Indie Games on Steam You Should Check Out
Steam’s indie games section can sometimes feel like a collection of half-finished early access titles and exploitative, low-effort dating sims. For every Owlboy there’s a thousand Dinner Date’s, and it’s hard to filter the wheat from the chaff. Check out this list of some of the best indie games on Steam, titles that stand head and shoulders above the rest and are worth your time and money.
Cuphead is a run-and-gun title inspired by genre classics like Contra and Gunstar Heroes. It’s also, at times, a side-scrolling shoot-em-up (think Darius).
Cuphead is most notable for its unique visual aesthetic inspired by the Golden Age of American Animation. Each frame was meticulously hand-drawn with pen on paper, a laborious, time-consuming process that has resulted in one of the most visually stunning titles in this or any generation. It’s a highly-celebrated example of the genre, combining beautiful visuals with hard-as-nails difficulty that rewards the type of gamer that doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
The animations are gorgeous, and the controls are tight. And the music, oh the music. Honoring the 1930s aesthetic, Cuphead’s soundtrack is a glorious tribute to the big band jazz of the era. It’s full of bangers that will have you tapping your feet as you dance your way through stages, narrowly slipping through bullets and other dangerous projectiles.
Fans of this type of game probably already have it in their library. But it’s still a title worth diving into, even if you have the reaction time of a snail. Cuphead’s local co-op mode allows you to invite a more talented friend for when you need someone to carry you through the game’s harder segments. Or perhaps someone to blame for when things go south.
We can describe Stardew Valley in two words: Harvest Moon.
That’s not entirely fair to Stardew Valley. While Harvest Moon has been in a slump for the past decade or so, Stardew Valley, from the moment you awaken in the small cabin your grandfather passed down to you, is a shining reminder of why we fell in love with this type of game in the first place.
Stardew Valley combines all the best elements of the Harvest Moon series into a single title, and it does it without sacrificing the integrity of any single aspect of gameplay. Yes, it’s a farming simulator, but you can make a living mining for minerals, or fishing full time, or picking flowers in the nearby forest. Considering the sheer number of things there is to do in this game, it’s a wonder that each of them feels fully-fleshed and designed with care.
Stardew Valley has set the new standard for what a life simulator should be like. It plays like a compilation of Harvest Moon’s greatest hits all while outshining that legendary series in nearly aspect of gameplay. If you’re at all interested in this type of title, Stardew Valley is an instant purchase.
Factorio is the kind of title that consumes the type of gamer that plays sim titles to maximum efficiency. A love letter to industry and mass production, you’ll find yourself obsessed with trying to eek out the tiniest bit of extra productivity from your machines.
Factorio puts the player alone (or with a friend in co-op) atop a rocky alien planet. Your job? Mine that sucker dry. Squeeze every precious mineral you can out of the ground using machines that produce components to build other machines that produce even more advanced components. An hour in and you’ll be hooked. Two hours in and you’ll have created Frankenstein’s monster, a startling mess of conveyor belts and mining machines feeding a complex series of production machinery. By the fourth hour, you’ve reset your game, convinced that you can do it more efficiently, with fewer resources. You can do it better.
Factorio targets the Sim City player that plans and plans and plans road routes and energy infrastructure. The kind of gamer that maximizes the potential of every inch of the map. Do yourself a favor and play this game. Or avoid it like the plague if you want to sleep at night.
Most of us never thought we wanted to become the warden, manager, and architect of a prison until this game came out. And then it was all we wanted to be. Prison Architect blends the planning and management aspect of Theme Hospital with the drama and violence of the American prison system.
For those who were part of the game’s development during its tenure in early access, you got to witness a simplistic prison sim title develop into a gang drama generator. The full release has some amazing features that highlight the human aspect of your job, with short cutscenes highlighting the motivations and crimes of some of the more notable prisoners in your system. We eventually found ourselves irrationally fascinated with some of the prisoners’, silently cheering them on as we turn a blind eye to the fact that they’ve just stolen some silverware from the kitchen. We know it’s going to be turned into a shank. We know where that shank is going.
Prison Architect works because the game imagines the prison as an inescapable level of hell. This isn’t some Scandinavian resort prison where criminals are rehabilitated and sent back into society. The people who enter your facility are more likely to leave in a body bag. The game is intriguing because it’s a window to the lives of the most aggressive and very violent people trapped in this human ant farm you’ve built. Like any great sim, it’s an amalgamation of several different systems that collide with often unpredictable results.
Undertale is a game that toys with the storytelling and gameplay conventions established by decades of RPGs. Then it subverts them again and again and again. Drawing inspiration from 16-bit Japanese RPGs like Earthbound, Undertale tells the story of a human child lost in a world of monsters.
Undertale starts off slow, but the first fight should be enough of an indicator that this game isn’t quite what it looks to be. The writing is creative, if a bit meme-y, and is the clear product of a single, driven author. Its plot is unique and will occupy your thoughts well after you’ve completed the game for the second time (you did bit it again, right).
The game boasts a cast of unique characters, each weirder than the last, some of which have already been given a place in the pantheon of legendary RPG characters in history.
We hate to sound pretentious, but Undertale is the type of story that can only be told through the interactive medium of video games. It’s both a celebration of the RPG genre and a parody of the medium. An experiment in storytelling where the audience is given agency to dictate the direction of the story. Best of all, at the end of the day, it’s a damn fun game to play.
Playing Void Bastards is at once completely familiar and strangely foreign. This first-person shooter rogue-like horror game has you playing a randomly generated prisoner tasked with finding Macguffins. The game is surprisingly honest about this, its story told in a tongue-in-cheek manner through beautifully-drawn panels that read like a comic book.
You navigate through a space map that is clearly inspired by FTL., jumping from space station to space station, collecting upgrades and resources as you go along. Each point in the map is laid out in linear branches; jumping to station A to collect some valuable ammunition closes the path to station B that might have a key ingredient for an upgrade. The game later introduces space pirates and floating space monsters into the mix, a random element that forces you to make crucial decisions that often require you sacrificing health or gas or ammunition to advance.
The layouts of the stations themselves are randomly generated, though they do adhere to some basic template depending on the type of station it is. We all know how first-person shooters work, the basic controls are second nature by now and the game includes all the standard conventions like crouching and health bars. The game’s tempo swings from Thief to Doom, often within a single stage. Going into rooms blasting is rarely worth the risk, at least at the start. Later on, you might find that the item you need for that critical weapon is locked tightly in a cabinet within a room infested with monsters. It’s a game that has you constantly spinning more plates than you can reasonably balance. Oxygen, food, gas, ammunition, upgrades, pirate locations, there’s always a dozen things to consider and a hundred ways things can go wrong.
Void Bastards is a gem of a title and an indie game everyone should try at least once.
With the resurgence of indie game development and the free-for-all nature of Steam publishing, finding the gems in the rough has become harder than ever. We’ve listed a few of the best indie games you’ll find on Steam today. What are some lesser appreciated indie titles that you think deserve more love?