As 2013 speeds away in our rear-view mirror, it's important to realize that some of the best gaming last year came from smaller studios at price points under $20. That's great quality gaming on various platforms that won't break your bank. Are these games the show-stopping spectacles of the big-budget AAA crowd? No, but pound-for-pound I think they're punching way above their weight class. (Mike: I apologize for the cliche boxing metaphor. Bad Mike. Cass: As long as you don't break a finger or two doing that...)
So here are our favorite indie games from 2013. We present these games in order of release date, not in order of quality. Mike is uncultured and has a huge Steam backlog, so more-lauded, amazing titles like Gone Home, Papers Please, and Amnesia: A Machines for Pigs won't be appearing on this list. Don't hate us.
Skulls of the Shogun
Mike: I love Final Fantasy Tactics. I love Tactics games and solid turn-based strategy. Skulls of the Shogun starts from the premise that turn-based strategy is awesome and then asks, "what if it didn't take 30 minutes for each encounter?" Everything in the game is built for speed and accessibility. No grids, no crazy amount of units and resources to juggle, and each player is limited to five orders per turn.
This is all about the tactical combat, distilling turn-based strategy down to its core. If you're giving someone a look into the strategy genre, Skulls of the Shogun is a great place to start. The game is simple, but not easy; you'll still have to balance offense, defense, and your army to achieve victory.
In fact, the only real problem with Skulls of the Shogun was the fact that it was Windows 8 and Window Phone exclusive when it first came out. Luckily, that's no longer that case with the Bone-A-fide Edition for Steam and the recent iOS release.
Cass: Believe it or not, I've actually got an alpha copy of the game on a disc somewhere. One of the developers was sweet enough to give it to me way back when the game was first made playable at a PAX I'm too absent-minded to put a date to. I played that game to death. Multiplayer was an absolute hoot with friends. Especially once you've figured out how to play it better than everyone else.
One of the things that I enjoyed about Skulls of the Shogun was also the fact that it didn't try to force cultural motifs. Western media often seems to have a thing for loudly decorating themselves with effigies of Asian-ness, as though their audience would have trouble recognizing the Eastern influences otherwise.
Also, undead cannibalistic samurai that devour skulls to power up. How can you not enjoy this at all? (Am I still remotely on tangent?)
Mike: Hey, remember those wonderful days when we got a portable 2D Castlevania every two years or so? Those days sadly ended with 2008's Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, because 2013's Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate wasn't the best offering. What world are we living in where Koji Igarashi's last game wasn't a Castlevania?
Well Drinkbox Studios is looking to give all you Metroidvania fans a fix. Guacamelee brings together the Metroidvania gameplay, the magic of luchadores, a great artstyle, and a transforming goats. And if you're a gaming enthusiast, you can expect some of the best callbacks and easter eggs.
Probably the best part about Guacamelee is there's no crazy inventory to deal with. I know that'll make you inventory Tetris fiends cry out in pain, but I think it's a plus. As you gain new abilities, they're all mapped to different controller moves. That means you have full use of all of your abilities at any time, which makes traversing the levels much easier. In fact, heading from one end of Guacamelee to the other puts you in sort of a zen state if you've been playing too long. Frog Slam here, Olmec's Headbutt there, shift to the Dead World, etc.
Guacamelee is cross-buy on the PlayStation 3 and Vita, so buying it once on PSN gets you both versions, and the Steam edition of the game also adds skin-creation options into the mix. Either version is quite worth it!
Mike: If you're noticing a pattern here it's that indies are giving us games that larger publishers have left behind. Gunpoint isn't in quite the same boat because we just got Splinter Cell: Blacklist this year, but I'm always up for some espionage action. Gunpoint's gameplay is rather simple: break into a building, dodge guards, and steal data. Your primary gadgets will be the your superpowered pants, which allow you to jump great distances, and your crosslink device, which lets you hack into light switches, alarms, and other security devices. There are other gadgets, but these two are the ones you need to master to finish Gunpoint.
And Gunpoint is hard. This game will kill you, because if a guard sees you, you're dead. Full stop. Gunpoint is one of those games that makes you work for it mentally, but you never feel punished compared to some other titles. The game also offers an ingenious quick-save that can take you back to the beginning of the level or just a few seconds before your death.
Gunpoint also comes with a full level-editor, so if the game is your jam, you'll have something to play for a long time. You can pick the game up on Steam or buy the DRM-free version on the game's official website!
Mike: In contrast to Gunpoint, Rogue Legacy is very punishing. You will die. Over and over again. The developers know this. The game is built with the expectation of your death, because it's focused around your descendants taking up your cause. Rogue Legacy switches things up with random traits for each descendant, like increased speed, reversed controls, or color-blindness. Dying is the game's focus.
As is gold. Every time you head into the dungeon - which re-arranges itself with every journey - it's with the desire to get more gold. With the gold you can buy upgrades to your character, your lineage, and your makeshift camp. When you enter the castle, you give up all the gold you collected on the last run, so it behooves you to spend everything you got. You search each iteration of the dungeon, pushing farther inward in a vain desire to gain more gold, only to die, spend all that gold, and go at it again. Repeat until forever.
Rogue Legacy throws a lot at you, but it doesn't cheat. In each randomly-generated room, you get to decide if you have the skill to cross it alive. The controls are tight, so your failure is your own.
I'm not a big roguelike fan outside games like FTL, but Rogue Legacy reminds me of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for some reason. That was one of the Castlevania series' high points for me, so Rogue Legacy tweaks my nostalgic heartstrings. Interested? The game is only $15 on Steam or GOG.
Cass: One of the unsung heroes of 2013. At least, for me. There's a distinct possibility I'd like it less if I knew more about the Civil War. Which I don't. So, there's that. ANYWAY.
So, Zachtronic's new game, much like a lot of things I take interest in, is a bit weird. Set in an alternate Civil War era, a place where steampunk machines and clockwork armies rule, it's a card game with cards that you can level up by unlocking certain achievements. There are also RTS elements squished into it and some Plants vs Zombies, along with a seamless co-op mode that makes playing with a friend both delightful and really, bloody hard. If your friend mis-manages resources, you're screwed.
Like everything else we seem to love on this list, Ironclad Tactics is a difficult mistress. Each new wrench that it hurls into the cogwork invariably results in you stumbling and very frequently hitting the ground in a dust storm of frustration. I remember being introduced to the idea that the game included more than horizontal lanes; it functioned on a vertical playing field, as well! I probably scared someone with my indignant shriek.
Ironclad Tactics is available on Steam for the low, low price of $15.
Cass: Foul Play is probably one of those games that I enjoyed a bit too much; most outlets rated it somewhat above "Meh". It's an over-the-top, side-scrolling brawler starring a demonologist who strongly resembles a Rich Uncle Moneybags and a deadpan chimneysweep-ninja-everyman. Foul Play also takes place atop a stage production, with sets and people in costume and an endearing, moustachio-ed stage hand who often finds himself caught in the spot light in the most charming ways.
Combat is simple and, as always with such type of games, best with a friend in tow. You begin with the usual array of light attacks, hard attacks, throws and dashes but quickly graduate to more combos as you unlock things in the game. Though most games would be okay having do little outside of mashing a button repeatedly, Foul Play demands a bit more finesses. In order to please your audience, you'll need to be able to put on a good show. I.E: Lots of creative combos and hurling hapless enemies left and right across the stage. It's glorious.
I love this game so much as a co-op experience that I've yet to properly finish it. I keep running out of friends who are interested in the game. Mostly because they've all seen variations of the same formula, I think. Who knows? Still, with its silly premise and bizarre Victorian humor, Foul Play comes up as one of my favorites from 2013.
The "perfomance of a lifetime" is on Steam, with $15 being the price of admission.
Cass: I'm so addicted to Starbound that it isn't even funny anymore. Like, it's weird because my fondness for Terraria could only be described as "lukewarm" as best. Of course, I've also got the attention span of a caffeinated gnat-on-fast-forward but that's besides the point.
Plenty of games advertise themselves as an adventure but Starbound is one of those that fulfill the promise. Getting into a ship, blasting off to some alien planet -- I still get a frisson of nervous joy each time I prepare to beam down onto world. Sure, there might be an upper limit to ecosystem diversity. Sure, the A.I isn't particularly intelligent or very conversational. Sure, there are bugs, broken bits and the occasional bandit head who isn't good for much outside of shouting threatening lines. But every visit to a new planet still makes me feel like I'm some kind of intergalactic settler. Do I colonize this new land or do I strip it of its resources to help foster my home world? Do I leave little camps in the world I visit? Just to ensure a newcomer might be able to find succor from the cold? The best thing about Starbound, though, is probably the fact that all this is present in its current state. I can't wait to see what the finished product might be like.
Mike: I'm too busy playing Starbound to write about Starbound. What's that? Where can you buy it? Steam Early Access, my friends.