The Top 12 Indie Games of 2021

What, you thought we were done? When we say this was a stellar year for video games, we aren’t messing around. Every year we struggle to fight for our favorites: voting, polling, debating what deserves to be in a Top 12 Games, a Top Ten, or even a Top Fifty. Even so, it’s hard to take your darling indie game of the year and put it at bat across from the monolithic publishers like Sony, Microsoft and even Nintendo’s massive titles. And 2021 was an incredible year for indies alone (most years are). So I like to consider this the beginning of a new tradition. This list is all indies, only indies. Celebrating the best in the best ways we can, for the people who spent anywhere from years to decades on projects. Some folks develop these games entirely alone, others in small hyper-focused groups. We love indie games because they capture the magic of the imagination. They are pure execution of inspiration and are completely and truly the works of their creators gifted to us, the players, to see for ourselves. That said, here are our Top 12 Indie Games of 2021, and we hope that what we have to share inspires you to pick up even one of them in the near future. Maybe something to check out with that gift card you just got for the Holidays. [Evan Griffin]

Tom Happ

12. Axiom Verge 2

Following up on the breakout success of the original Axiom Verge, a pitch perfect love letter to the sci-fi sidescrollers of Metroidvanias past, was always going to be an uphill battle against expectations. Dropping the expansively minimalist and oddball sequel without fanfare or forewarning, Axiom Verge 2 presents itself as something that doesn’t bother reinventing the wheel but still adding more than enough new elements to the genre to keep you on your toes for the duration of its playtime. Abandoning the Alien tinged spaceship setting of the original in favor of beautifully diverse natural biomes while retaining and expanding on the RPG elements that keep the momentum from falling flat, where the game shines brightest is in its clever take on traversing the overwhelming and slightly obtuse map. As frustrating as backtracking in the genre can be, here it is a thrilling rush to move from one goal to another, and a small twist that occurs in the narrative turns the world’s design on it’s head and makes the back half of the adventure remarkably satisfying to explore. Packed to the brim with clever puzzles and delightfully challenging boss fights, Axiom Verge 2 is a showcase in how to push the limits of what small studio indie games can pull off without ever showing its stitches and is a must play for fans of the genre looking for a fresh take on a tried and true formula. [Quinn Parulis]

Raw Fury / Microsoft

11. Sable

A two man studio, SHEDWORKS found the aid in Swedish publisher Raw Fury and ‘ol Microsoft, through which they were able to take their musings of clashing the best of Star Wars and Breath of the Wild together into a stunning piece of minimalist, exploration focused game development in Sable. Named for its protagonist, Sable wanders a desert, aiding people and completing tasks across an open map as a part of a rite-of-passage ritual without the hassle of loading times. Less is more feels to be the directive with this title as the game’s penciled linework and strikingly limited lighting rendering that accentuates the blazing heat of the desert and evoking  the scale of make each frame appear like a 2-D piece of environment art. More than anything, it emulates graphic novels like Jean-Michel Charlier’s Blueberry. Plus, the title features a high profile and ethereal soundtrack by Michelle Zauner, AKA the one and only Japanese Breakfast. This soundtrack is one with themes and atmosphere most effective when paired with the game running and controller in hand. [Evan Griffin]


10. Aerial Knight’s Never Yield

As indie games grow into their own cottage industry (go ahead, count how many Devolver Digital games are on this list), it’s important to keep in mind that this category is also populated by solo developers clawing their way through the noise to be noticed. To hear its creator tell it, attempting to cut through the noise for himself, and other Black developers, is the origin of Never Yield. A runner game that showcases both the talents and background of the man who worked almost entirely alone on it, Never Yield has an enthusiastic vibe that is so important in this scene. This game oozes with the style of the intersection of Black culture and anime fandom — an intersection this writer is not the best choice to dig into in detail — that still goes very under-served by that corner of pop culture but here is as alive as any other world depicted on this list. Never Yield is short, sweet, and feels more like a statement than a single project, and with any luck we’ll be seeing a lot more of Aerial Knight’s work in this space. [Travis Hymas]

Kitfox Games

9. Boyfriend Dungeon

I’d like to lie and say I’m being forced to write this because nobody else wanted to. Really, I’d love it. But some part of me hidden deep, deep inside wouldn’t be able to live with itself. So it has to be said, Boyfriend Dungeon is a fun game. 

Boyfriend Dungeon, the game where you (the protagonist) move in with your matchmaker relative and go on dates with magical living weapons, is a good game. The game where those weapons, who transform into very attractive human beings, assist you in traversing monster-infested “dungeons” across a beachside metropolis with a super mall, is a good game.

A good game with good mechanics, like unlocking new abilities and buffs to use in battle whenever you pursue a romantic path with one of your weapon… people. A game with a surprising amount of lore and gameplay that, while tedious, is pretty fun. I love dungeon crawlers, and though I have no qualms with dating sims, they aren’t usually for me. But if I ever meet developer Kitfox Games in a shopping mall dungeon, I’m telling them that they made a good dungeon crawling dating sim. Eat your heart out, Mary Shelley. [Adonis Gonzlez]

Yacht Club Games / Mechanical Head Studios

8. Cyber Shadow

The minds behind Shovel Knight have grown so much so that they’ve taken to publishing other folk’s games themselves, and their collaboration with the one man team at Mechanical Head Studios results in yet another winner in the modern revolution of precision action-platformers. At first glance, Cyber Shadow looks like a marriage of Shovel Knight and The Messenger, but with a sci-fi cyberpunk aesthetic askin to 2015’s Axiom Verge. However, its roots go far back in a years-long effort to make a love letter for the original Ninja Gaiden games with a modern evolution of graphic design and visualization and mechanical dexterity. The gameplay is truest: jump and sword slashing with a meticulously built nature that players will need to wrap their heads around just as gamers in the NES days had to. The difference is Cyber Shadow elevates in the players abilities over the course of ten levels that  appear like business as usual on the surface, but are utilized super creatively in the games progressive level design, seeping in quality challenge in the game’s back half. Package that with incredible sprite work and a spine-tingling good soundtrack to make even Megaman blush, and this labor of love is a clear certainty on our list. [Evan Griffin]


Feral Cat Den

7. Genesis Noir 

We’ve been waiting a long time for this one. Genesis Noir’s unique visual style is striking but is hardly the only unique thing about it. Noir blends its visuals, audio, and simply point-and-click controls to create something that’s less a video game and more like a digital Fisher Price toy – and that’s a compliment. Each new world explored on the way to the beginning of time is distinctive and fresh, begging you to poke at it. While the game doesn’t necessarily earn the particularly bold ending it reaches, the path there can easily be seen in the universe of creativity on display. Games like Genesis Noir speak volumes about where even something as traditional as the point-and-click adventure can still have new life literally breathed into it through a game like this. If not for big swings like this title, why even have indie games in the first place?  [Travis Hymas]

PixPil / Chucklefish

6. Eastward

While there have been no shortages of retro throwbacks to ‘90s era RPGs being released over the last few years, it nonetheless feels like a breath of fresh air to find a game like Eastward that exists comfortably with one foot in both the past and present. Taking cues both visually and narratively from modern hits such as Undertale and SNES classics like A Link to the Past and Earthbound – there’s a game your character can play literally called Earth Born – Eastward comes across as a sort of comfort food and easy point of entry into a notoriously obtuse genre. Populated by a memorable cast of characters living in a decaying and overgrown world in the midst of being reclaimed by nature, the tone is melancholic, quirky, and surreal – the save points are rusted refrigerators who like to confront you with existential questions – a mood that fits perfectly with the odd combination of gameplay features. Playing as both an older miner named John and the young mysterious girl he watches over named Sam (their designs coupled with the imagery of the world immediately brings to mind The Last of Us), players swap between the two on the fly for action based combat and puzzle solving, both of which are remarkably satisfying for their accessible ingenuity. Add to that a clever cooking system lifted from the style popularized by Breath of the Wild, a reasonably sized upgrade path for your numerous skills and weapons, and a wide variety of dungeons and towns rendered in beautiful 3D pixel art to explore as you travel by train across the world to uncover the mystery at the heart of the story, Eastward manages to find a way to create something more than a homage to scratch the itch for fans of the genre by creating an experience that is top to bottom as fresh as it is timeless.  [Quinn Parulis]

Dreams Uncorporated, SYCK, Poppy Works

5. CrisTales

On one hand, a spiritual successor to the classic Chrono games is a pretty slam dunk idea. On the other hand, it is also so bold of an idea that a couple of small teams out of Columbia came together to take the swing that JRPG fans have wanted sounds downright impossible. But, after being one of the various victims of 2020’s delays, CrisTales finally arrived. Trying to say that this game is a full on replacement of something like Chrono Trigger can be left to debate; however what isn’t is that CrisTales is a pretty solid example of the genre. Faithful to a fault, CrisTales is a great work study of the best and worst of JRPGs, capturing both what makes them compelling and occasionally frustrating with more than just a base understanding of why those aspects are the way they are. True to form, the game is quite long; but carries a clever twist and confidence in both its unique characters and lore to fill that time — and succeeds.  [Travis Hymas]

Finji, Greg Lobanov

4. Chicory: A Colorful Tale

The past couple of years of Games Discourse™ have included some discourse about whether or not the “wholesome games” moniker is helping or hurting the indie scene and it’s creators. There’s definitely merit to that concern; but if it helps get games like Chicory out in front of people, things can’t be all bad. Chicory uses its coloring book visuals and gameplay to switch between a cute puzzle platformer and bullet hell boss fights about self loathing and the struggle of the creative process. That sounds like tonal whiplash, but the mechanical design of the game informs so much of the push and pull of our desire to create with purpose. Honest to goodness artists will see themselves in Chicory immediately, but even those without such desires will eventually feel both the tough emotions and joy in just filling in the blank world with color however they see fit.  [Travis Hymas]


Devolver Digital, Four Quarters

3. Loop Hero

With the boom in popularity of roguelike deck-building games in the last few years, Loop Hero stands out by introducing us to a classic archetype of a hero awakening in a world without any memories and then immediately takes away any control we have over them. Instead of fighting the monsters you encounter, exploring the world map, or any of the other tropes present in classic pixel based role playing games, you function as the unseen hand of god and shape the game’s world from the ground up. Given a template of an empty and circular path that your hero automatically runs loops around that scales in difficulty with each completion, defeating monsters builds your deck that allows you to place down tiles that create encounters of remarkable variety that can be used in endlessly surprising combinations, ranging from mountains that increase your health or battlefields to find treasures. Each run becomes a balance between adding enough challenges to keep your momentum going while also not throwing in too much that your hero becomes overwhelmed before retreating to your base camp to make incremental improvements to make that next run a little more survivable. Featuring a dense amount of upgradable paths, complex and unique character classes and an enormous depth of game mechanics, once you get over the learning curve Loop Hero becomes an addictive and utterly unique experience that shows that innovation in gaming isn’t a well that has run dry, just so long as games like this make somehow make their way to wider audiences hungry for things they’ve never seen before. [Quinn Parulis]

Devolver Digital, Acid Nerve

2. Death’s Door

In a world where adorable little crows work for a bureau that employs them as grim reapers guiding souls to rest, our hero ends up in a situation far over his head and sets him on a task to hunt down a handful of giant souls. With a top down action playstyle that comes across as a more like a spiritual successor to A Link to the Past with Castlevania or Souls-like combat, it is a challenging, incredibly tactile world that looks like a handmade diorama that makes use of vertical layering to give the maps a sense of depth and scale, Death’s Door trims all the fat that tends to bloat recent Metroidvanias. Featuring a haunting score, a variety of diverse locales, charming NPCs, a grim sense of humor and a remarkably balanced weapon and magic system that gives combat a sense of urgency and weight, the game pulls no punches by having its regular enemies require just as much of your attention as it’s large scale boss fights without ever feeling unfair. With an excellent sense of pacing and a leveling system that never requires unnecessary grinding, despite never feeling particularly original Death’s Door offers such a solid mastery over it’s influences that it is must play experience for any fans of those game styles and one that is poised to stand the test of time. [Quinn Parulis]

Devolver Digital, Daniel Mullins Games

1. Inscryption

It’s pretty difficult to discuss Inscryption. Even so, to not talk about Inscryption would be ignoring one of the biggest indie successes of the year. This game deftly uses the mechanics of trading card games to construct a strange yet compelling narrative that works in a way most other digital card games fail to. This works mostly because instead of trying to pull off some kind of genre bending magic trick like his previous games, Daniel Mullins and his team never lose sight of the addictive and satisfying nature of a TCG. Strip all the theatrics away and Inscryption would still be one of the best games of 2021 for just being an excellent (and excellently branded) card game. The theatrics only enhance the experience, despite not being able to discuss them. Whether you’re a connoisseur of well written games or attended a Friday Night Magic alike, you owe yourself a trip through Inscryption’s shifting yet rock solid world.  [Travis Hymas]

Click here to check out the rest of our end of the year coverage.



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