself wandering the world with no idea where to go next, but that just added to the world-building. The need to explore and find things on your own helps Hallownest truly felt like an abandoned kingdom. The Knight is initially armed with only a sword, but eventually gains access to magic, movement abilities, and other strange powers. Players can also equip charms which provide a number of unique effects. Combat in Hallow Knight often relies on precision and timing, best exemplified by the game’s approach to healing. Players gain access to healing through use of an ability called focus early on, but healing must be done in-game and takes time. During combat players need to anticipate their opponents' moves and time the ability correctly because if a player stops, whether voluntarily or because of a hit from an enemy, the energy is consumed and is not returned. Boss fights can be especially grueling as many will require multiple attempts to learn their mechanics and leave only brief windows for healing. That said, every encounter comes down to surviving long enough to learn the mechanics and timing which leads to an immense sense of satisfaction whenever you overcome an arduous foe. It is also worth noting, since release, the game has received a number of free DLCs which have added new and challenging content, some of which continues to taunt me and keeps bringing me back. Except the Path of Pain.. I have no intention of attempting that challenge..

The last indie game on my list is the phenomenally well-received Celeste. Celeste tells the story of Madeline, a young woman on a mission to prove herself by climbing the titular Celeste Mountain. Celeste is an elegantly simple side-scrolling platformer that is also incredibly unforgiving and encourages players to learn from repeatedly failing. And make no mistake, you will fail. A lot. The game keeps a running tally of the number of times a player has failed in each level and overall, and those numbers can start to climb very quickly. Levels are built around a specific area of the mountain, an abandoned city, broken down ruins, a decrepit hotel, and so on, with each level broken into several short, self-contained “rooms” which each serve as a checkpoint. Each level introduces a new feature or ability that builds on the core jumping and platforming mechanics. As you progress through a level, later rooms build on the challenges and add new elements around that new feature which push you to perfect your technique. Once you beat a level, you move onto the next which requires you to take everything you learned throughout the previous level and merge it with another new aspect. Thankfully, the platforming and controls feel tight and responsive, which is a necessity in a game that punishes players for a lack of precision. Beyond even the challenge of the main story, the game has a number of additional hurdles for its more hardcore audience. The game offers collectibles and secret levels for players who crave even more challenging platforming precision.

The exceptional platforming isn't the only thing that's great about Celeste. Another thing that helps Celeste stand out is its story and the creative way it approaches anxiety, personal doubts, depression, and the journey to deal with them. Throughout her journey, Madeline is plagued by self-doubt which physically manifests as a mirrored doppelganger of herself that pursues her from level to level. Sometimes she serves as an actual obstacle, other times she appears just to mock Madeline’s shortcomings. The game’s central philosophy, that it is okay to fail, is core to Madeline's struggles. It ties the player’s own journey and failure into the game’s overall narrative in a way that helps players feel invested. Celeste does not have an especially deep story, but as you progress, it is impossible not to end up caring about Madeline and her personal journey. Visually, the game relies on a fairy simple pixel-art style. Like I said earlier, I’m not the biggest fan of pixel-art, and while I normally would be more critical of Celeste, the vibrant colors and charming visuals work for Celeste and help it stand out. It also helps that the game’s visuals are also paired with a catchy and memorable chip-tune score. Although it has been delayed, I’m eagerly waiting on the opportunity to return to the mountain with the upcoming free DLC that is supposed to be released sometime this year.

Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game. ~ Michael Jordan

All images owned by their respective studios.


  1. Madeline -
    Madeline's Avatar
    Good calls. I'd add Gris to the list.
  2. Fiye -
    Fiye's Avatar
    The Messenger as well.