Indie games are often associated with colorful retro graphics and simple, yet refined gameplay. Titles like Braid, Fez and Mark Of The Ninja are examples of the best indie has to offer and provide experiences that you just won’t find in AAA titles.
There may be times, however, where you want something different from the indie norm. A game that follows indie values, yet is made with the quality that top-shelf AAA games are known for. Titles like this are rare because games with stunning graphics, good sound design, and solid content are expensive to make, but a small group of indie developers have managed to create top-notch titles on a shoestring budget.
The spawn of Chilean developer ACE Team, Zeno Clash came out of nowhere to impress gamers in the spring of 2009. Back then, indie games were just starting to gain traction, and most efforts were graphically simple. Then this game arrived and stunned everyone with slick visuals and unique gameplay.
Zeno Clash is a first-person fighting game at its core. While there are a handful of ranged weapons available, they’re of secondary importance; you’ll spend most of your time throughing punches and countering attacks. The game’s strange storyline propels the player through a variety of other-worldly locals, each rendered with Valve’s famous Source engine.
You can pick up Zeno Clash for $9.99 on Steam. A sequel has been introduced, but has received far worse reviews, so I suggest starting with the first.
The original Torchlight was a breath of fresh air in the Action RPG genre, but also a short and simple game. Runic Game’s follow-up, predictably titled Torchlight 2, expands the original’s fast-paced gameplay and cartoonish graphics with a new class, new skills and far more content.
What sets this game apart from its peers is its focus on old-school values. The game doesn’t include a skill respec option, loot is abundant, no Internet connection is required to play, and mods are easy to install. Runic Games has also modernized the game’s boss fights, graphics and sound design, improvements that contribute to an incredibly polished experience.
Torchlight 2 is $19.99 and available via either Runic’s website (for the DRM-free version) or Steam.
Path Of Exile, developed by Grinding Gear Games, is also an action-RPG, yet it couldn’t be more different from Torchlight 2. This game is a free-to-play title that requires an Internet connection, yet the developers make full use of that fact by providing a wide range of challenges which players can participate in to earn extra rewards.
Gameplay is also entirely different. Unlike the rapidfire Torchlight 2, this title is a slow game with meaty sound effects and a focus on strategy and planning instead of split-second reactions (though the latter certainly won’t hurt your chances). This is topped off by a spiraling character customization tree that provides more options than any other game in the genre.
Path Of Exile’s game client is free to download.
Long-time MakeUseOf readers may remember Retrovirus from my feature “When Kickstarters Fail.” Though Cadenza Interactive’s attempt at crowd-funding didn’t work out, it did attract an independent investor with the funds necessary to finish the game. And that’s great, because Retrovirus is among the most attractive indie games on the planet.
Two things set this title apart. First, it’s a six-axis shooter, developed in the spirit of the long-dead Descent franchise. Second, the game has a fantastic art style that imagines a computer’s internals as a sort of underground city. The title is a visual treat and the gameplay is, at times, incredibly tense.
Retrovirus is $19.99 on Steam.
This indie game’s developer, Star Gem, is so indie it doesn’t even have a proper website. All the developer’s efforts have gone into its first game, Star Conflict, which is one of the best dog-fighting games to come out years and among the most graphically advanced indie games on a planet.
I’ve already penned a review of Star Conflict, so I’ll direct you there for details instead of repeating myself. Or you can just try the game out on your own; it’s free-to-play!
Star Conflict is only available through Steam.
The original Trine was, along with Zeno Clash, among the first indie games to prove small developers could match the quality of major studios. Developer Frozenbyte somehow managed to deliver an incredible physics-based platforming indie game and top-notch graphics. And the game shipped with co-op play, a feature many indie games neglect.
Trine 2 is very similar to the first game, but everything’s turned up to 11. The campaign is a bit longer, the puzzles a bit more devious, and the graphics more detailed. Co-op play is back, and unlike the first game, Trine 2 is available on consoles as well as the PC.
Trine is $9.99 and Trine 2 is $19.99. Both games are available at multiple online stores on a variety of platforms.
War games went indie long before most other genres, but no one seemed notice, perhaps because the genre is difficult for outsiders to understand. There is one game, however, that stands out both for its (relatively) intuitive gameplay and excellent presentation; Unity Of Command.
Set on the Russian front of World War 2, this war-game places an emphasis on the logistics of supplying a massive army. Cutting off an enemy’s fuel and ammo is the key to success, so each battle becomes a non-stop struggle to out-flank the enemy. Developer 2×2 games doesn’t let the experience become boged down by fiddly details, however, and offers an excellent tutorial to explain the game.
Unity Of Command is $9.99 on the developer’s website. The game’s expansion, Red Turn, sells for $4.99 and adds over twenty extra scenarios.
Tower defense is a popular genre, yet painfully predictable. So 11 Bit Studios asked; what if the genre was flipped? What if, instead of defending, the player was in charge of invading?
This idea became fully realized in Anomaly: Warzone Earth, one of the best indie strategy games released in 2011. Though fairly short, the game’s clever campaign is polished to a gleaming sheen and supported by some of the best graphics found in any strategy game, ever.
Anomaly 2 is more of the same, but that’s not a bad thing, as the first game wasn’t long enough to fully explore the concept. The sequel also boasts amazing graphics and adds competitive multiplayer that lets one player control the invading humans and another control the defending aliens.
Anomaly: Warzone Earth is $9.99 on Steam, while Anomaly 2 is $14.99. The original title is also available on iOS, Android and Blackberry; the follow-up is only for PC and iOS (so far).
These ten indie games are among the best indie games have to offer, but what really sets them apart is their polish. These are titles that conceivably could be presented as a new franchise from Electronic Arts or Ubisoft to a gamer who didn’t know better, yet none of the games on this list cost more than $20. That’s incredible value!