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This is a wonderful time to be a PC Gamer – whatever hardware you’re currently running on. The indie games scene is thriving, churning out high quality, original and entertaining games. Every week it seems like there’s a new star in the indie-gaming sky.
Being an indie means a number of things. It means creating games as a hobby as often as it does making them for a living. It means creative freedom and lack of corporate pressure. It means crazy thinking and ill-advised features (like The Witcher’s controversial sex cards). It means doing everything in-house – publishing, marketing, supporting, sound, graphics, programming, design.
Here’s a collection of ten widely-recognised indie successes, coupled with their Metacritic ratings (so that you don’t have to take our word for it). They’re all widely available on Steam, GOG and Humble, often at great prices, and have very low hardware requirements. If you can plug a monitor and an RJ45 cable into your toaster, you’ll probably be able to run at least some of these games on it.
Are we missing anything? Let us know your favourites in the comments below! And stay tuned for Part 2, which we’ll be publishing in a week’s time.
If we’re going to start anywhere, it makes sense to start at the recently released Gunpoint. It’s tearing through the games press like wildfire, racking up rave reviews as it goes.
In a nutshell, Gunpoint is a stealthy 2D action-puzzle game. You guide your heroic private investigator through highly secure buildings, hacking electrical circuits to re-wire components and dodging (or leaping manically upon) guards as you go. It’s original, it looks great, and it’s very entertaining. The puzzles and the action both have a satisfying degree of creativity to them. It’s also got a strong story to tie the levels together.
Gunpoint is the very epitome of an indie game. It was built in Game Maker 8, a product costing around $30, by a games journalist called Tom Francis (who, until recently, worked for PC Gamer magazine). It’s a labour of love; a part-time project which took some three years to build. We’re very happy to report that it’s out, it’s great, and its enabled Mr Francis to become a full-time developer.
Fez is another long-term labour of love (and, by the sounds of it, a good measure of bloody-mindedness). It took about five years for Phil Fish to finish it. The result is a rich, original and mind-bending puzzler.
Fez is a platformer with, quite literally, a twist. The game world is mounted on an axle with four sides. The player moves Gomez, the game’s behatted protagonist, across the front-facing plane of the world like a typical 2D environment. The world can be rotated by 90 degrees, twisting the axle to reveal a different plane beneath the Gomez’s feet. It’s an ingenious mechanic: complex to explain in words, but instantly intuitive when seen in action.
The trailer below explains the game neatly – give it a click:
If the trailer doesn’t sell it to you, know that Fez is both beautiful and clever. But that’s not all it has to offer: it’s jam-packed full of secrets and optional puzzles which are sure to get even the wisest head scratching.
Ah, Bastion. Has there ever been a more relentlessly, furiously entertaining indie game?
Bastion is sort of a variant on the action-RPG genre. Guide your character, The Kid, through an isometric world, collecting a fascinating and varied array of melee and ranged weapons. It’s very heavy on the action and very light on the RPG, though. Combat is hands on: it’s manual aiming and fast-reaction dodging, creating gameplay loaded with skill. Meanwhile, you can tweak your character to suit your play-style with power-ups and simple weapon upgrades.
It’s a fast-paced, surprisingly intricate game, twitch-heavy and full of surprises.
The stand-out feature, though, is Rucks: the gruff-voiced narrator who provides a voice-over explaining your actions as you perform them. Tumble to your death and Rucks will announce “And then… he falls to his death”. Waste a little time destroying scenery and Rucks will proclaim “The Kid just rages for a while”.
This, it turns out, is a piece of story-telling genius. Ruck’s narration makes it feel like the game story is reacting to you, rather than the other way around.
Torchlight has all the hallmarks of the works of a crazy genius. Action RPGs – that genre where you walk a hero through a world holding down the “HIT IT” button and smiting monsters with ever-more powerful gear – were pioneered by Diablo way back in 1996. And for many of the genre’s fans, Diablo II (2000) was, for many years, the best the genre had to offer.
Runic Games released Torchlight, a budget-priced download-only action RPG, in 2009. It must have set its sights to “completely la-la” to think it could take on Diablo. It’s fair to say, though, that Runic’s swing at the king drew more than a little blood.
Then, last year, Torchlight II (not technically an indie anymore, having acquired a separate publisher) and Diablo 3 were released at more or less the same time. They went head-to-head, each trying to reclaim the throne of the genre. Here were two polished heavyweights duking it out for mastery of the genre. Master versus apprentice; David (although admittedly a David with a rocket-launcher) versus Goliath.
Who won the fight? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. But with its DRM free, LAN-friendly install, lack of persistent world and real-money economy, charming visuals and streamlined gameplay: Torchlight II stole a massive chunk of the fanbase from Blizzard. This writer played both titles, but the only one that held his attention for more than ten hours was Torchlight II. Not only did it feel more fun and colourful to play; it also felt less exploitative.
The king of action RPGs is dead. Long live the king of action RPGs.
Metacritic: 75% (author’s note: this is an actual travesty. The IOS re-release is currently sitting at 83%)
Uplink is the first game from either the last of the bedroom programmers or the first of the modern indie developers (depending on how you look at it). Introversion released Uplink in 2001: a time when the Shareware/freeware markets had given up the ghost, Steam was just catching on as a platform, and when modern games were too expensive to produce by indie outfits.
The story of Introversion is as interesting as their games: they are one of the most unique, original and ground-breaking indie developers out there. For all their achievements and critical respect, they’ve walked a very hard road over the years.
The tragedy of Uplink is that, despite a release on Apple and Android tablets, it hasn’t aged all that well. In its heyday, Uplink succeeded because it created the illusion that you really were hacking into highly secure mainframes. In a world of dial-up modems and ISDN, Uplink made you disconnect your computer from the phone link just in case it was really real. In this touch-friendly, always on, massively broadband world, the flat UIs and slow processing of Uplink’s world aren’t as convincing as they used to be.
It’s still worth a look, though, especially if you can accept the slightly outdated concepts. When it does get its claws into you, Uplink is immersive like very few games out there. The emergent conspiracy story which slowly leaks out of incidental details and then private messages is gripping. In the 12 years since its release, no-one has made a better hacking simulator than Uplink.