2021 has been another year of hardship, but the indie scene once again pulled it out of the bag with some stellar experiences that I’ll remember for a long time. From dating sims to experiential games that tackle emotional themes, these are the most thought-provoking and fun indie games I’ve played in 2021.
Before Your Eyes
Before Your Eyes is a unique and emotional game from GoodbyeWorld Games that will tug at your heartstrings and will leave you thinking about it for the rest of the week. This indie title has a cool mechanic that is dictated by your eye blinks. You see scenes of someone’s life flashing before you and to get the full context, you need to keep your eyes open. If you close them after a certain period of time, it will skip the scene and go to the next. This unique input gives the intense scenes more suspense and is used as an emotional device to tell the story. Without spoiling anything, the story alongside this mechanic is ingenious, shocking, and moving. Read my positive review on this gem for more details.
As a bisexual man, I found this Kitfox Games dating sim Boyfriend Dungeon incredibly refreshing to play. Each character you meet can be wielded as a sword and is datable, no matter your gender in the game. It’s a hybrid of two genres: dating and a lite action RPG. You dive into dungeons to seek loot and face your own fears of love life. Without going into too much detail, I related a lot to the protagonist’s struggles of self-confidence, so it connected with me quite a bit. The deeper you go, the harder the threat will be. And as you level up your sword, more interactions can be made in the dating side of the game. It feels like filler in places, but hacking and slashing your inner demons is very satisfying with every sword’s special abilities. Every datable character is well written as you explore their fears and how they overcome them. Whether it’s Sawyer’s disastrous cooking ability or Seven’s lonely existence as a celebrity, you’ll be attached to the cast. It does have a creepy antagonist that has made some players uncomfortable with their stalking behavior and receives few repercussions for their actions, but despite this annoying factor, it’s a game I enjoyed immensely. You can read my review and interview with the writer Tanya X here on RetroWare.
Death’s Door by Acid Nerve is a thrilling Zelda-like adventure with some stunning imagery and great game design. The combat feels good with the bird’s frenetic arsenal of weapons, and the boss encounters feel like events rather than an afterthought. It does a great job of building atmosphere and tension towards the end of the level, where the boss resides. Death’s Door also delivers on its puzzles that play around with the use of elements like fire. IGN said in its review that “Death’s Door is a must for those looking to scratch the itch of a classic Zelda dungeon-delving game,” and I completely agree with that sentiment. Heck, I’d argue it’s better than some of them due to its Tim Burton-esque atmosphere and in-depth game design.
Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins
Developed by the indie studio that brought us the immersive Simulacra games came Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins earlier this year. It’s an FMV title that has you investigating a phone to figure out what happened to one of the Weeping Angels’ victims. You’re delving into the files of the owner, including emails, voicemails, and pictures to figure out the mystery around Wester Drumlins. And it’s tense all the way through. It’s canon within the timeline of the Doctor Who series and continues the story from the acclaimed episode Blink. Patronella Osgood also appears in this game, guiding you along the way. This was honestly one of my favorite horror games of the year as the developer Kaigan Games really knows how to create suspense in this unique setting. It really felt like playing an episode of the show. Read my review here.
Sea of Solitude: The Director’s Cut
With a fresh rewrite and a new voice cast, Sea of Solitude: Director’s Cut by Jo-Mei Games really hit the spot earlier this year. It highlighted the struggles of anxiety and depression in a tasteful manner. It was a topic I could relate to heavily as someone who suffers from it. The game reflects the hardship of feeling alone with no one to gravitate to and the self-inflicted ineptness of one’s esteem. Kay, the game’s protagonist goes through a journey that helps her accept her past and move on into the future with some beautiful visuals and levels to boot. Some experiential games suffer from overly difficult puzzles that distract from the main storytelling, and thankfully Sea of Solitude: Director’s Cut knows the fine line. It’s well worth checking out on the Nintendo Switch if you’re in the mood for a dramatic, yet uplifting game.
No Longer Home
Last but not least is No Longer Home by Humble Grove, an exploration into the uncertainty of moving to the next stage of your life. With beautiful visuals and storytelling tools, No Longer Home tells the story of Bo and Ao, who dream of their futures and how they’ll make it in the world after they graduate from university. The conflict arises when the couple realizes that one of them has to move back to Japan while the other stays in England. It’s an emotional story as each of the characters pack up their things and move on with their lives. It’s a self-exploration of the developers’ stories, making this a deeply personal experience to play through. I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to see the fearful perspective of a student getting their degree and moving out. As someone who’s moved out many, many times, including immigrating to Canada, I can relate. Read my review here.
This writer received review codes for all games in this list by their respective publishers. However, this is a true reflection of his impressions in 2021.