The best indie games might could be ones that fill gaps the videogame industry’s big-budget beefy-boys have missed, the kind of games that explore genres and styles that have fallen out of fashion because someone in marketing said they were irrelevant, or that explore ideas too “out there” to explain to the C-suite.
Or the best indie games might be the ones that are the most personal—that reveal something intimate about their developers and make us feel the kind of human connection you don’t get in games made by gigantic anonymous teams.
They might even let us recognize something of ourselves in them, and learn that something we thought was freakish is actually a shared experience, helping us feel less alone. Or they might highlight a viewpoint we hadn’t considered, explaining why someone we disagree with feels the way they do and expanding our understanding of the world.
This list of the best indie games on PC contains games of all those kinds of games, across all kinds of genres. You’ll find indie open world games as well as indie metroidvanias, and relaxing, cozy indie games. And now that the semantic satiation is setting in, you’ll have come to realize that the word “indie” doesn’t really mean anything, and all games are beautiful no matter what label we apply to them. Wait, hang on a second. It just means “independent” and describes games that were made without outside interference. Now that’s settled, on with the list.
The best indie exploration games
A Short Hike
Release date: 2019 | Developer: Adam Robinson-Yu | Steam, itch.io, GOG, Epic
A soothing little game about climbing a big mountain, A Short Hike lives up to its name by letting you wrap the whole thing in just a couple of hours. On the way up the mountain you meet a heap of different animal-folk who want to chat, play a game, teach you a new way of getting around, or maybe ask for your help, but it’s up to you how much time you spend wallowing in this heartwarming world.
As well as these sidequests, you discover sideways jaunts around the landscape where coins and the golden feathers that make you better at climbing and gliding might be hidden. Though you are a bird, you’re one who can only jump and swoop rather than fly, because that would make the whole “climbing a mountain” thing a bit trivial.
Clichéd as it sounds, A Short Hike really is about the journey rather than the destination, letting you decide whether you want to dedicate yourself to finding seashells, learning to fish, or getting to know a turtle athlete. That said, the destination’s worthwhile too, and even if you hare straight to the top there’s still a feeling of accomplishment.
Read more: Relaxing walking game A Short Hike has a 99-person multiplayer mod now
Release date: 2020 | Developer: Origame Digital | Steam
Umurangi Generation will make you a better photographer. That’s a guarantee. An urban photography sim set in a cyberpunk Ao Tearoa, Umurangi hands you a handheld camera that’s a work of art on its own—a wonderfully tactile, physical object that slowly bulks out with more lenses, features, and post-processing effects. Umurangi Generation is a game that loves photography, though it will never judge you for taking a bad shot.
What it does judge, loudly and proudly, is the absolute state of the world. Umurangi Generation is an unrepentantly anti-colonial, anti-cop protest piece set in the middle of the apocalypse. It’s a sci-fi setting where kaiju are killing us and the UN’s Evangelion-like protector mechs are doing no better. Yet nevertheless it deals with real-world political issues, firing shots at the global response to the 2019 Australian wildfires, police response to the 2020 George Floyd protests, and the complacency of videogames in propping up violent power structures.
Read more: Umurangi Generation is a stylish urban photography game set in a ‘shitty future’
Release date: 2013 | Developer: David Kanaga, Ed Key | Steam, itch.io
Walking simulators—and we use the term affectionately here at PC Gamer—can sometimes feel like lectures you experience while holding down the W key. Proteus doesn’t because its story is one you tell yourself. It dumps you on a procedurally generated island and sets you loose to explore, climbing hills and chasing frogs, free to wander wherever you will.
There is a story in Proteus, in the sense that there’s a specific sequence of events you can experience. It’s a subtle story, though. (One hint: it involves the standing stones.) If you want it there’s a build-up and climax there, but even if you never uncover that secret story, just strolling over the islands of Proteus listening to their soundtrack—which changes based on where you are and what you’re doing—provides a sense of satisfaction.
Read more: Proteus is the best song I’ve ever played
The best indie adventure games
The Forgotten City
Release date: 2021 | Developer: Modern Storyteller | Steam, GOG, Epic
At one point in The Forgotten City you have the option to say, “There’s no shame in building on the works of people who came before you.” It’s a sensible thing to say in the moment, when you’re in a Roman city that, like everything Roman, is indebted to the Greeks, who were indebted to the cultures who came before them. It’s also apt because The Forgotten City was once a Skyrim mod before being retooled into a standalone adventure.
And it has been substantially retooled, to the point it’s worthwhile even if you played the original. This is no longer just a sidequest in an open world fantasy RPG. It’s a self-contained time travel adventure through history in which you’re trapped in a cursed Roman settlement, where everyone will be turned to gold as punishment if any one citizen sins. You’re the only person guaranteed to escape this, being hurled back in time to the moment of your arrival to have another go at preventing the disaster each time it happens.
As it happens, you too are building on the work of others—only some of those others are you from a previous loop. You carry items and knowledge with you each time the cycle resets, and can use them to save lives, alter destinies, and open new spaces. Each time you jog by the eerie golden statues of those who suffered the curse before the current inhabitants moved in, their heads sometimes spookily turning to regard you, you’re using the lessons of the past to shape the future. It’s a perfect match of theme and gameplay.
Read more: Purple carrots and horrifying toilets were key to making The Forgotten City’s ancient Rome believable
Spider and Web
Release date: 1998 | Developer: Andrew Plotkin | itch.io
Here’s the ultimate in lo-fi games: a text adventure. The work of interactive fiction mastermind Andrew Plotkin, in Spider and Web you’re a spy breaking into a mysterious, high-tech facility. The puzzles you solve as you work your way through its corridors and past its cameras and alarms are contextualized by being told in flashback. What’s happening is a story you reveal under interrogation, having been caught and held captive in the same facility you tried to infiltrate. The interrogator will even interrupt when you start going the wrong way or screw up a puzzle, saying, “That’s not what really happened!” He’s essentially the meanest hint system ever conceived.
Knowing you’ll get caught adds a sense of doomed inevitability to the whole thing. Only that’s not all Spider and Web has to offer. Eventually you’re going to catch up to the present, and where things go after that is genius.
The winner of five Xyzzy Awards including Best Game, Spider and Web is clever, full of surprises, and free.
Read more: The joy of text—read any good games lately?
The Red Strings Club
Release date: 2018 | Developer: Deconstructeam | Steam, itch.io, GOG
The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk game about three underdogs. Akara-184 is a genderless android who crafts cybernetic upgrades to make humans fitter, happier, and more popular on the internet. Bartender Donovan’s job is also to make people happy, because that’s how bars work. He’s an information broker on the side, manipulating customers by mixing drinks that accentuate personality traits he exploits to keep them talking. Brandeis wants to make people happy too, in his case by bringing down the corporations. He’s a freelance hacker in a cyberpunk dystopia. That’s what they’re supposed to do.
These three playable characters all work hard for what they’ve got. Their work is represented by minigames, which are sometimes frustrating, but are just things they have to do to survive while tangled in a corporate conspiracy.
That conspiracy involves a plan to mind control people to do away with negative emotions. Just like the main characters, the antagonists want to make people happy, they just have a different way of doing it. The Red Strings Club exploits this theme for all it’s worth, asking questions about when it’s OK to mess with people’s emotions and how, in our own small ways, we probably do that every day.
Read more: What The Red Strings Club teaches us about conversation
The best indie RPGs
Release date: 2019 | Developer: ZA/UM | Steam, GOG, Epic
Disco Elysium looks like a certain kind of fantasy game, the kind that says, “Welcome to Top-Down Town, here’s a world full of people to talk to and stats to raise, and a secret about your past to uncover maybe!” It is one of those, a CRPG in every sense that matters, but one that draws from literary fiction and crime thrillers more than trilogies that have dragons on the cover.
Its setting is the run-down corner of a modern city, a Disco Borough that is both stuck in the past and desperate to forget its own history of revolutionary uprising just as you, the archetype debauched detective, have tried to escape from and forget your own.
Every word of Disco Elysium is worryingly well-written, and there’s enough humor in it to take the edge off the miserablism. When first announced, it was called “No Truce With the Furies”, which is a quote from an R. S. Thomas poem called Reflections. Aptly, Disco Elysium holds up a mirror to other RPGs and finds them wanting. You’ll wish they were all this confidently capable of handing out life-lesson wisdom instead of experience points.
Read more: We talk to Disco Elysium’s incredible narrator, who recorded 350,000 words of dialogue and has never acted before
Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale
Release date: 2010 | Developer: EasyGameStation | Steam
Recettear is the reason there are so many whimsical games about running a shop that sells swords, potions, and rations to adventurers, about imagining life on the other side of the videogame buy-and-sell menu. What’s it like to be the person who has to keep a Thirsting Blade in stock just in case a wealthy murderhobo happens by?
Playing as the protagonist combo of shopkeeper Recette and finance fairy Tear, you’re not just buying stock, haggling over prices, and rearranging the shelves. You’re also tagging along on Zelda-style dungeon crawls with select heroes, ones who sign a contract to split the loot if you provide them with better gear.
This is such a sensible economic reality for a town near a dungeon that I’m surprised it took a parody to think of it, but that’s Recettear all over. It makes fun of fantasy clichés while building a setting that ultimately makes more sense than the things it parodies. Even the way the dungeon reconfigures and restocks itself between delves is explained. That’s somebody’s job too, because of course it is.
Read more: Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is still the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game
Release date: 2017 | Developer: Supergiant Games | Steam, itch.io, GOG
Pyre is a true ballad of a game, a mythical, musical journey through purgatory by way of wizard basketball. Win or lose, every match pushes you forward, adding another twist to a story that is as bittersweet as it is heartwarming.
The exiles playing this ancient sport in a bid to escape their purgatory call themselves the Nightwings. They’re a tightly knit family, and though your goal is to bring every one of them home, you only get to choose one of them to leave at the climax of each tournament. Having to say fond farewells to your favorite party members never fails to punch you in the gut.
Read more: Different as they are, Supergiant’s games all explore tolerance and the ways we deal with disaster
West of Loathing
Release date: 2017 | Developer: Asymmetric Publications | Steam, GOG
West of Loathing is so wonderfully jam-packed with humor, clever writing, and charming characters that it’s hard to stop playing even when you’ve finished the main story, solved all of the (sometimes quite devious) puzzles, and collected every hat (there are more than 50). Everywhere you turn there’s some snippet of descriptive text that will make you smile, chuckle, or laugh, even the settings menu. West of Loathing will drive you to explore not for loot or experience, but for words.
Read more: West of Loathing wasn’t just a game with jokes in it, it was ‘a game made out of jokes’
The best indie puzzle games
Release date: 2022 | Developer: Bad Viking | Steam, GOG, Epic
Like Recettear, Strange Horticulture is a game about running a shop that’s actually something quite different. You don’t have to worry about balancing the books at all. You sell plants with unusual properties, and you can’t order those wholesale. Instead, you have to solve a riddle revealing a map location somewhere in England’s Lake District where you’ll find a fungus that moves on its own, or a flower whose stem gives off light when burned.
Each customer presents a puzzle as well. Whether they want flowers for a wife’s birthday or a herb that adds mental clarity, you’ll have to figure out which of your unlabeled stock would be best for them. As is traditional in these games you inherited the shop, which explains why it’s disorganized and nothing has nametags. You’ve got to crack open a book and examine diagrams, read descriptions, and eliminate the unlikely to deduce which deciduous is correct.
There’s more to puzzle out beyond the best plant for treating a rash as well. There’s a mystery you’ll get drawn into as investigators who are digging into a series of unusual crimes involving ritual murders and the local druids turn to you for your expertise in poisons and cures, and that turns out to be a mystery every bit as strange as your horticulture.
Read more: How Strange Horticulture’s devs went from Flash to one of the best games of the year
Release date: 2017 | Developer: Adriaan de Jongh, Sylvain Tegroeg | Steam, itch.io, GOG
The hidden gem of the hidden object genre is Hidden Folks. In its daunting crowd scenes, jungles, and cityscapes you’re asked to find specific people, animals, or tiny objects with the aid of a simple clue for each. The art is hand-drawn and the sound effects are mouth-made, an orchestra of brum-brums and ook-ooks giving extra hints and making it fun to click on every squiggly thing just to see what noise it makes.
That’s something you don’t get in Where’s Wally, or Where’s Waldo as it may be known where you grew up. The pictures in Hidden Folks are highly interactive, busy dioramas full of activity. There’s an X on the ground? Click it to dig up whatever’s buried there. Bamboo forest? Click to chop it down and reveal whoever it’s hiding. Soon the puzzles become multi-step affairs and you’re growing wheat to make a scarecrow appear, then sending boats downriver, operating machinery on a factory floor, and manipulating traffic.
No matter how layered and complicated Hidden Folks gets, the cheery “noot-noot” of the car horns remains a delight.
Read more: Hidden Folks is the hidden object game I’ve been waiting for
Release date: 2019 | Developer: Hollow Ponds, Richard Hogg | Steam, itch.io, Epic
Stock arrives in your warehouse. The items are unnamed, just colorful square pictures. Each image might be specific or it might be abstract, a sun or a heart or a shape that looks kind of like an alien bug’s face or a pair of Band-Aids. It’s on you to decide where to store them in the warehouse, categorizing them with an eye to being able to find them again quickly—because when your co-workers arrive you’ll have a time limit to find the items they request.
They demand stock wordlessly too, with pictographs and numbers. Somebody wants three explosions. Where did you put those? “I put the explosions next to the fire,” you think, as if that’s a perfectly normal thought and not a health-and-safety lawsuit waiting to happen. Fulfilling orders faster earns stars to buy upgrades, like a speed boost or the removal of a pillar to make more space in your warehouse (surely undermining the structural integrity of this storeroom full of explosions and what might be alien bug faces).
The puzzles you solve are ones you make for yourself, each category-creating decision coming back to haunt you later. More than a puzzle game about inventory organization, Wilmot’s Warehouse is a personality quiz. Are you the kind of person who sorts things by theme? Do barbecues belong near food, near things that are hot, or near generally summer-related objects? Do you organize by color, or by the number of sides a shape has? You’re inventing meaning as you go, playing with semiotics while pushing squares around. Like Tetris, that other classic game of moving blocks, after playing Wilmot’s Warehouse you’ll see the world a little differently.
Read more: Deleting clutter: why we like games about cleaning up messes
Release date: 2013 | Developer: Lucas Pope | Steam, GOG
One of the most interesting things games can do is let you feel like you’ve lived someone else’s life. The rubber stamps and bureaucracy of Papers, Please really do make you empathize with the life of a border guard under a totalitarian regime.
Morality’s a thing games don’t do well nearly as often, but by letting you master increasingly complex regulations—Papers, Please has a great difficulty curve, something many indie games struggle with—it gives you power over the hapless citizens who line up to present their documentation. It motivates you to judge them harshly because if you don’t, the income you need to support your family will be docked, but also because the detective work of uncovering fraud is shockingly enjoyable.
You discover a contradiction in someone’s papers and feel great, then realize what that will mean for the human on the other side of the counter trying to get home and then you feel awful. Sure, it is a game about paperwork, but it’s such an intense game about paperwork that when you’re rewarded by being given the key to the gun cabinet you’ll want to hand it back out of fear for what you’ll have to do with it. You’ll want to tell a videogame you aren’t interested in having a gun.
Read more: Great moments in PC gaming: Dealing with Jorji Costava in Papers, Please
Stephen’s Sausage Roll
Release date: 2016 | Developer: increpare | Steam
It’s a game called Stephen’s Sausage Roll, and it’s about cooking sausages. But for some reason you have to push those sausages around blocky, psychedelic puzzle chambers in order to grill them. Don’t question it. If it’s a tough puzzle game you’re after, Stephen’s Sausage Roll should be high on your list.
Read more: Stephen’s Sausage Roll is a breakfast that will break you
The best indie roguelikes
Release date: 2020 | Developer: Supergiant Games | Steam, Epic
The roguelike for people who don’t like roguelikes, Hades makes death a reward rather than a punishment. Each run, you murder-dash through the Greek underworld on your way to the surface, fighting shades and earning boons from the distant gods of Olympus in hectic, varied battles. Though you return to the palace you started from each time you fall, you’re not beginning over. The immortal son of a god, your deaths and resurrections are all part of the story, pushed forward by characters having new things to say after each death.
The cast are an engaging, well-voiced set of myths and monsters with centuries of implied soap opera behind them. The half of Hades where you’re not frantically dashing between shades with sword or spear or infernal cannon has you hustling between NPCs lapping up the next chapter of their sagas—or your romance with them.
Then it’s off to battle once again, with some upgrades. Hades is paced so well you’re always getting a new weapon or kind of boon just when you get stuck. You might suspect it’s going easy on you, that the upgrades are carrying you rather than your own skills growing, but trying a run without them disproves that. Even with the basic blade and no buffs, you’ll bash better and slash smarter than you did before.
You’ll still die in the end, though. And when you do, you’ll be eager for another round of chats with gods and monsters like Megaera the Fury, a skeleton just called Skelly, and Thanatos, the romanceable personification of death. In Hades, death really is a reward rather than a punishment. And he’s pretty hot too.
Read more: 8 things every Hades player should know
Enter the Gungeon
Release date: 2016 | Developer: Dodge Roll | Steam, GOG, Epic
Enter the Gungeon is an arcade roguelite about shooting bullets with other bullets. In other words, the enemies are ammunition. As whichever of its several distinct characters you choose, you’ll dodge-roll, kick furniture, and, most importantly, destroy bullets with bullets.
Enter the Gungeon may be part of an absurdly packed genre, but it stands out as something special. Not only does it nail the essentials—shooting, movement, sheer variety of weapons and items—it doesn’t overcomplicate. Other arcade-centric roguelites have had a go at mixing compelling action with a simplified approach to the genre, and end up feeling repetitive, like a jumble of the same rooms. The weaponry keeps Enter the Gungeon fresh where others get lost in repetition. There are hundreds of weapons, ranging from a simple bow and arrow through to guns that shoot bees.
Also, there’s a gun that shoots guns that shoot bullets.
Read more: Thanks to its huge expansion, I no longer suck at Enter the Gungeon
Dungeons of Dredmor
Release date: 2011 | Developer: Gaslamp Games | Steam
Even if you never beat or even meet Lord Dredmor, Dungeons of Dredmor is still a joy to play for its writing, humor, and surprisingly deep and amusing lore. The absurdity goes a long way to soften the blows of its difficulty. You can build a Vampire Communist who wields Egyptian Magic, Fungal Arts, or Emomancy to fight hordes of weird robots, carrots, genies, and whatever the hell diggles are.
Generating a random character and pushing the usefulness of absurd skills like Fleshsmithing, Killer Vegan, and Paranormal Investigator is always a thrill, even when you die on the first or second floor. It’s a system that rewards inventiveness. While you can manually select your skills, making the best of random ones is far more satisfying, and like the optional but actually totally necessary permadeath, makes every round feel genuinely different.
Read more: Exclusive Dungeons of Dredmor wallpaper
The best indie story games
Butterfly Soup / Butterfly Soup 2
Release date: 2017 / 2022 | Developer: Brianna Lei | itch.io
Butterfly Soup was 2017’s best visual novel about teenage girls discovering their queer identities while also playing baseball. In 2022 it got a sequel covering a second semester of the school year and focusing on the second of its two pairs of lead characters, filling in parts of the story that were cut from the original for scope. Both halves of Butterfly Soup are hilarious, and as detailed and true about what it’s like to be a teenage outsider as they are about baseball.
Read more: Brianna Lei’s Butterfly Soup is a triumph for queer storytelling
To Be or Not To Be
Release date: 2015 | Developer: Tin Man Games | Steam
Adapted from the pick-a-path book To Be or Not To Be: That is the Adventure, which was itself adapted from Hamlet, this is a version of Shakespeare’s play where you’re the one who gets to decide whether Hamlet ultimately bes or, er, does not be.
Hell, you can ignore Hamlet completely to make Ophelia or the ghost of Hamlet’s dad into the star of the story, and wander off-script to defeat pirates, punt Yorick’s skull, and have Hamlet either go back to school and befriend a total jock named Macbeth or kill Claudius and earn 3,500 XP for it.
Read more: Indies with ‘choose your own adventure’ descriptions are getting trademark infringement notices
Release date: 2015 | Developer: Sam Barlow | Steam, GOG
English cop show The Bill, back when it was good, would sometimes dedicate half an episode to just an interrogation. A guest star suspect would be given the chance to stamp their mark on the show. That’s Her Story, only instead of being about cops it’s about someone, years after the police interrogation was recorded, searching through video clips of it by entering keywords. While Her Story plays out in those videos and that search bar, it’s also played on note paper you inevitably fill with conspiracy scribbles like you’re Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
In tech, skeuomorphic design—making your music player look like a cassette tape, for example—is now seen as quaint and frowned on. But it’s a rare concept in games, and Her Story uses it to great effect. Its old computer/CRT interface is a marriage of aesthetic and design that’s immersive in a subtle, well-earned way, making Her Story enrapturing from its first moments.
Read more: The story behind Her Story
Night in the Woods
Released: 2017 | Developer: Infinite Fall | Steam, itch.io, GOG, Epic
As endearing feline Mae Borowski, you return to Possum Springs, the sleepy rural town of your childhood, after an unsuccessful college stint. It’s a twist on the familiar “You can’t go home again” story that becomes more and more Stephen King as it goes on. The town is on the decline, and so too, it seems, is Mae’s future. Things haven’t quite turned out the way anyone had hoped they would.
Exploring the township of Possum Springs is a joy in itself, but it’s the way Night in the Woods weaves a universal coming of age tale around a puzzle-laden adventure that is remarkable. The bits where you play bass with your old band are pretty great too.
Read more: Night in the Woods brings hope and joy to the rural apocalypse
The best indie sim games and survival games
Release date: 2016 | Developer: Eric Barone | Steam, GOG
There are few games that delight in the way that Stardew Valley does. Stardew took the formula of the Harvest Moon series, which so many grew up loving, and brought it to PC after we went too long without a farm-life sim to call our own.
At the same time, Stardew Valley strips away many of Nintendo’s puritanical hangups—same-sex marriage and sexual innuendo aren’t too taboo to be included, for example—while maintaining the wholesome charm of tilling fields, planting seeds, and growing crops.
There’s a vibrant town full of people to get to know, mines full of slimes to explore, and tons and tons of fish to fish. If you let it, Stardew Valley can become a life-devouring forever game. You’re going to make a lot of mayonnaise.
Read more: The best Stardew Valley mods
Don’t Starve / Don’t Starve Together
Release date: 2013 / 2016 | Developer: Klei | Steam, GOG
Klei’s 2013 survival game Don’t Starve is a playable Edward Gorey book where you’ll probably get eaten by dogs or starve during the long winter—a possibility the name does warn you about, to be fair—while you’re still learning how the ecosystem of its unusual world works. You discover the importance of the wild beefalo herd, and the value of dealing with the Pig King. And then you do it again, with friends, in multiplayer spin-off/sequel Don’t Starve Together.
The survival games that followed Don’t Starve filled their servers with desperate lummoxes flailing at trees and rocks and each other. Don’t Starve Together made multiplayer survival into something that’s not as easy to meme, but a lot more fun. Sure, you can play competitively, but it’s best as a co-operative village simulator where you start by pooling your rocks to make a firepit and eventually you’re taking down bosses then crafting statues to commemorate your victory in the town square.
Read more: Don’t Starve Together—the first five days
Release date: 2018 | Developer: Unknown Worlds | Steam, Epic
Depending how you feel about diving, Subnautica can be either a wonderful opportunity to explore an alien aquarium or a super tense survival game. Even in the freedom or creative mode, with the hunger meters turned off so you don’t have to regularly grab fish and eat them as you swim past, its depths contain claustrophobic tunnels and terrifying beasts big enough to swallow you whole.
To its credit, Subnautica works as both a straight-up horrorshow about struggling to make it day by day in a hostile alien ocean, building a base and taming your surroundings, and as a chill way to drift around meeting strange sea creatures. And maybe eating them.
Read more: Reviewing the critters of Subnautica: Below Zero
Release date: 2018 | Developer: 11 bit studios | Steam, GOG, Epic
It feels strange to play a citybuilder that’s not open-ended and doesn’t let you tinker with your city forever. It also feels strange that no matter how efficiently you design your city, your residents may well kick your ass out due to events that take place elsewhere. Frostpunk does things differently, and that’s one of the things that makes it great.
Frostpunk is both grim and beautiful, a blend of survival and crisis management that leaves you facing tough choices, sometimes unthinkable ones, as you attempt to build a city that will protect your residents from a world gone cold. You’re not just trying to keep them warm and fed, but to keep them hopeful, and that’s no simple matter when the only thing more bleak than the present is the future.
In addition to building, gathering resources, and sending expeditions out into the frozen world, you have to grapple with laws that may save your citizens’ lives while also eroding their freedoms. There’s rarely a moment that’s free of tension and worry, and rarely a choice that you won’t second guess.
Read more: Frostpunk developers on hope, misery, and the ultimately terrifying book of laws
The best indie strategy games
Into the Breach
Release date: 2018 | Developer: Subset Games | Steam, GOG, Epic
In the future, giant bugs crawl out of the ground and ravage the world. Our only hope: mech pilots from an even more distant future who travel back to rewrite history. As a band of three such pilots in vehicles that would make really cool toys, you are humanity’s best chance for a better tomorrow.
Fortunately you can see what the bugs plan one turn ahead and dodge out of their way, perhaps leaving them in positions where they’ll hit each other instead of you, or you might dodge into harm’s way to protect a building full of civilians they were about to demolish. Into the Breach is a mech versus monster dance-off.
It’s conveniently bite-sized too. The maps are small, load fast, and only have to be protected for a few turns. Into the Breach is a rare tactics game that feels worthwhile even if you’ve only got minutes spare to play it. If you do have hours to spare, you can play a full run, save the world, then take your favorite pilot and leap back into a different timeline to do it all again.
Read more: Our biggest screw-ups from Into the Breach
Release date: 2015 | Developer: Snapshot Games Inc. | Steam, GOG
Plenty of games say, “That thing in Magic: The Gathering where wizards duel with summoned creatures would be cooler if you could move them around on a grid.” Chaos Reborn does so with seniority, as it’s a remake of a ZX Spectrum game that was inspired by 1980 wizard-duel game Warlock. It’s the same idea, though—a card game where maneuvering matters. Drawing the best hand doesn’t help much if your wizard and their lions get trapped by a well-placed Gooey Blob spell, or those elven archers get enough height advantage to rain deathsticks on your elephant.
Though there’s a law mode that does away with randomness, in chaos mode most spells have a percentage chance to cast. It becomes a game of risk management and mitigation, like Battle for Wesnoth or Blood Bowl, where you might spend your turn safely summoning a goblin, or choose to roll the dice on getting a sapphire dragon. Each wizard can manipulate probability by spending mana to boost the odds, or push a fluctuating meter toward law or chaos for a better chance of casting spells of the matching kind.
Or they can just lie. Any summon spell in your hand can be cast as an illusion, which has a 100% chance of working and functions exactly like the skeleton or pegasus you would have cast if you’d come by it honestly. Unless an opponent risks wasting their turn disbelieving it, that is. If they’re right, the illusion vanishes and the disbeliever gets another action. If they’re wrong, they’ve lost their chance to cast a spell this turn. With that clever twist, Chaos Reborn becomes a brilliant bluffing game. Poker for wizards. Hexers Hold ‘Em.
Read more: How X-COM’s Julian Gollop improved on the board games he loved as a kid
Release date: 2015 | Developer: Klei Entertainment | Steam, GOG
Invisible, Inc. gives you near-perfect information, just like Into the Breach. Your cyborg spies can see the vision fields of guards and observe them to predict their movements, and can hack data terminals to find maps of the facility they’re busting into. Pressing the alt key highlights all the geometry so you can tell whether that lamp counts as something you can hide behind. Set up an ambush to tase a guard when they walk through a door and it’s guaranteed to work, no chance to miss.
That makes some incredible moves possible. You’re able to plan audaciously, agents spending their action points to run rings around security, handing off items to each other as needed like they’re characters in a cool heist movie casually tossing tools before they hack a turret or break into a safe. And yet, it doesn’t help.
The security rating goes up the longer you spend in a level. The ability to rewind and undo a turn is limited based on the difficulty setting, and guards have heart rate monitors that set off an alarm if you kill one. Tasing them is safer, but only keeps them down for a couple of turns unless you dedicate one of your precious agents to sitting on the body at the end of each turn. Invisible, Inc. gives you all that information because you’re going to need it.
Read more: Best Design 2015 – Invisible, Inc.
The best indie platformers
Release date: 2017 | Developer: Videocult | Steam, GOG, Epic
If you approach it with the wrong attitude, you’ll hate Rain World. While it looks like a typical platformer, it’s not: it’s more like a punishing survival game. For the first hour or so the controls will feel fiddly and less intuitive than most 2D games. You have to learn them. Rain World is all about learning.
You play as a slugcat one tier above the bottom of the food chain who has to negotiate one of the most labyrinthine and hideously broken planets of any open world game in order to survive. Rain World is cryptic and uncompromising. Given the chance, it’ll be one of the tensest and most atmospheric 2D games you’ll ever play.
If you want to make it easier, options added post-launch allow that. Without them, Rain World is an exercise in wresting empowerment away from the player, determined to eschew any shred of the power fantasy so dominant in videogames. And yet it is logical—not unfair, not poorly designed. It just doesn’t care about you.
Read more: Fans of survival sim Rain World have spent 5 years making an expansion so big, it’s practically a sequel
Release date: 2020 | Developer: Mossmouth | Steam
A lot has been written about the beauty of Spelunky’s interlocking systems, about its propensity for creating stories, and about its tough-but-fair difficulty. That’s all been said and written a hundred times before. What you might not know is that Spelunky is a touchingly beautiful game. It contains so much: so many stories, so many events, so many countless, frankly embarrassing, hours.
Spelunky 2 is the same but more—and while it might not have reinvented the particular wheel the original so lovingly crafted, it’s a perfect opportunity to revisit and refine the format, a fresh dungeon-delver that will easily threaten to eat another hundred hours of your time.
Read more: Spelunky 2 player breaks the world record for gold (by blowing everything up)
Release date: 2017 | Developer: Team Cherry | Steam, GOG
Team Cherry didn’t explicitly set out to make a game in the image of Metroid. They were making a 2D action game set in a gorgeous hand-drawn decaying bug civilization, but they were mainly concerned with building an intricate and interesting world and the rest simply followed from that.
Hollow Knight rarely tells you where to go or what to do, making palpable the satisfaction and wonder of discovering new parts of the world and new abilities. And it just keeps going. The world is huge, more detailed than you ever expect it to be, and suddenly you’re two dozen hours deep and wondering how much you still have to find.
The Super Nintendo had Super Metroid. PlayStation had Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The PC has Hollow Knight.
Read more: Why I love Quirrel from Hollow Knight
Release date: 2018 | Developer: Extremely OK Games | Steam, itch.io
Celeste is a tough 2D platformer with a 16-bit retro aesthetic. What makes it special? The reasons are many and varied. Firstly, it carries itself differently to other deliberately difficult platformers like Super Meat Boy and N++. Its developer, Extremely OK Games, wants everyone to finish Celeste, not just Kaizo Mario World speedrunners, which is why the pacing is careful and the attitude is encouraging.
The variety is what really elevates it. This is a game with set pieces that aren’t just saved for the boss battles, and while it is fundamentally a series of platform challenge rooms, it does feel like you’re navigating a world—in this case, the mountain Celeste that lends the game its name.
Read more: Celeste creator confirms that yes, Madeline is trans