I’ve found this year to be an especially odd one for games. I’m a gigantic Nintendo fan, but I found most of their 2021 slate to be some shade of underwhelming, save for key titles like Metroid Dread. The same goes for PlayStation’s output, and the multiplatform AAA space beyond that. Xbox really came out on top, as Forza was excellent, and Halo Infinite predictably became my game of the year. But the hits across the AAA and AA board were the exception for me, as many of my favorite 2021 gaming experiences were indies.
This truly was a banner year for independent development, and there are so many 2021 indie favorites that I haven’t gotten to yet. I write this post with a list of shame as long as the forthcoming indie celebration I’m about to embark on. Sable, Chicory and Before Your Eyes top that list, and I’m still readily anticipating games like Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon. And, there are more like TUNIC that I demoed this year and loved, but have moved their release dates into 2022. It seems like next year will be just as bustling on the indie front! Even with these notable absences, I’ve still played a number of lovely indies that I’ll share with you all in ascending order, starting with number six.
number 6: Death’s Door
Acid Nerve and Devolver Digital teamed up once again for Death’s Door, and I’m very glad that they did. This Zelda and Souls-infused adventure borrows a lot from titans of the industry, but blankets them in a wholly unique world. Death’s Door’s universe is certifiably bizarre, marked by characters like Jefferson, the squid who impersonates and puppeteers the body of a dead sailor. I love things that are weird and cartoony, and Death’s Door just embodies that spirit.
At the same time, the game is somber, grounded in a demonstrably existential and melancholy narrative. I didn’t expect so much heart and heady exposition in this title, which certainly punched it up even further. While I have some issues with the game mechanically, its weighty combat combined with its overall world make this a remarkable success, and another must play from Devolver Digital.
number 5: Townscaper
I’ve seldom experienced a more cerebral game than Oskar Stålberg’s Townscaper. Its design philosophy is minimal to the point of being intentionally empty. The conceit is simple: you build towns. There is no metagame around that, no tangible goal to achieve. That is, unless you count making cool towns and taking artistic screenshots to flex on people with. You can do that for sure. For me though, Townscaper is all about the joys of laid-back play and peaceful invention.
This title is a wonderful pocket of undistilled creativity which asks of you only what you’re willing to give. You can build a tiny settlement, or a sprawling network of palaces that stretch across the sky. I give Townscaper a good thirty, forty-five minutes of my time each night, as I tap away on my Switch OLED constructing all manner of dreamscapes for myself. Bathed in a beautiful pastel art style that shifts with each block added, Townscaper is a lovely little experience that I’m so pleased to unwind with.
number 4: Severed Steel
By contrast to Townscaper, Greylock Studio’s Severed Steel is very, very loud. When people said that Superhot was a John Wick game, they were simply unaware that Severed Steel loomed around the corner. This is the John Wick game. Calling this adventure high-octane doesn’t do its chaos justice. Severed Steel is a bullet-time bonanza that knows exactly how long to stick around for, and exactly which design elements to employ to make the player sweat on the way toward its crescendo.
While rough around the edges, Severed Steel’s flaws are totally forgotten when you’re chaining dives, wallruns, and headshots together in sustained slow-motion. I’m not sure that I’ve ever played another FPS which evokes the same feeling of badassery that Severed Steel does. Its campaign never fails to introduce a new, pulse-pounding idea, and its side modes keep the action going long after the credits roll. For fans of the genre, this one is totally unmissable.
number 3: Toem
To continue our tonal ping-pong a bit more, let’s talk about Something We Made’s project, Toem. This is another incredibly laid-back little journey. A Short Hike, Paper Mario, Animal Crossing, and Pokémon Snap are apt touchstones here when describing Toem’s broad strokes, but its finer points are defined by a heart that no other title could hope to embody. This tale is unexpectedly emotional and endlessly eclectic. Toem’s world is the sort of fiction that just makes me feel good, and that counts for a lot given the state of our real world.
Toem is short, perhaps too short, but it doesn’t waste a moment. Traversing its wonderfully monochrome landscapes is a joy, because every nook and cranny hides a new creature to befriend and a new subject to photograph. Toem is a meditation on how to use space design-wise, and how to craft moments that just make the player happy. I cannot wait to see what Something We Made, well, makes next.
number 2: Cyber Shadow
I was totally floored by Cyber Shadow. Mechanical Head Studios absolutely nailed the design tenets of the retro platformer here. The game is a multifaceted synthesis of 80s and early 90s design tropes and aesthetics that not only pay homage to that golden era, but actively improve upon it. Platforming, combat, and level design are simply razor-sharp here, and that success is matched by the success of the wonderful pixel art and kicking soundtrack.
Cyber Shadow operates at a continually ratcheting tempo which constantly ups the ante mechanically. This game is tough, but absolutely fair. Its challenge evolves alongside its player’s skill set, and I never felt unprepared for the next obstacle to come. Key modernizations to design facets like checkpointing help make this difficulty curve smooth, and kept me excitedly running back each death in the hopes of getting just a bit further. This might very well may be my favorite throwback platformer since publisher Yacht Club Games’ very own Shovel Knight.
number 1: The Ascent
When I reviewed The Ascent back in August, I boldly proclaimed that it would be in my top three games of 2021 when all was said and done. I was right. The Ascent remains a very uneven experience, but it likewise remains brilliant in its unrefined nature. I’ve yet to see a world as beautifully dirty as Veles all year, and I can still feel the rich thud of each bullet four months later. The Ascent is confidently old-school for both better and worse, and I can respect a game that feels this unapologetic.
Difficulty spikes, questionable design choices, and narratively dissonant environments can’t undermine the raw power of The Ascent. The nuance in its RPG character building, the crunchiness of its gunplay, the detail of its cityscape – I still can’t escape the spell that Neon Giant put on me back over the summer. This game is truly special, even if it is equally flawed. There is so much promise here. I cannot wait to see where Neon Giant goes next, because if the studio can synthesize the core mechanical success and rich presentation of The Ascent into something with a bit more polish, we could be looking at a true game of the year contender. There’s no doubt about that. Xbox was wise to lock this down as an ecosystem exclusive at launch, because the sum of both its kinetic and potential energy is simply electrifying.