To get a little bit technical for a moment, I generally do not love the idea of organizing lists like this one according to any kind of theme or even trying to draw connections between the entries. Both, I think, defeat the purpose of doing something as broad and loosely connected as a list can be, not weighed down by the need for connective tissue. The scramble to identify some plausible common thread tends to feel a bit forced.
Anyway, this one sure did end up with a lot of Satanism.
Paid (Steam) | ByteRockers’ Games
The turn-based mechanics and hexagonal tiles give Insurmountable the feeling of a board game, although its enormous mountains are much broader in scope than any physical game could reasonably be. You play a distressingly underprepared mountain climber, plotting paths through different types of terrain while relying on supplies and equipment you happen to find along the way. Tokens mark tiles with points of interest, like a cave to take shelter in or an abandoned camp that might hold some canned food. How these different events help or hinder your character isn’t clear until you commit to checking one out, assuming you feel they’re worth the risk — every move drains stamina and “sanity” to denote stress, as well as body temperature if it’s cold enough outside (which, at night, it often is) and even oxygen at high enough elevations.
And even if the math doesn’t seem favorable, sometimes you’ll feel compelled to try anyway due to dwindling supplies, at which point you weigh the risks of cutting across more dangerous terrain to save time and therefore stamina, sanity, and temperature against the potential penalties an injury from a random dangerous terrain event may incur. As is the roguelike purview, death resets your entire journey, though climbers hold on for longer than you might expect since only depleted health can end a run. Running out of stamina may increase the likelihood of dangerous events, but it’s technically possible to crawl your way to safety, or if worst comes to worst you can try to sleep outside, sans tent, in the bitter cold. The whole game is a unique blend of the stressful and the methodical, where even the sped-up movement still asks you to sit back for a while and consider the surroundings that serve as your primary opponent in addition to the limitations of your own body.
Pay what you want (Itch) | Stef Pinto
The burgeoning category of “feel-like-absolute-garbage experience of the year” receives another contender in Cookies, where you trudge through a haze of shrooms and VHS grain in the dilapidated Florida apartment complex that you call home sweet home. It’s the kind of garbage place so run-down that you’ll feel ridiculous for even trying to check if the elevator still works. The stairs are the only way to travel between floors, where the filthy rooms are occupied by things like Soviet organ harvesters, a predatory lending operation, and a dubious chicken joint. Grungy and unpleasant and darkly (sometimes very darkly) funny, the game is essentially an item-trading questline with multiple routes, where you might never meet the meth clown or might never be gifted a firearm by the rats who want you to use it on their nemesis. If you played last year’s Tales from Off-Peak City, imagine what that might look like once bludgeoned with a garbage bag full of VHS tapes for movies like Trash Humpers and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Paid (Steam / Itch) | Daisy Games
Barrels, crates, and boulders feature in all manner of puzzle games about pushing stuff, and this Commodore 64-inspired game brings us into less familiar territory: sheep. As sentient creatures, sheep are stubborn and can only be coaxed forward onto single-use tiles of grazeable grass, so each one must take a separate path on the way to their cages. Against a catchy technology-appropriate soundtrack, new mechanics trickle out at an engaging and economical pace, like sheep of a different color that only eat bloody-looking grass, a purple plant that prevents sheep from ingesting anything but other purple plants, and a farmer who must be violently dealt with because he’s guarding his livestock due to all the recent kidnappings. Oh, and the sheep of Dark Sheep must eat all the plants in sight before entering a cage, because the Dark Lord demands they be well-fed before you nudge them onto the pentagrams for blood sacrifice. That part is important, too.
Below the Ocean
Free in browser (Itch) | Ismael Rodriguez
As always, the recent Ludum Dare is bursting with some neat game jam projects (the prompt for this one, the 48th, was “Deeper and Deeper”), but sidescroller Below the Ocean is the one I’d most like to see built upon. As a pixelated little diver dude, you advance from one conveniently-placed oxygen tank to the next, avoiding spikes and hopefully nabbing the collectible diamonds but most importantly using your oxygen tether for platforming purposes. If you, for example, wrap it around a rock, it’ll act like a leash that lets you swing upward without flying off into a spike wall. Coupled with some later puzzles that require you to use the tether as a conductor for power sources, Below the Ocean is the sort of game that feels natural, obvious, and unassuming, until you stop to think about how much of a headache it could easily have been if the physics weren’t just right or the tether got tangled too easily.
More of the Best Games You Aren’t Playing:
- The Best Games You Aren’t Playing: Anger Foot, Dear Future, and More
- The Best Games You Aren’t Playing: 30XX, Cruelty Squad, and More
- The Best Indie Games You Didn’t Play in 2020
The Wild at Heart
Included with Game Pass; paid (Steam / Humble / Microsoft) | Moonlight Kids
Truthfully, I feel a bit guilty writing about The Wild at Heart almost exclusively in the context of other media. Certainly there are parallels to Zelda and especially Pikmin and you could maybe poke fun at the name it shares with David Lynch’s 1990 Nic Cage/Laura Dern road movie Wild at Heart, but such comparisons only seem to obscure the craft that has so clearly gone into this game. The art resembles a particularly beautiful storybook, suffused with charming characters and distinct biomes within a mysterious, interconnected forest. But it is also definitely a Pikmin, with a leader who chucks a growing army of multicolored critters at hostile wildlife and heavy objects that it would be nice if someone else carried back to camp. Even the sound effects and UI are closer than you might expect.
But given how few Pikmins (Pikmen?) exist out in the world, The Wild at Heart offers a pleasant take on the concept that does feature its own wrinkles, initially in the modest scale and open-ended world and then eventually to things like your ability to stay out during the monster-infested night as long as you bring a light source. It is also much more chilled-out than the object of its inspiration, less about shoring up a reserve of fodder in case things go sideways than just solving the puzzles to move forward. There’s no time limit to speak of, and your critters are less prone to gruesome death since they can swim just fine and merely return back to a magical tree stump if they fall in battle (which might be a little disappointing if you are, like me, a sicko who enjoyed the way Pikmin contrasted its cute exterior with the merciless whims of nature, but I’m sure plenty of others will consider it a refreshing shift).
Free (Itch) | hwilson
With FALLINGSTAR, video games finally tackle the theological questions surrounding Lucifer’s fall from heaven and whether a Breakout paddle might have made things go a little smoother. You bounce your Beelzebub around the screen, busting blocks in order to collect gems and card modifiers as well as attack angels whose defeat provides the grace you need to break your fall and attempt to, yes, attack and dethrone God. The coolest touch here is that falling offscreen either intentionally or as a result of mishandling your ever-shrinking paddle is the only way to progress; you aren’t necessarily trying to avoid getting closer and closer to hell so much as trying not to move on before you’re ready, before you’ve gathered the proper collectibles that littered the now-unreachable prior screen. It’s short, free, and of a piece with other games from hwilson, who puts out a steady stream of novel projects that he (by his own admission) subsequently abandons. Locust, U.S.A. is another Breakout take he put out earlier this year that goes in a more narrative-focused direction.
Paid (Itch / Steam) | Yai Gameworks
Look, yeah, okay, there are so many horror stories that are capital-A About Mental Health and/or About Trauma even before we narrow the field to video games in particular. And I don’t know that Decaying Delicacy itself stands out too much during its narrative interludes, but it has the decency to wrap those fears in a sugary mixed-media format rather than defaulting to some plague of darkness with shadow monsters (though there are pretty much shadow monsters). The game plays as a 3D maze runner from an inconvenient perspective, forcing you to search for keys by moving toward the camera like Crash Bandicoot in a really dark place, never afforded a full view of the maze and thus forever aware that the monsters might be patrolling just out of frame. Coupled with one of the more effective recent uses of music with lyrics, the latest from Yai Gameworks is a striking, bleak, and colorful game that can be frustrating but also seems intended to be, as if to suggest that the “better” ending is not so easily attained.
Paid (Itch / Steam) Lo-Fi People
Blind Drive doesn’t want you to see a damn thing, its bare-bones UI encouraging you to wear headphones and fully immerse yourself in its intended experience of being blindfolded and then driving the wrong way against traffic with only your ears to guide you. Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, but this is far from one of those hearing tests where you put on headphones and then raise your hand on whichever side the beeps came from. The soundscape of Blind Drive comes from everywhere, and you’re working to pick out where the noise is more prominent to figure out which direction to blindly swerve in, either to avoid an oncoming vehicle or to consciously hit a cyclist for a health boost. The result is a devious, arcadey white-knuckler that also strings you along with a wacky story, where a creepy guy mumbles into your earpiece about your grandmother while imposing new hindrances like turning on the radio or rolling up the window when there’s a fly buzzing around.