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Indie games are officially in style. Amidst all the bundles that have been offered for so very little money all year, it can sometimes be hard to take a step back and gather one’s thoughts about which of the indie games released in 2011 really stood out among the crowd. We have taken the time to rifle through dozens of these games to find the very best, and the following list, presented in no particular order of quality, are the ten we have chosen. Feel free to suggest your own favorites in the comments below, or yell at your monitor for any startling omissions from the list.
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: July 20, 2011
Release Date: Xbox 360, PC, Chrome Web Store
The Xbox Live Arcade game Bastion has consistently been the talk of the indie game world all year. Supergiant Games‘ first release turned heads at E3, receiving praise from every outlet under the sun, hyping up its release just over a month later. This isometric action game revolves around the Kid, the player character who must restore his world after the terrible Calamity that befell it. The Kid has a whole host of items at his disposal with which to tear apart foes and complete challenging obstacle courses that hone the player’s use of each weapon. One feature that cannot go without a mention is the stirring performance of Logan Cunningham, the voice of the dynamic narrator who follows the Kid throughout his entire journey, both berating and extolling the protagonist without end.
It topped charts, broke hearts, and proved just how successful a well made, original indie game could be on XBLA. In fact, the game has become popular enough to not only be ported to the PC via Steam, but Bastion is also one of the first games of its scope and size to make its way to Google’s Chrome browser.
Release Date: May 16, 2011
It’s hard to imagine any indie game-related list any more without including the ultimate sandbox game, Minecraft. Luckily, the fine folks at Re-Logic have given us a 2D world much like Minecraft to stick on this 2011 list. The similarities are impossible to avoid: players are set loose on a randomly generated world with nothing but a few tools at their disposal, and then must collect materials in order to create shelter, clothing, weapons, and hundreds of other doodads in order to survive in the hostile environment.
As players progress, the “Minecraft-clone” mentality begins to wear off rather quickly. The sheer amount of craftable items, terrifying enemies (including enormous bosses), random events that can change the entire game, and useful NPCs(!) should be enough to prove that Terraria has its own slew of features worth investing hours of gameplay into. Plus, the recent 1.1 patch seems to have almost doubled the amount of content in the game.
3. The Binding of Isaac
Developer: Edmund McMillen
Publisher: Edmund McMillen
Release Date: September 28, 2011
Edmund McMillan‘s The Binding of Isaac might be one of the strangest and most polarizing indie games to ever gain this much popularity. Isaac, the titular child, is threatened to be sacrificed by his crazy mother on one terrible day, forcing him to hide out in the basement, where he goes on disgusting adventures using his tears as bullets to fend off monsters. It’s even more disturbing than it sounds.
The gameplay is similar to the original Legend of Zelda. Each level is made up of several rooms full of baddies and bonuses and keys, the latter of which are necessary to progress. As Isaac goes deeper into the basement, he can upgrade his weaponry and defenses by finding the items scattered around. The story is told through flashbacks to past events in Isaac’s childhood, all equally terrifying. It’s not just worth sticking with this dungeon crawler for the fun of it, it’s worth discovering a few of the multiple endings to see just what ends up happening to this sad little boy.
4. Serious Sam Double D
Developer: Mommy’s Best Games
Publisher: Croteam, Devolver Digital
Release Date: August 30, 2011
Double D is one third of the Serious Sam Indie Series, a triplet of indie games from three different developers released in the weeks and months before Serious Sam 3: BFE. It was hard to pick just one, as each are markedly different experiences, and certainly worth your time if you haven’t picked them up yet. Double D is a side-scrolling shooter with hordes of enemies ranging from the typical headless mobs to giant robots, and even dinosaurs (if you survive for that long). Of course, the main draw of Double D is its unique Gunstacking feature, in which up to four different weapons can be stacked on top of one another in order to create an unholy amalgamation of mechanical warfare.
There is always a place for thought-provoking and well-written titles like Bastion and Binding of Isaac, but the pure dumb fun of Serious Sam translated this perfectly to a 2D side-scroller deserves a mention as one of the most fun indie games of 2011. And remember, both Kamikaze Attack! and The Random Encounter (the other games in the Indie Series) deserve your attention as well…once you’re done stacking four chainsaws and charging through Tyrannosaurus rexes.
5. Frozen Synapse
Developer: Mode 7 Games
Publisher: Mode 7 Games
Release Date: May 26, 2011
Every step of every unit counts in Frozen Synapse, the most fist-clenchingly intense online turn-based tactical shooter of 2011. Both in its thorough and entertaining campaign and asynchronous online multiplayer, Frozen Synapse gives you control of the most minute decisions to best take out the opposing force. The matches are played from a top-down view, and each turn is only a few seconds of deciding on the best positioning of each unit in preparation of an attack.
Offense and defense must be balanced carefully, because holding out in a building too long could lead to an ambush, whereas rushing in to the field of battle could leave your units completely unprotected from a more cautious foe. The pressure of having to keep up with each of your own troops and the movement of the opponent’s fleet can be overwhelming, but it makes the victory all the more sweet. Sneaking up behind a sniper has never been more satisfying than in Frozen Synapse.
6. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Publisher: Capybara Games
Release Date: March 24, 2011
One of the premiere iPad games (it made our top 10 iOS games list too!), and one that captured the attention of every gamer with an iOS device this year, Sword and Sworcery is unlike any other game you will play this year. Yes, it is a point-and-click game and does contain puzzles which must be solved to progress, but the ingenuity lies in presentation. The bits and pieces of story which unravel slowly and thoughtfully over time let the art and music of the game take center stage. You will spend a fair amount of time zoomed in just to revel in the fascinating structures, staged masterfully by Jim Guthrie’s soundtrack.
Sword and Sworcery gained much of its popularity through a very clever use of Twitter integration. Any text in the game can be shared on Twitter with the simple press of a button. The text is not only bizarre, but often hilarious. Superbrothers’ first game was an odd experiment, but it worked.
7. Gemini Rue
Developer: Joshua Nuernberger
Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
Release Date: Feburary 24, 2011
There has been a resurgence of fantastic point-and-click adventures over the past few years, such as Ben There, Dan That, Machinarium, and pretty much everything coming out of Telltale. The one thread running through all of these games is whimsy, and although there have certainly been more grounded adventure games released recently, not many have floated to the top of the barrel. Enter: Gemini Rue, a game swathed in mystery and intrigue with more than a hint of noir atmosphere to tie it all together.
One element missing from point-and-clicks as of late is consequence. Gemini Rue does not hold your hand or push you too far in the right direction. It is up to you to solve this sci-fi epic and figure out just how Azriel Odin and Delta-Six are related. Between all the twists and revelations, its hard not to stop and take a look around at the carefully crafted environment as well. This game just has a lot going for it. If you are in the mood for an adventure that takes itself a bit more seriously, and one than pays off in quite an incredible way, Gemini Rue might be just what you’re looking for.
Developer: Tribute Games
Publisher: Tribute Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: September 28, 2011
The Puzzle Quest of 2011, Wizorb mixed old-school RPG and Breakout to great effect, becoming one of the standout Xbox Live Indie Games this year. Cyrus the wizard is responsible for saving the Kingdom of Gorudo from a force of vile creatures, using nothing but a few spells and the power of Wizorb, which allows him to turn into a plank and smack everything in sight with a blue ball. It may not sound like the most impressive power for a wizard, but it sure does come in handy in the land of Gorudo.
The devs at Tribute Games used the restrictions and limitations of the XBLIG medium to make this game feel like it might have actually been uncovered in a long forgotten 16-bit console. The graphics and music scream 1994, and the mash-up gameplay works just as well as the aforementioned Puzzle Quest, switching between a 2D RPG town and a brick breaking arcade game without a hitch. Not only is this the best Breakout-clone in recent memory, the RPG elements should get you just invested enough to not stop playing until the world has been saved.
9. Trine 2
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: December 7, 2011
Trine was a worthy title in its own right, but its sequel has perfected the formula. This puzzle-platformer builds upon everything that made Trine so fantastic in the first place, giving players an awe-inspiringly gorgeous world in which to create clever solutions to the problems with which they are presented. The characters are clever, the combat is tight, and not enough can be said about how brilliantly bright and colorful this game is. Graphics are very rarely a selling point for indie titles (see: Minecraft), but the only game to compete with the art design of Trine 2 this year is Rayman Origins.
Trine 2 is just a joy to play. Each of the three main characters offer a completely different mode of play, keeping the game fresh. The wizard conjures boxes and manipulates platforms. The thief can take out enemies from afar with her bow and arrow, or use her grappling hook to climb to previously unreachable surfaces. The knight uses brute force, wielding a sword, shield and hammer to smash enemies and stone walls impeding the group’s progress. And all this fun can be had with friends, as the entire game can be played cooperatively online.
10. To the Moon
Developer: Freebird Games
Publisher: Freebird Games
Release Date: November 1, 2011
To the Moon might be the most emotionally gripping game of the year. This is the heart-wrenching story of Johnny, an old man on his death bed whose last wish is to visit the moon. The story is told through the journey of Drs. Eva Rosalina and Neil Watts through his memories. As the story unfolds and the doctors steadily make their way deeper into Johnny’s memories, they learn about his past, and how he ended up where he is today. Needless to say, you will very likely shed a few tears in this Memento/Up/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-influenced game.
Not so much of a game as an interactive tale, To the Moon grabs you right from the start, almost entirely through the aural masterpiece that is the score. The music in this game frequently interrupted my ability to carry on with the story. I could not help but stop and listen. Kan Gao and Laura Shigihara, the composers of To the Moon, deserve awards of some nature. There might not be much in the way of gameplay, but To the Moon is an experience that should not be missed. In case you need any more convincing, you can play for an hour for free. I dare you not to buy it after that first hour.