Here’s the drill in case you haven’t read the other ones: all these games are under-the-radar in some capacity compared to the big releases that aren’t exactly flooding the market right now anyway. Some are further under the radar than others, with no unifying theme and in no specific order beyond the fact that they’re all under a year old. Some are free, some are paid, and some can be free but leave the option to pay a little something if you’ve got the cash to spare. It’s a broad mix further cut down to the ones that appeal the most to me personally.
Lastly and most importantly, there’s no easy way to keep track of all indie releases since a good number of them are released without the benefit of a publisher to little resulting fanfare. So I am grateful to some of the dedicated sites for these sorts of games that I frequently check, which make the job of sifting through a never-ending “new releases” list just a little bit easier: the Indie Game Website, Indie Games Plus, Warp Door, and Itch’s own featured section.
Pay what you want (Itch) | Robbie Fraser, Luc Wolthers, Jason Sutherland
Between your ludicrous punting power in Cruelty Squad and the return of the Anti-Object Task Force in Disco Elysium’s final cut, the last few months have not been short on video games that let you kick stuff. Anger Foot, however, goes even further. You boot doors off their hinges and send them flying clear to the opposite wall, mashing any gun-toting goons unlucky enough to be caught in the middle. From there, it’s a frantic hail of bullets and footwork through shitty apartments, as you unleash that devastating kick on the enemies who come in close while shooting the others out of range (naturally, they withstand a bullet better than a kick).
Best of all, bashing in each door triggers a thumping explosion of more bass, courtesy of the speakers that serve as the primary form of adornment alongside hideous rugs, free-hanging lightbulbs, posters for Maniac Cop, and a remarkable number of toilets. Though originally conceived for 2020’s 7DFPS game jam, the developers (who are all part of South African studio Free Lives) are continuing to work on Anger Foot with a recent update that added a bit more polish as well as a few new levels, weapons, and enemies.
Free in browser (Itch) | nB, Beícoli, Ivan Papiol
I’m not sure there are a lot of games about fishing for grandma’s bones in the river and fashioning them into a makeshift memorial out of the mushrooms, leaves, flowers, and such you find in the woods, but Riba would surely be the most chilled-out of the lot. The art is gorgeous, the music is pleasant, and the anecdotes when you find a bone rather than a fish come in measured, melancholic snippets that contrast the calming atmosphere without overpowering it, instead giving it a wistful context.
As a side note, Riba is also available as part of the fifteenth issue of the nicely-curated Indiepocalypse zine, which highlighted things like Perfect Vermin and Teeth Simulator long before I ever got to them. It’s a valuable project, and there’s an interview with its editor over at Uppercut.
Paid (Steam) | Thiago Oliveira, Wired Dreams Studio
With a wronged swordswoman and her flying companion robot setting out for bloody revenge, the plot of Red Ronin sounds like it belongs in a Platinum action game. So it might be something of a surprise to find that the game plops its protagonist, Red, onto a pixelated grid that demands turn-based movement. But rather than slow you down, you get a sense of deadly speed through the simple fact that Red does not stop until she hits a wall, cutting down everyone in her path like one of those classic video game puzzles where a block slides across the ice if murder happened in between.
There are often multiple solutions, too, and if you manage to avoid using pick-ups to slow time or make an immediate turn in just one move, you can carry them between levels that introduce new powers and obstacles right to the very end. The game isn’t without its rough edges, since the otherwise novel addition of real-time elements to avoid while taking your turn can spike the difficulty in frustrating ways, but when everything hums along smoothly, Red Ronin is a smart and satisfying means to evoke a familiar image by approaching it from an excitingly oblique angle.
If On a Winter’s Night, Four Travelers
Free (Itch) | Laura Hunt, Thomas Möhring, Dead Idle Games
This narrative-driven point-and-click from Dead Idle Games features some of the most astonishing pixel art of recent years, in service of a sort of horror anthology tied together by masked characters on a train in the late 1920s. It’s paced wonderfully, no one story taking too long while slowly cranking up the visual ambition and macabre imagery from one to the next. Perhaps there’s a version of this game that uses shock tactics and a visually clearer representation of its horror, but it likely wouldn’t be half as effective as the way we project mood and dread onto these simultaneously spare and intricate representations of people who feel alienated by society in the early 20th century. Be sure to keep an eye on the environment, which shifts in ways subtle and not-so-subtle according to the story progression.
There’s something cathartic about how Sizeable lets us so thoroughly poke and prod at its neat little dioramas, moving their little objects around at will. And the objects don’t necessarily have to be little, either — the game’s main, monumentally satisfying form of interaction is to shrink or enlarge whatever you touch. Shrink the moon, for example, and the tide goes down, while a battery that doesn’t fit to power a door can be ballooned to its proper size. The result is something of a delightfully chaotic hidden object game, where you decipher pictorial clues in the environment and the corner of the screen to locate the small objects you need. It’s not difficult, but it’s also not really meant to be—you progress by experimentation, where you’re essentially handed some toys and told to fiddle with them until the solution appears. There’s a demo available, as well as more puzzles on the way.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a game called Stars Die, all is not right in the world; there’s a hole in the planet, the moons loom ominously large in the sky, and the sea has spat out some fleshy, island-sized edifice that your protagonist feels mysteriously compelled to visit. You never fight anything; you wander the squishy purple mass and talk to the scientists who are there, too, squabbling over their different positions while taking in the grotesque alien form of the environment.
Though the dialogue system can be a little fiddly, the game features multiple interconnected stories with different endings that all feel thematically cohesive without cheapening any of the big ideas. In a medium whose interpretation of “cosmic horror” tends to mean a ping-ponging sanity meter while you gun down monsters with tentacles, Stars Die is one of the most coherent translations of the genre for relying on eerie shapes, ideological arguments, and unfathomable scale (plus, as a bonus: none of the racism).
Blood Void Mass
Pay what you want (Itch) | noé
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a galloping eyeball thing casts a red substance into the churning purple vortex above, which sows the material into the blackened earth to sprout craggy blood spires that must be fed from the blood of other blood spires to stave off whatever purple rot will otherwise slowly consume them.
It’s a little like gardening!
Though we take photographs in hopes of preserving moments and sights, Dear Future presents a context where you know up front that most of your work is going to disappear. In a sense, maybe it was always going to disappear, languishing on a forgotten hard drive or buried in the files of a since-replaced phone. But Dear Future forces you to confront impermanence immediately: by the end of your timed journey through a desolate city, camera in hand, you have to choose just one photo to pass on to other players, who might see it in their own camera roll before their own journey concludes. Maybe it’ll be one of the mysterious artifacts hidden around the world that helps piece together a larger narrative. More likely, it’ll be some lonely vista in some corner of the city, the thing that spoke to you most with the knowledge that your time will be limited, your footprint will be small, and the rest of your memories will be lost.