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From lightning-fast FPSes to box-pushing puzzlers and existential two-person plays, this year's indie selection was wonderfully varied.
While 2021 saw a lighter-than-usual release schedule for flagship games from triple-A publishers, thanks in large part to the ongoing global pandemic, it meant that independent-developed games had more time to shine. For every exceptional indie game–from Inscryption and Solar Ash, to The Artful Escape and Sable–there were many more that didn't get time in the spotlight.
So, to ensure we give some love to as many indie games as we can before the year ends, here are 11 of the best independent games of 2021. Needless to say, all of them are very much worthy of your consideration. For more, check out our picks for the 10 best games of 2021.
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
Video games often struggle to depict scenes of intimate conversation and moments of quiet introspection, instead finding it easier to serve up gratuitous spectacle. Thoughtful and affecting, Adios succeeds brilliantly at presenting two people just talking to each other. Essentially a two-person play, the slow-burn drama sees a hitman and a pig farmer, who disposes of the bodies but now wants out, try to process the shifting sands of what they've come to realize is a friendship. Small interactions and dialogue choices do little but nudge the conversation forward, but the real impact is felt in the weight of the words the two men exchange and leave unsaid.
Developer: Corey Martin and Draknek
Platforms: PC, Mac, Switch, PS5, PS4
Moving boxes around in a tight space is a staple of the puzzle genre. Yet it's remarkable that designers are still finding ways to make it feel fresh. In each level, Bonfire Peaks applies strict rules concerning how you must maneuver a crate of personal belongings around a small grid and deposit it on a bonfire. New rules are gradually introduced, forcing you to rethink your approach and revealing alternative uses for aspects you'd taken for granted. Some levels will leave you wondering whether you missed some fundamental tutorial, but epiphany will soon strike and leave you marveling at the ingenuity.
Platforms: PC, Switch
From Titanfall's wallrunning to Halo Infinite's grappling hook, exaggerated mobility is a major focus for recent AAA first-person shooters. As befitting an indie game, Boomerang X takes a humbler, more low-key approach to the prevailing trend by equipping you with the eponymous boomerang, but it still manages to deliver character movement that will leave you breathless. Highly reminiscent of '90s shooters like Quake or Rise of the Triads, Boomerang X is about flinging yourself around combat arenas as quickly as possible while touching the ground as little as possible. In contrast to those drab '90s FPSs, however, its bold, vibrant colors succeed brilliantly in emphasising the playground vibes and boisterous absurdity of taking down a giant giraffe with a four-pointed stick.
Developer: Consumer Softproducts
Platforms: PC, Mac
With an eye for improvisational solutions, a sprawling non-linear approach to mission design, and an invitation to players to situate themselves somewhere on the spectrum between ghost-like stealth and all-out combat, Cruelty Squad was clearly made by people who share a love for "immersive sims" like Deus Ex and Dishonored. But then the actual levels, structured as discrete missions similar to Hitman, feel like they were handed off to a team of talented modders. Their remit: go as buck wild as you can and be accountable to no one. The end result is an untamed and unhinged experiment, thrilling in its garish incoherence and yet utterly committed to a truly singular vision.
Developer: Nama Takahashi
The best puzzle games tend to be built around a single, vanishingly simple idea, and ElecHead is no exception. You are a robot with an electrical charge in your head and you use it to automatically power the platform you are currently standing on. Anything connected to this platform will also now be powered, causing solid platforms to appear and various contraptions to start moving. But as soon as you leave the platform, power is lost; make contact again and it returns. From this basic premise, screen after screen of devious, brain-teasing platform conundrums stretch out ahead. It's the sort of puzzle-platformer that'll leave you staring at the screen for minutes on end, thinking through the chain of events about to unfold at your next move.
Developer: Clover Bite
Platforms: PC, Stadia
Metroidvanias and 2D Soulslikes are a dime a dozen these days, so it takes something truly special to stand out. While Grime may not break new ground, it does achieve a near-flawless mix of its two obvious influences. Metroid-style ability-based progression heightens the feeling of exploration as you delve deeper into a mysterious underground civilization, poking and prodding at its vast network of intertwining passages. The Soulslike combat is taut, challenging, and features a keen balance between risk and reward, thanks to the "absorption" mechanic–a timed parry that leaves enemies vulnerable and powers your ability to heal. Grime presents a strange, alluring world with layer after layer of secrets to uncover.
Developer: Broken Arms Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Switch, Stadia
What if Stardew Valley but you're specifically tasked with managing a vineyard? With its slightly sterile aesthetic and disinterest in allowing you to pursue romance with the other characters, Hundred Days isn't quite as readily packaged as that description, but it's pretty close. Where Hundred Days excels is in its dedication to simulating the minutiae of the wine-making industry, from the different varieties of grape to the myriad technology used at each step of the production process. Carried along with a breezy tone and a delightful anti-capitalist critique, the story mode does an excellent job of easing you into unfamiliar territory without demanding you become an overnight expert in the business.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox Series X|S
It's easy to imagine Lake as a gently humorous Netflix series where the workaholic city slicker relocates to a sleepy, rural town and, as the quirky country folk work their homespun charm, she realizes the void in her life. But while Lake certainly encourages you to slow down and breathe in the clean air, it deftly avoids cliche. Meredith, a software engineer who spends two weeks in her hometown filling in for her mailman father while he takes a well-earned holiday, is a complex character. In her dealings with the townsfolk–new faces and old friends alike–she confronts the life choices she has made and is offered glimpses of paths not taken. In the end, your choices don't define her future so much as allow her to see all the possibilities.
Developer: Mohawk Games
Civilization IV lead designer Soren Johnson knows what makes the 4X strategy game tick–and where it needs a reset. For Old World, Johnson and his tiny team at Mohawk Games deconstructed the Civ template, questioning every aspect, then rebuilt it as a more focused, more character-driven experience. Here, history is measured in generations, not millenia, and events are shaped by the personal relationships, marriages and murders between rulers and members of their courts. Suddenly, with Old World, 4X strategy felt new again.
Developer: Oskar Stålberg
Platforms: PC, Mac, Switch, Android, iOS
Let's face it, what most of us find appealing about city-building games like Cities Skyline isn't juggling the balance sheet or worrying about traffic flow, it's the fantasy of being able to construct the urban settlement of our dreams, of having the freedom–unconstrained by budgetary concerns or the mood of the populace–to plonk down a building or a street or a park wherever you like. Townscaper delivers that fantasy with effortless ease, enabling you to create cute, cozy, and very European communities with just a few simple clicks of the mouse or taps on the screen. Its genius is in how each new structure you lay down coheres with what you built before, delivering a thoroughly natural, almost organic feel to the space you've designed, as if it formed over centuries rather than as a result of central planning. Best of all, there are no people to come along and ruin everything.
Developer: Worldwalker Games
Platforms: PC, Mac
At first glance, Wildermyth looks a lot like a conventional RPG. You form a party of adventurers to travel across a fantasy map, stopping at keeps and villages to battle evildoers, plunder treasure, and level up. At heart, it's a very accomplished fantasy RPG with clever, challenging tactical battles and a lovely handcrafted presentation that's part-tabletop RPG and part-pop-up storybook. But through procedurally generated quests that actually accumulate into something meaningful, instead of merely becoming repetitive, it also wants you to care for your group of wizards and fighters by letting you write them into legend, with the deeds of retired or deceased party members forming a new mythology for the next generation.