Some months back, I wrote about some fantastic indie games that were hidden gems due to the PlayStation Store’s issues with discoverability. Today I want to spotlight some titles that can’t be considered hidden as they have received much praise and attention, but still may be unknown to wide swaths of the gaming universe. None of these are exclusive to PlayStation, so no matter where you play you can enjoy these treasures.
A true example of the spirit of an indie game, Celeste began as a two-person creation on the Pico-8 system, done at a four-day game jam. From those bones, developer Matt Makes Games (now Extremely Ok Games) created what we can all experience today, and it is gaming at its best. You are Madeline, taking on the challenge of climbing Celeste Mountain while fighting your inner demons along the way. With retro pixel graphics, an incredible soundtrack, and a meaningful story, this game has it all.
Celeste is the epitome of “easy to learn, hard to master” gaming, where your success or failure is completely in your hands. The game can be incredibly challenging but never feels frustrating or cheap. If you fail, it’s because you didn’t react quickly enough or pushed the stick a degree too far. You’ll always feel capable of passing the next challenge, leading to hours of “just one more try” until the sun comes up and you realize you’ve played all night long. Incredibly addicting and with a massive amount of replayability flowing from collectibles, “B-side,” and “C-side” challenge levels as well as an unlockable DLC level, there are dozens of hours of content here.
What makes the game even more unique and loved by its proponents is the accessibility built into the game. If the difficulty is too high, you have multiple options designed to allow you to continue experiencing the story and finish the game in a way that is comfortable for every level of gamer. Those options include having the game run as much as 50% slower, unlimited dashing, and even full invincibility if the walls of instant death spikes are getting you down. If you haven’t played Celeste yet, you owe it to yourself to give this masterpiece of design and gameplay a serious try.
The first in a long string of fantastic gaming experiences from developer SuperGiant Games, Bastion is unlike anything you’ve ever played. Sure, there are plenty of action RPGs with real-time combat and an art style reminiscent of colorful chibi art, but it’s the design of the game that really catches your attention. The game seems to build itself as you play, leaving you with the feeling that you are creating the story, not just participating in it.
As you walk through the level, in the role of a kid waking up alone after an unknown calamity turned his world upside down, the game is being constructed all around you. Bricks fly under your feet, walls fly in to surround you with every step. If there are multiple paths through a level, you may never see parts of that stage as it would never be built without your character heading that way. The narrator is also a huge part of this feeling of creation and having your own unique journey, of having an unseen reader tell your story as you live it.
Not only does he have a deep baritone that sounds vaguely reminiscent of Morgan Freeman, but the narrator also reacts to everything you do. If you take damage in an encounter, the narrator will mention it. When you get your first weapon, should you decide to just smash everything on the screen, he’ll say you’ve decided to “just rage for a while.” It’s truly remarkable how you’ll want to progress through the story just to hear what he has to say next. By the time you learn all about the kid’s story, you’ll want to immediately play through again to explore any parts of the experience you may have missed.
Thomas Was Alone
You might think that a game whose characters are differently-sized blocks wouldn’t be compelling, but you would be wrong. This creation from Mike Bithell began life as a Flash game, but soon was created on PC and then ported to various other platforms. It’s a good thing too because everyone should experience this joyful game. You play as Thomas, a small orange block that, according to on-screen text, is a bit of code inside a computer program. Thomas doesn’t know this about himself, however, and thus the adventure begins.
Just like Bastion, this game leverages a fantastic narrator to elevate the game to another level. You get the story alongside Thomas, while he learns new abilities and becomes aware of himself at the same time. As the levels progress, Thomas meets other blocks, all of whom have names and their own sets of abilities. You get to see the heartwarming results of teamwork and tolerance to those different from yourself, giving all of us players a wonderful treat along with the challenging and precise platforming. You can safely hand this one to the kids too, and feel good about what they’re playing, not always the easiest thing to say these days.
Limbo and Inside
I know I’m cheating here, but these two fantastic adventures from Playdead game studio are too good to be separated, and similar enough that I think you will forgive my transgression. When the studio’s first title, Limbo, first came out it was unlike anything we had ever seen. A bleakly colored, often dark, creepy game that left players stunned and wondering just what was happening at various places throughout the adventure. You play as a young boy traversing an unforgiving landscape, and you will die along the way, often in gruesome ways. By the time you reach the conclusion, the experience won’t leave you for days, and if you’re like me you’ll be googling to try to understand and absorb what you’ve seen. It must be experienced.
Inside isn’t a true sequel, but more of a spiritual successor to the studio’s first game. It shares a similar aesthetic, bleak and creepy but this time punctuated effectively with splashes of color. The game does an incredible job of creating a frightening atmosphere, as you once again play a child, this time one who appears to be on the run from something or someone, effectively creating a palpable sense of fear and tension. There’s no tutorial so there is a bit of trial and error, but the death animations serve to punch home the effect of disturbing imagery throughout the game. The ending leaves you with just as many questions as Limbo does, and it’s just as affecting and disquieting. Play them both and thank us later.
It’s hard to fathom, but this love letter to 8-bit Metroid games is the work of just one man, developer Thomas Happ. This game is incredibly dense, with more than 20 weapons, various power-ups and weapon upgrades, and a delightfully detailed story. Almost every level consists of dozens of screens, and in typical Metroidvania style, you will be visiting each of them multiple times to gain access to all the secrets present within. The plot revolves around a science experiment gone wrong and the scientist who must traverse an alien world to solve the mystery and restore normalcy. A standard setup for sure, but there’s a lot going on here so you’ll want to push forward to keep uncovering more details.
The best part of the game is the detailed design of each and every part of the world. The levels themselves are Escher-inspired hellscapes, walls dripping with goo as enemies float maliciously toward you. The levels themselves are puzzles that must be overcome, whether it’s determining how to lower a wall blocking your path or discovering hidden passageways behind walls that look like glitches in the matrix. If you’re into sci-fi horror, you’ll really be in your wheelhouse here. Don’t be ashamed if you need to use a guide or wiki, because as I said, this is fantastically dense stuff.
Hollow Knight is the game we need, not the game we deserve. It’s like a superior alien race, designed just for game creation, bestowed this game upon humanity as a gift. The game is exceptional in its scale, polish, and design, filled with meaningful characters inhabiting a world that is both stunningly alive and depressingly dead. There is so much personality, detail, and content built into the game, it looks as though it was the product of a massive team with huge resources. Stunningly though, the game is the creation of Team Cherry, a two-person(!!) development studio in Adelaide, Australia.
A classic Metroidvania at heart, Hollow Knight drips with atmosphere and environmental flair, telling the story of the world of Hallownest with every screen. Your character explores the world beneath the surface, a kingdom whose time of ruling has come and gone. You will encounter various beasts, friendly characters, merchants, and more, all with their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. With each new room you enter, you earn valuable currency to buy new charms and abilities, further opening the map and new areas in true genre fashion.
Beyond what’s in the game, the level of polish feels like something out of a much bigger development team. The game just feels right, the kind of thing that all games aspire to but few really achieve. Everything is intentional, from the slight knockback when you hit enemies with your ‘nail’ to the platforms that are just slightly out of reach, inviting you to try various methods to reach them before you head off to find a purpose-built charm to get the job done. Precise platforming is required here, and in lesser hands could lead to endless frustration, but it is clear that your fate is in your hands, your success just a matter of your wits and reflexes. There are no words strong enough for my recommendation of this game, it simply must be experienced.