Deciding how to define an indie game is debatable, but whether it's been made by a small team of people, with a small budget, or is simple features stories and ideas separate from the norm, the top indie games of 2021 have all brought something to the table that can't be found anywhere else. Here are the best of the year, in no particular order.
Though Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights fully launched in June, it was first released through Steam Early Access back in January to positive reception and comparisons to Hollow Knight, Dark Souls, and Vanillaware titles. This Metroidvania platformer follows Lily, the last surviving heir of the White Priestesses, who has the soul of a knight bound to her for protection.
While attempting the find the source of the "Rain of Death," Lily uses the powers of the souls she cleanses to fight alongside the loyal knight as her sword. Having successfully replicated beloved elements from other games, Ender Lilies was acclaimed for its puzzle-platforming gameplay, art style, setting, combat, and orchestral soundtrack, called an "indie darling" by critics.
The crafting multiplayer Valheim has also been released in Early Access, but unlike Ender Lilies, it has yet to be fully launched. Despite this, the game developed by a five-person team would become widely recognized by critics for its PvE survival and story elements. Dropped into a procedurally generated world, players must build shelters, craft tools, and fight enemies to survive in their biomes. It's easy to get lost in Valheim's gameplay loop of crafting and fighting, but the atmosphere provided by each swamp, mountain, and ocean is ambient, both infested with monsters and filled with beautiful textures.
The goal of the game is to kill the bosses of each different biome, where players to by way of craftable boats or on foot, but the gameplay is far more expansive than just that, especially with Iron Gate Studio continuing to build on the unfinished areas and add crafting options into the foreseeable future.
Roguelikes and roguelites have been thriving throughout 2021, and Loop Hero was one of the earliest to release this year. Like many titles from the genres, Loop Hero features procedurally generated maps, however, rather than just building a strong fighter, players build the terrain through landscape cards, each of which provides unique abilities and effects like health restoration or speed buffs.
The main antagonist of the game is known as the Lich and has trapped the hero inside a time loop after the world has ended. The goal is to defeat the Lich by rebuilding the world using landscape cards, building the terrain, and defeating enemies until the end of the path has been reached. Loop Hero was praised for its 80s nostalgia and surprisingly addictive gameplay loop where players can spend time experimenting with different terrains and builds. It was nominated for Best Indie at The Game Awards.
Indie games can also be an excellent source for emotional journies, and Before Your Eyes is the most moving title this list has to offer. A play on the expression in the game's name, Before Your Eyes tracks the player's eye movements and blinking to progress the story of Benjamin "Benny" Brynn, who's recently passed away and is transitioning to the afterlife.
Watching his memories play out before him, Benny is about to be judged at the gates of the afterlife, either be admitted into eternal paradise or turned into a seagull. The simplistic yet sophisticated nature of the blinking mechanic paired with its impactful, heartbreaking story made Before Your Eyes one of the most cathartic stories to come out of 2021 and isn't to be missed for players who enjoy powerfully somber stories.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale may look unassuming and perhaps even a bit childish, but that's part of its charm. Another game without combat, players instead brandish a paintbrush in this Zelda-inspired adventure after Chicory, the hero who fills the world with color, disappears and takes all of it with her. Now, it's up to the protagonist, who's named after the player's favorite food, to fill the color back in and figure out why the hero vanished. Along the way, players can build on their simple painting skills with patterns, tools, and brush styles to help bring the world to life. Furthermore, puzzles add a small but meaningful level of difficulty to Chicory, as well as the player's growing level of skills that can unlock new areas and progress.
Don't worry about the world of Chicory: A Colorful Tale being overwhelming. It's meant to be experienced at whatever pace the player wishes with bite-sized sidequests and manageable exploration. With every gameplay and story element working together expertly and cohesively, nearly every critic and player that have played Chicory have gone on to recommend it.
Another nominee for Best Indie at The Game Awards, players take on the role of a crow that collects the souls of the dead in Death's Door. After reaping the soul of a monster who doesn't want to leave the mortal realm, the crow is informed about a conspiracy involving the disappearance of other crows, and they must now embark on a journey to unlock Death's Door through a series of dungeons. In addition to its Dark Souls and Zelda inspirations, its simple yet satisfying combat and puzzles awarded it with the Best Game Feel at the INDIE Live Expo Winter 2021 Awards.
Back in 2015, The Forgotten City originally began as a Skyrim mod that turned the providence into an ancient Roman empire, though its plot was changed significantly when released as a full standalone game this year. The critically acclaimed mod was created by Nick Pearce, who would later quit his day job to hire several developers, forming the studio known as Modern Storyteller.
Throughout those four and a half years, instead of implementing crunch onto his employees, Pearce instead overworked himself at around 80 hours per week to the point of hallucination, but the end result would win an award for Excellence in Narrative just as the mod had won File of the Month and Best Interactive Media. Additionally, The Forgotten City would feature professional voice acting, an original orchestral score, new gameplay mechanics, and a script over double the size of the mod's.
Ember Lab started as an animation studio, having released several animation commercials as well as a short film based on The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask before migrating over to the gaming industry. Its first game, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, would go on to win Best Indie at The Game Awards earlier this month. It follows the young protagonist Kena, a spirit guide helping souls cross over from the land of the living, but some troubled souls have particular trouble accepting their deaths.
To aid her in her quest to confront a corrupt spirit, Kena collects small Pikmin-like creatures called The Rot, which can help with tasks such as solving puzzles and moving objects. Additionally, Kena's staff acts as her weapon and can transform into weapons like bows and tools like grappling hooks. Kena's artistic design received some of the highest praise among critics, but its narrative was yet another exciting and moving adventure encompassing death and passing on.
Inscryption follows YouTuber Luke Carder, who finds a floppy disc brandishing a title of the same name, a computer version of the collectible card game Inscryption. He interacts with a shady dealer, and the roguelike sprinkles story in between rounds against NPCs and bosses that Carder comes across virtually. Eventually, Carder will go up against the dealer, but defeating him and trapping him in his own card is just the beginning of this twisted tale.
Luckily, this was something that many critics highlighted about Inscryption, that its gameplay loop drastically changes and moves aside for the story before it grows too monotonous. Reviewers were excited by the haunting mystery, and it would be nominated for Best Indie and Best Sim/Strategy at The Game Awards.
At first blush, most gamers probably wouldn't be enticed by something that asks them to complete mundane or even arguably tedious tasks like unpacking boxes. But Unpacking turned that chore into something special, tying into the story of a person moving through the various stages of life, which the audience watches through unpacking her boxes and organizing them throughout each room, observing which items she's chosen to hold onto through each chapter.
There are some simple puzzle mechanics involved because items have certain spots they can or cannot be placed, which also ties into the character's journey. While Unpacking may have felt a bit too short to some, many were absorbed by its meditative gameplay, arguing that it's the ultimate title for relaxing in an industry saturated with action-adventure games.