PC, Switch, iOS, Android
Hello! Well, planet Earth did it again, and circled the sun one more time. That means, as the Christmas lights twinkle through the gloom, I must once more whittle down the year’s buried treasures to my favourites, thus indirectly insulting everything I don’t include. On my first attempt, I got the list down to 19. That’s too many. But what a year.
Right, so to whittle it down to a manageable size, I’ve been unfair. I’m imposing a need to still be “buried”. This isn’t a “Best Indies” list, but rather a “Best Buried Treasures” list. I’ve decided to remove Norco, because it became a break-out hit, and is rightly being widely celebrated. I’ve removed Hob’s Barrow, because it got a bunch of very high review scores, and the push of being published by Wadjet Eye. Escape Simulator gets bumped for being an October 2021 release, even though I reviewed it this year and loved it, but it’s also had a ton of love on Steam. Supraland: Six Inches Under is unfairly removed because it’s prequel got lots of attention on Game Pass. And that gets me to 14, and I genuinely can’t bring myself to trim it any further.
So, in no particular order, and with apologies flying in all directions, let’s celebrate the best lesser-known indies of the year!
See, hypocrisy right out the gate, because this is a 2020 game! But 2022 was the year I found it, and no one else picked it up. (I remain its only review.) It’s a simulation of that sci-fi trope, the character who wakes up in a spaceship airlock with no memory, being interrogated by crew members because they think you might be the alien. And, well, you are. This plays out as a time-loop game, in which you gain knowledge each time around, allowing you to greatly expand your reach, and eventually possess other crewmates to explore the ship. It’s fantastic to play as the baddie, and the whole thing is so smart. And it was a student game!
Unique puzzle games like this are too easily forgotten on end-of-year lists, but not this time. Otteretto is a game about spotting palindromic patterns within coloured tiles, which when highlighted are then eliminated. At the time of its review, I lamented that this would be a perfect mobile game, but was only available on PC. Well now I’m pleased to report it’s out for iOS and Android! It’s perfect for an electronic telephone.
It’s a game about trying to form romantic relationships with Viking villages. If you need more than that, then we’re different people. Doki Doki Ragnarok is not a spoof of romantic visual novels, but instead a very funny example of the form. It’s an incredibly silly game, but with a vital core of sincerity, as you work out how best to woo a series of villages with different personalities. Crucially, while packed with hilarious writing, it’s also just utterly lovely. And it’s this loveliness that makes the comedy shine.
OK, this came out in 2021, but with the December caveat. You go find me a mainstream site that’s not including Vampire Survivors this year, and then we can talk. Jigsaw Puzzle Dreams is the best ever jigsaw video game, thanks to its physics-first approach to accurately simulating a real-world experience of building the puzzles. I’ve played this on and off all year since I found it in March, uploading my own photos and images and making 500-piece puzzles out of them. (You can go way bigger, but 500 seems right to me for on-screen puzzling.) The only issue is that if you leave it running in the background, it will eat your RAM and put smoke out the back of your PC, for reasons beyond me.
Scarlet Hollow Episodes 3 & 4
It blows my mind that I’m able to include Scarlet Hollow in here. You know, to get a little overly self-absorbed, it genuinely worries me that m’colleagues in this industry aren’t willing to listen and just give this astonishing game series the attention it so strongly merits. It’s in my top 2 games of this and last year, as it tells its creepy tale of smalltown weirdness in a way totally unique to how you behave, and perhaps 2023 will be the year it receives the breakout success it unquestioningly deserves.
Released onto Google’s Play Pass for Android this year, and also on iOS, Knights Of San Francisco is a fascinating text-based RPG, set thousands of years in the future, where creatures of fantasy have occupied a presumably post-apocalyptic America. With combat, characters, and unique paths to carve through its storyline, it’s already brilliant. But combined with the beautiful way text appears and disappears from your screen, along with gasp-inducing prose, this is a stand-out piece of interactive fiction.
Every year brings us one absolutely extraordinary Metroid-like game that the entire games industry just mindlessly ignores. And despite two releases, first for PC, then for Switch, Haiku The Robot got no attention at all. It’s not too late of course, and God knows, every site needs new entries to update their Google-bait “Best Metroidvania Games” listicles. Built by one astonishingly talented person, following an adorable little pixel robot through a perfectly paced adventure, it’s by far one of the best games of its type, and the best Metroid-like of the year.
A very British adventure game, and yet not insufferable like Simon The Sorcerer! In fact, Lucy Dreaming is absolutely adorable, a full-length point-n-click game made with the spirit of early LucasArts, about a young girl attempting to solve the peculiar mystery of her own very vivid nightmares. It’s jolly, silly, and absolutely packed with fantastic, fully-voiced characters. Also there are giant angry ducks, and vicars to poison with bad jam.
I’m trying really hard not to make this just a long list of bitter rants at how the games media just can’t be bothered with any game that lacks a PR campaign, but how am I the only review out there for Hands Of Necromancy? This is a Hexen-like so good I’d have believed it if you told me it were made by Raven. The level design is great, the mix of close-up and ranged combat is ideal, and it weaves in a little Metroid flavour with levels that you’ll return to later with more abilities. Absolutely stunning, it deserves so much more.
An immersive sim made by two people is a silly thing to even suggest, and yet Ctrl Alt Ego achieves it. Exploring a semi-abandoned spaceship in the form of an unexplained floating ego, you leap between machines and robots, piecing together the events that took place, while controlling security, sneaking mini-bots through tunnels, and solving its many puzzles in any of multiple ways. It’s not the prettiest game, but it’s one of the smartest.
One of the best things about putting together these Best Of lists is remembering games I’d intended to finish, but forgot to go back to. I never finished Islets! I’m really pleased to see that this adorable Metroid-like went on to receive a decent amount of attention from some smaller sites, likely boosted by being published by Armor Studios, but I want to make sure you notice it too! It’s about bringing together a series of broken floating islands, that when joined create new pathways through its zones, as you gain abilities, and does it all with a generosity that doesn’t gatekeep later levels with overly hard bossfights.
By far the most interesting critique of game development in ages, and at the same time an absolutely fantastic adventure game, One Dreamer is a story of an indie dev’s inability to let go of his prize project. It’s also a game that teaches players how to bodge code, creating puzzles that use a very accessible pseudo-coding language where you must take as many shortcuts as possible to complete the tasks. This is an incredibly beautiful game, and also a very moving one.
A few people were perturbed by my describing Taiji as a 2D The Witness, with all the ghastly Jonathan Blow smugness removed. But that’s a perfect description. This is a very pretty pixel puzzle game, in which you control a character who must solve huge numbers of Witness-like puzzles, all without My First Philosophy being preached at you throughout. It’s an absolute treat, a really spectacular game.
My number one game of 2022, I’m going to cheat and paste what I wrote on Kotaku for this one, as I really don’t think I can better capture what I want to say about it again.
Created by Meredith Gran, the author of the well-loved web comic Octopus Pie, this is a tale of adolescence captured with more honestly and authenticity than anything gaming has previously achieved. Teenagers are woefully poorly written in gaming, generally stereotyped or parodied, and rarely treated with the dignity they deserve, despite every single adult making games having been one once. Not so in Perfect Tides, that so perfectly represents the state of mind of being within the clutches of puberty, that it repeatedly made me cry with nostalgia and anguish.
15-year-old Mara Whitefish is a late bloomer, struggling to fit in with her family and friends as she battles to become who she’s going to be, while clinging on to who she was. That desire to be protected as a child, but set free as an adult, and incapable of understanding why those around her won’t grant her these paradoxical wishes. The game is about this time in her life, rather than some overarching plot, nor is it just used as a background to an alien invasion or what-have-you. It’s about being a teenager, her relationship with her mother, and all the self-sabotage and selfishness that undermines attempts to succeed.
Gran’s writing is so generous that, despite telling what’s seemingly a very personal tale, even as a person of a different gender from a different country I was able to share in her unique experience, while reflecting on my own. It certainly helped that I too was a teenager around the the same time as the game’s late-90s setting, with all the burgeoning online romances, and sense of being on the cusp of a shift from an analogue to digital world.
I adore this game, and consider it my favourite of 2022.