The 13 Best Indies of 2015
In 2015, we once again saw a massive increase in the amount of indie games that flooded our inbox. Developers from all over the world worked tirelessly to produce numerous horror titles with whatever budget they could muster. While it’s a shame we don’t have the staff and time to give all of these a place on our site, we did review plenty of great ones that we’d love to give some more spotlight before the year is over.
Just like last year, we tweaked the rules to make the list a little more sensible:
– Instead of exclusively highlighting indies, any obscure game out there is welcome regardless of whether or not a publisher was involved.
– Early Access titles are not included.
– Visual novels and other genres with a lack of traditional gameplay do qualify, however.
Train of Afterlife
The year was off to a great start with this independently developed visual novel about the melancholy of death. I said “great” not “happy”.
In terms of visual novels, Train of Afterlife was actually pretty heavy on gameplay, as your character arrives on a train to the end and has to fill in the last few hours of its existence. Do you accept this condition and go willingly, yearn to live once more, or attempt to discover what led you to your untimely demise?
As you play the background of the mysterious ghosts that arrived before you are gradually revealed and if you are comfortable with replaying the novel multiple times, you may even unravel the real mystery behind it all.
The Static Speaks My Name
Walking simulators still tend to have a bad stigma within this industry, as they are often seen as boring projects that use narrative as an excuse to skimp on gameplay mechanics. While in some cases that is definitely true, The Static Speaks My Name is an example of this genre done right.
The game is a short little story about obsession in which you follow a character that has clearly lost is it some time ago. The horror doesn’t come from any outside factor like monsters or atmosphere, but rather from the player character itself. Playing as the unnamed person, the uncanny tasks you are asked to perform are more than a little uncomfortable, leading to a brief and memorable ride through a madman’s daily life.
If you are craving for some traditional horror instead, then Shutter comes wholeheartedly recommended; it being a mix of Fatal Frame and Resident Evil.
You play as a tiny surveillance robot send to patrol an abandoned mansion that has been recently vandalized. Equipped with a camera and tank controls akin to the Resident Evil games of the Playstation 1 era, you soon find the house to be haunted. While seeming innocent at first, the hauntings soon begin to break down any semblance of safety as scares begin to tear down the fourth wall.
While short, it’s a neat little homage to the games that got many of us into the genre to begin with, while still maintaining an identity of its own.
Tormentum: Dark Sorrow
While Alien: Isolation continued to make news throughout this year, perhaps the hottest item to be inspired by horror expert H.R. Giger was an intriguing adventure game from Poland.
Starting as an amnesiac prisoner trapped in the grand halls of a hellish castle, Tormentum: Dark Sorrow not only featured some really good puzzles, but also had by far the best art of any game to come out this year. Mixing H.R. Giger with Zdzisław Beksiński was a brilliant move and the many strange interactions you can have in the resulting world are very memorable indeed.
The puzzles you’ll be solving also exceed the typical ‘use key on lock’ scenarios. Just like with the scenery, you’ll often find yourself staring down on some alien machinery and having to figure out what makes it tick based on whatever hints you can find.
While neither artist is still around, this homage to two of the greatest masterminds this genre has ever seen demands to be played by any fan of horror.
Lakeview Cabin III
Going from something truly beautiful to something utterly silly, Lakeview Cabin III was perhaps the best parody this genre has seen in several years.
This game, which is part of the larger Lakeview Cabin Collection, put you in the role of four camp counselors you can switch between. While your overall goal is to fight off a number of slasher movie villains by utilizing traps, weapons, and careful maneuvering, the game was designed in such a way that a wide array of comedic chaos would usually ensue. Traps could backfire horribly, leaving counselors standing around would usually turn out bad, stuff would catch on fire; this game is just insane.
The trailer does a better job at explaining this than I do. In short: this is easily the most chaotic, unpredictable puzzle game of the year.
Til Morning’s Light
A first for me in terms of reviewing a mobile game and an immediate home run, Til Morning’s Light was a highly ambitious title from the good people at Wayforward.
What starts with the traditional setup of a lone teenage girl trapped in a haunted mansion develops into an entertaining story that features both fun and sad moments, which is a bit of a rarity these days. Backed up by a neat combat system and great graphics, which even feature a deteriorating costume for main character Erica, this was a title that outclassed several of this year’s PC and console releases for me. Really, the only negative aspect to this game is that the puzzles are a bit too simplistic and controls could be a bit tighter.
If you’re open to the idea of playing an actual game on your smartphone that demands longer play sessions, then Til Morning’s Light may not be skipped.
Another favorite of mine this year was Fran Bow, which was held back from being the best point & click of the past few years solely by the fact Tormentum exists.
As the titular Fran, an orphaned girl whose mental state declined following the slaughter of her parents, the player is tasked with finding a way out of the insane asylum and reunite with Fran’s lost cat. This journey takes the player through magical kingdoms, hellish domains, and other strange places, making it quite similar in style to American McGee’s Alice series.
The puzzles in this game vary from average to really tough, to the point I found myself passing screenshots around to the rest of our staff to figure some of these out. All in all, it’s a great point & click title that should offer both challenge and an engaging story.
Well this is a weird one. Albino Lullaby is a refreshing type of horror game in that it’s not filled with gore nor jump scares. It’s just weird as sin. It’s got toothy thumb-people with posh British accents tinged with madness, visuals inspired by the likes of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, and amusing (and creepy) writing.
While we’re going to have to wait for Albino Lullaby Episode 2 to release in 2016, Episode 1 is a sizeable game on its own that pushed players into just the threshold of a surreal world ruled by an entity called Grandmother and her “children”. It’s not a tough or scary game by any means, but it’ll entertain you unlike most horror games that have released this year.
The Music Machine
The Music Machine is a short little trip into a word of single-tone colors, accentuated with shadows and symbolic imagery. You play as Haley … well, actually a ghost named Quintin that’s possessed her because of something she had done in the past. I won’t explain why, but it’s pretty dark.
The game lacks audio dialogue, but the relationship between the characters is well-developed and compelling despite the game’s short runtime. In addition, a vibrant art style and absorbing writing about fallen gods and false idols elevates the game into a must-play.
Spirits of Xanadu
Despite its relatively un-unique setting and premise, Spirits of Xanadu is a surprise sci-fi horror game that balances its narrative and gameplay design well. Given the option to enjoy the game without enemies or combat, Spirits of Xanadu thrusts players into a derelict spaceship to learn about its missing crew. Not super original, but the writing and the performances on display are pretty darn good.
Spirits of Xanadu takes low-fi sci-fi aesthetics and tasks players with navigating the ship, solving its puzzles, pursuing answers, and piecing together its story from audio and text logs, each by characters with unique voices. Another short but rewarding horror title worth checking out.
Her Story is quite the interesting murder mystery and interactive piece of storytelling. Some may throw the “it’s not a game” argument toward it because the level of interactivity is simplistic, but Her Story uses its medium brilliantly to tell its narrative. Players are tasked with piecing together clues and events by searching through police interview videos, using keywords to jump from one video to the next. This non-linear approach to the narrative means each player will have a different journey, as they piece the clues together in different ways until they fully learn what happened. It’s this type of storytelling that can only be achieved via interactivity. And video games are interactive entertainment, right?
But even when completed, Her Story‘s narrative leaves much to debate as it’s twists and turns and captivating performance by Viva Seifert make you question the truth and evidence discovered.
Frictional Games have been one of the leaders in indie survival horror for quite some time. Their Amnesia series has inspired countless indie developers, for better or worse, since release, and as a result the survival horror genre received a resurgence. With SOMA, the same team is back, dropping gothic horror in favor of sci-fi. And what’s a little sci-fi without a story steeped in existential themes and body horror, am I right?
SOMA isn’t a groundbreaking game by any means, but it’s a finely tuned piece of survival horror by a studio that knows their spooky stuff. You’ve got a great cast of characters with strong performances, a story that’s sure to make you uncomfortable, and amazing visuals (and sound) all working in tandem to scare you to the core.
Sound of Drop
And finally, there is a visual novel that really came out of the left field. We weren’t even sure if this title would fit in our coverage, but after giving it a look, all doubts were washed away.
This story takes players to an aquarium with a mysterious past and many rumors that surround it. Two girls are there to hunt for evidence to prove these rumors, but end up getting more than they bargained for when all other visitors suddenly vanish and paranormal phenomena begin to violently lash out at them.
The game absolutely revels in killing the player and provides lengthy descriptions of exactly how you kick the bucket. It’s good stuff and oftentimes even a bit uncomfortable to read. The visual part of the visual novel is also nothing to scoff at; it’s a beautifully illustrated story with easily some of the best character design seen this year.