The 2020 Indie Game of the Year
There’s no getting around it: As far as indie game releases go, 2020 was absolutely wild. There were just so many phenomenal games released this year. You could’ve easily spent all 366 days — because leap year, folks — playing quality indies, and you still might’ve missed a few. So let’s get to it and dive right into the best indie games of the year as we celebrate another excellent batch of off-the-charts titles.
There were quite a few indie games released in 2020 that deserve recognition. Obviously, it would be impossible to list them all, but you can’t overlook stellar titles like Lenna’s Inception, which got us off to a good start in early 2020 with its randomized Zelda-styled gameplay. The game offers up fun procedurally generated maps, daily challenges, and even a co-op mode.
Then there’s Superhot: Mind Control Delete, which saw the return of that series’ intense enemies-only-move-when-you-move shooting action. This time around, the game adds a roguelite twist to the formula, as well as some cool randomized unlockable upgrades. More Superhot is always a good thing!
Oh, and if you thought Cyberpunk 2077 was the only reason to get hyped as far as the genre that game draws its title from, you might have missed some dope indie games. First, there was Cloudpunk, a story-driven adventure game where you play as a courier for a shady company. Character interactions, world-building, and exploration help create a living, breathing, futuristic metropolis. Not to mention, flying your car around the city is pretty cool.
Another good cyberpunk-inspired game this year was Ghostrunner, which presented an engaging dystopian setting. Featuring quality first-person platforming, wall-running, and melee combat, this is one of those games that makes you feel like a badass — it never goes easy on you, but it gives you everything you need to perform sick parkour jumps while taking out armed enemies.
You’d do well to play any of the aforementioned titles if you want fun, unique experiences. Now, though, let’s check out this year’s runners-up before we get to the Indie Game of the Year.
Runner-Up: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Just when you thought the battle royale was a one-trick pony, here comes Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout from Playtonic to turn the genre on its head. The Devolver Digital-published game is a mix of Mario Party-styled mini-games and MXC game show antics. It’s not only a great deal of fun — it’s also one of the most refreshing takes on the battle royale genre to come along in a while.
When you play Fall Guys, it’s hard to ignore the game’s float-y, slippery controls. The weird and wonky feel of the game is deliberate, though, and is intended to make beating other players and clearing obstacle courses that much tougher. It ensures all players are on an even (and wobbly) playing field, and it’s a riot.
Fall Guys offers candy-colored bliss and cartoon violence, making for one of the most brutal-yet-charming multiplayer games around. It’s absolutely hilarious seeing the little jelly bean-esque characters flying around, trying to race up a hill, and attempting to dodge giant obstacles.
Runner-Up: Mortal Shell
There isn’t much we haven’t seen from the Souls-like genre by now. You know how it goes: These games are insanely tough, deliberately paced, and tonally ominous. Developer Cold Symmetry nailed all of those attributes with its own Souls-inspired title, Mortal Shell. This game takes cues from its forebears and succeeds at providing a rich and challenging experience set in a dark fantasy world.
But here’s where Mortal Shell is different: It’s much denser in terms of content than other similar games and can be completed in about 15 hours.
Though some purists might find the game’s length a bit short, everything that’s packed into it is pure quality. The game still drops you into a mysterious, brooding land and stacks the odds against you — it just offers a noticeably focused direction.
If you’re a newcomer to the genre, Mortal Shell provides a delightfully twisted “my first Souls-like” experience. If, on the other hand, you’re an experienced genre veteran, you’ll come away surprised by how much the game respects your time. Either way, the game is a great triumph and must-play for fans of starkly themed games and punishing mechanics.
Runner-Up: Morbid: The Seven Acolytes
While we’re on the topic of Souls-influenced games, we can’t overlook Morbid: The Seven Acolytes, developed by Still Running. It’s filled with everything you love about this style of game: tough enemies, tougher bosses, intense wait-to-strike combat, and a mysterious world — all presented in a pixelated isometric view.
The game features a cool horrorpunk aesthetic and draws inspiration from Lovecraftian fiction. Thematically, you get a lot of squishy, gory body horror, all wrapped up in fantastical, larger-than-life set pieces. You’ll travel through creepy caves, stormy landscapes, and seemingly haunted docks. There’s a heavy sense of unease in the air as you walk through the once-inhabited world and witness the remnants of a land ravaged by death and destruction.
As is typical for the genre, Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is set in an ambiguous world with plenty of lore for you to uncover as you go. Interestingly, a lot of this lore is discovered during side quests and character interactions. So, you can get as much or as little out of the game’s purposefully mysterious story as you want.
If you’re looking for a pixelated bloody good time that’ll chill and challenge you, Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is one of 2020’s best offerings.
Hades was easily a lot of folks’ favorite roguelite of the year. That’s a tall order considering how stacked 2020 was in terms of the genre. You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, who wants nothing more than to escape the Underworld and get away from his old man. As you journey through the procedurally generated Underworld, you’ll battle demonic creatures, unlock new weapons, and obtain buffs.
Like the best examples of the genre, Hades works because of its tight, focused gameplay. Getting unlocks, trying out new weapons, and getting further into the game every time encourages you to keep trying. In addition, when you come across branching paths, you’ll see hints on doors that give you an idea of the upgrades you can expect if you choose that route, which is just a really smart design choice.
One aspect of Hades that truly stands out is its presentation. Aside from the great comic book visuals, the story is fully voice acted. Best of all, as you progress, dialogue, character interactions, and even the narration evolve. It helps that the voice work is so great, but also the level of depth that the game reaches with its method of storytelling is fantastic.
Supergiant Games continues to prove its versatility. Hades is arguably the studio’s best game yet, and it’s proof that roguelites — and story-driven action games in general — can still surprise us.
Runner-Up: The Pathless
Following 2016’s Abzu, Giant Squid returned in 2020 with its most ambitious project yet: The Pathless. The game puts you in the role of the Hunter, who’s tasked with curing a cursed land and bringing back peace and tranquility. Though fiery beasts and corrupted monuments stand in your way, the game takes a surprising turn and offers a more meditative experience.
You’ll run through fields of tall grass, soar through the sky, and witness breathtaking scenery. While playing The Pathless, you can’t help but feel like a tiny dot on a massive, uncontrollable landscape. As such, you really have no choice but to just breathe it all in. The Pathless might feel familiar in terms of mechanics, but tonally, it’s quite unlike anything that’s come before it.
Both exploring and shooting things with the Hunter’s bow and arrow are incredibly engaging thanks to the tight and polished mechanics and controls. Running through the vast fields, exploring ancient ruins, solving puzzles with the help of your eagle companion all combine to create a wholly enjoyable and calming experience.
Beautiful sights. Powerful sounds courtesy of Austin Wintory. Captivating gameplay. That’s what you get from The Pathless, and it all comes together brilliantly.
Winner: Streets of Rage 4
It’s crazy to think that one of the most popular beat ‘em up franchises of the ‘90s would resurface in 2020 in indie game form. Well, that’s exactly what happened, folks. And what a game Streets of Rage 4 is!
The game’s setting is rich with ‘90s-flavored urban decay and it’s all presented in rad comic book-styled visuals. The music is super catchy, too, and there’s even a bit of decent voice acting thrown in for good measure.
Presentation aside, Streets of Rage 4 is just a really fun action game. Though the simplicity of the beat ‘em up genre is present here — you know, just punch and kick the crap out of everyone you see — it’s all much more fluid and fast-paced than ever. You’ll perform melee attacks, wrestling moves, and flashy supers as you take on thugs, martial arts masters, and corporate supervillains. The supers in particular are a lot of fun to pull off as each character has his or her own special maneuver.
Streets of Rage 4 perfectly marries old school arcade action with refined gameplay to create a triumphant retro-modern thrill ride. And like any proper beat ‘em up, the game features both four-player local and two-player online co-op. While this is the best way to play, Streets of Rage 4 is still really, really fun if you opt to go it alone.
Straight up, the collective forces over at DotEmu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush have given us arguably the best beat ‘em up to come along in recent memory — which is saying something considering the great games we’ve seen like River City Girls and the new Battletoads. When you play Streets of Rage 4 and realize how incredible and action-packed it is, it becomes clear why it took the collaborative efforts of three indie teams to pull it off.
There’s no doubt that 2020 was a stellar year as far as indie games go. That said, the latest entry in the Streets of Rage series was able to take us on a trip back in time while also propelling the beat ‘em up genre forward. It’s fast, stylish, challenging, and empowering. That’s why Streets of Rage 4 is the 2020 Indie Game of the Year!
What were your favorite indies of 2020? Let us know in the comments!