Indie games are awesome. Games made by a group of fifty people, or a dozen, or five, or a single person that wanted to bring a creative vision into reality with the resources they had. Art that, for several reasons, couldn’t be made by a multibillion-dollar company, at least today. That’s what this column is supposed to be: A celebration of all those projects made by people that, on their own, went and did whatever they wanted. We’re gonna be telling you in a bi-weekly format our newest discoveries regarding any games not made by an AAA company, to shed some light on those projects, gush about them, and maybe even to help you find a new favorite game!
How We Know We’re Alive – Free with the option for donation on Itch.io.
How We Know We’re Alive is a side-scrolling, pixel-art, mystery game. You play as Sara, a woman who returns to her hometown after 10 years of leaving and a lifetime of hating the place to mourn the death of her once best friend. It’s an easy game to play. You only move left or right, talk to some people, maybe enter some buildings, all with as little as four keys to press. But it’s far from an easy game to experience. You walk the streets from your hometown under nonstop rain and realize a lot of the people you once knew are still there, and they still work where they used to, still go to church, still shop at the same place. Change is hard, but when things are similar enough to bring the past back, you may just feel trapped by them again. HWKWA doesn’t try to get away with easy answers, and I’m glad it doesn’t because none of the themes it works with have them. Sometimes you just have to move on in any way you can in order to not get stuck.
Created and directed by August Håkansson, art and animation by Leo Köhler & August Håkansson, written by Imogen West-Knights & August Håkansson, with an original soundtrack by Ivan Starenius.
Adriatic Pizza – $4.99 USD or more on Itch.io and Steam.
This is another pixel-art, but now a first-person exploration and cooking game, heavily inspired by the animated movie by Studio Ghibli, Porco Rosso. You’re a soldier just returning home from war, decided to help your mother with her pizza delivery business in an idyllic archipelago. As soon as you wake up each day, you take orders from a radio in your room and mark them on your map to avoid getting lost. You make the pizzas from your family recipe book, and finally, you’re free to travel across the ocean and little islands with your plane (You can technically take off any moment you want, but you wouldn’t want to let your neighbors down, would you?).
Flying for the first time, with the relaxing music singing in your ears and the beautiful landscape with a very unique color palette, is truly a sight to behold. Easily one of the most relaxing experiences I had playing video games, and while not really adapting even the aesthetic, I think it captures the Ghibli vibes everyone loves. But of course, delivering pizzas is not the only thing you can do. You get to interact and help the citizens of this little town with tasks they assign you and even build the restaurant of your mother’s dreams! If you’re a Ghibli fan or a fan of this kind of relaxing game, I couldn’t recommend this enough!
Created by Samson Auroux.
Lake – $19.99 on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Series S, and X.
I kept an eye out for Lake for a long time. I remember finding a teaser on Twitter and being absolutely charmed by it. Now, after the release of the game just a couple of days ago, I must say: It’s everything I wanted out of it, and more. In this game, you take the role of Meredith, a successful woman in her forties who takes on her father’s work as a mailperson, both as a favor to him and to herself.
So, of course, you deliver the mail across an 80s little quiet town. But you don’t get to do just that, no. You can actively choose to talk with a set of colorful characters with their own quirks and stories. Not only you can make small talk, but you’re able to become an actual important part of the town and the people you interact with. You can help them with simple tasks that relate to your work, like accepting some unprompted delivery or doing something completely different, like help them fight a corporation that wants to destroy the woods. I won’t spoil anything, but the characters you meet, be that new people in Meredith’s life or an old friend you’re reunited with, are full of charm. Every time I talked to them and made plans to watch a movie or something, I was genuinely happy.
Lake is a game that feels magical in its ordinariness. It invites you to do the same as its protagonist, and take a break, contemplate on things, and try to have a good time.
Developed by Gamious.
So after writing through the Dreamscaper blurb and looking for the next two games to write about, it dawned on me that a lot of, if not all, of the indie games I’ve been playing recently, are mostly just riffs on pre-existing and largely successful games. These games definitely stand on the shoulders of giants, but I sincerely believe that all three of them are capable of standing on their own two feet and pushing their respective genres forward, whether through the introduction of new and interesting concepts or fun-to-learn but hard-to-master mechanics.
Dreamscaper – $24.99 on Nintendo Switch and PC.
Dreamscaper is one of those games that makes me take a pause, say out loud, “This is art”, and just appreciate the experience as a whole. It has drawn lots of comparisons to Hades, and I think appropriately so, which is a raving review in and of itself. It is incredibly similar yet distinctive enough to stand on its own two feet. Ironically, with Hades, it was the gameplay that kept pulling me in, but Dreamscaper has woven such a beautiful story with human characters that I find myself being more invested in the between-runs portion of the game rather than the combat sections themselves. It tells a story of a woman who has recently moved to a new town and has to maneuver those waters, and as the world opens up, you discover more and more about her, and there is a lot to discover. Even the names of the buffs unlocked between runs add to the story and the emotional depth present within the game. As for the combat itself, it’s very mechanical, featuring perfect attacks and parries, multiple melee and ranged weapons, and “lucid attacks” with even more able to be unlocked throughout the game. There is no shortage of replayability and different builds to be explored.
Developed by Afterburner Studios.
Mortal Shell – $29.99 on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Series S, and X.
In my never-ending search to recapture the anxiety and misery of Soulsborne games, I managed to find one that explains even less. However, as with all Soulsbourne and Soulslike games, my key is how well the combat feels, and this combat feels real good. It’s fluid with an interesting and very fulfilling twist to the block mechanic, which is definitely different from the parry mechanic, which is also equally fulfilling. It makes the combat feel a bit more like a dance than Soulsbornes, which I am very partial to. It also adds a twist to the class system, but as I’m very bad at the game (for now) and therefore not far, I’ll withhold judgment on whether or not it’s an interesting twist. Maybe it’s because it’s the first in the series and so it’s all-new, but I find it to be ever so slightly more intricate than Dark Souls, with its non-combat mechanics coupled with it explaining even less, means that I am in a whole new world of needing to git gud and I could not be more excited to do so.
Developed by Cold Symmetry.
Humankind – $49.99 on PC.
Between Civ 5 and Civ 6, I have 1.5k hours logged, so I feel qualified to say that I enjoy Humankind. I will also say that I am not good at these games, and I do not know all the ins and outs, especially to Humankind. But I digress! It’s a 4x game with much the same angle as Civilization, especially coming off the heels of 6’s art direction and city-building rework. You start the game back in the Neolithic era and advance through time into the present/near future, managing your people as they go. Humankind makes some not-so-subtle but not entirely revolutionary changes to some core mechanics, such as founding your Outposts/Cities, building out your Cities, and combat. I, personally, have quite enjoyed these changes, as they’re just enough to freshen up and differentiate this game from Civ, but they’re not requiring me to learn the game from the ground up. Humankind has been a very nice refresher to the genre (my experience with the genre is just Civ 4-6, so I use the word SUPER loosely) and introduces mechanics that I’d be interested in seeing more of moving forward. I guess my ultimate review of Humankind would boil down to, and as is tradition with Civ games, “Can’t wait for some DLC to flesh this stuff out and make the endgame worth playing through” (although now I think about it, Humankind does that much better than any Civ I have played).
Developed by Amplitude Studios.