As a new year approaches and a fresh slate of exciting upcoming releases awaits, for a lot of us it’s important to use what little downtime we have to catch up on all of the games that slipped by us in the 12 months prior.
While we have our annual Press Start Australia Game of the Year countdown happening right now, which is one way to take note of anything worth slinging onto that backlog ahead of the year two-thousand-and-twenty-four, the nature of a team vote is always going to mean it’s the big, blockbuster titles that get the most recognition. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom or Baldur’s Gate 3 are sweeping many an end-of-year list, but we reckon it’s also important to call out the smaller titles that maybe not as many people played but absolutely deserve to be in the same conversation.
And so without disrupting our team-led top ten list for the year, take a look with me, your friendly Editor, at the indie (or indie-adjacent?) games that dropped in 2023 and deserve their moment in the spotlight. I’ve managed to collect a hefty list, so I won’t spend too much time on each one, but do read on:
The Indie Games Of 2023 That You Shouldn’t Sleep On
Bramble: The Mountain King
Bramble does a fantastic job of putting you at the heart of a traditionally-dark fable with some absolutely stunning environments and some of the most memorable “boss” encounters I’ve come across in recent times. If you’re a fan of games like Limbo/Inside or even Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and you don’t mind a bit of the macabre, this might be for you.
This project from Piccolo Studio (Arise: A Simple Story) in partnership with Take-Two Interactive’s Private Division really surprised me. It’s a sombre, succinct and surreal adventure with a compelling and emotional tale of sacrifice and healing, tied together by simple platforming gameplay that evolves across a number of distinct and beautiful new environments.
This is a game that I can only describe as feeling “relentlessly homemade” in a way that really underscores why indie games are so important and why supporting smaller and more diverse teams genuinely makes for more exciting games. Tchia doesn’t so much throw out the guide book when it comes to game design as it does demonstrate that there’s still so much room for new or underrepresented ideas in the space.
In Stars and Time
If the idea of a fresh, new quirky Undertale-esque RPG featuring time loop mechanics and a cast of genuinely interesting characters at its core excites you – then stop what you’re doing and pick up In Stars and Time. There’s so much more to unpack about this game than I can fit in a couple of sentences, but if you’ve got a few dozen hours to spare you’re in for an absolute treat.
Sea of Stars
If there’s one game that’s seemingly managed (and deserved) to crack into some of those wider Top 10 lists for the year, it’s Sea of Stars. Sabotage Studio’s go at the classic 16/32-bit RPG has had outstanding results with some great game design, well-written characters, gorgeous visuals, unashamedly banging music and of course – Wheels. I will forever be playing Wheels.
While I do have a soft spot for just about any mind-bending first person puzzler that crosses my desk, Viewfinder is absolutely up there with the greats like Portal 2 and The Witness. Using the magic of photography and perspective it offers up some of the most satisfying puzzle solutions in the business and shows off some pretty impressive technical and design wizardry while doing it.
Look, I’d forgive a big chunk of our audience having never experienced the incredible Wario Land games before, but whether you have a nostalgic soft spot for that chaotic brand of puzzle-platforming or you’re coming in entirely new – Pizza Tower is a hoot. It’s also really chill about whether you want to play for high scores or just go at your own rate, which I like.
Whether the cultures of food and family are important parts of your life, or you’re like me and completely clueless on the concepts, Venba is a wonderfully charming and succinct little slice-of-life story that does a great job of exploring the relationships that folks have with both. It’s also packed with sumptuous, pixel-art representations of some incredible-looking dishes that I would have been inspired to cook myself had I even an ounce of know-how in the kitchen.
Now obviously this one did earn itself a tidy 7th spot in our 2023 GOTY countdown, which is fantastic to see, but I still felt it was worth calling out this gem of a game from New Zealand’s Black Salt Games. It’s got everything – sailing, fishing, upgrades, unnatural deep-sea monstrosities that still haunt my dreams, did I mention fishing?
It’s been a big year for RPGs about folks that are too horny for their own good, but Thirsty Suitors is definitely up there with the best. It’s got cooking, skateboarding and turn-based battles where you can summon your own mum to bring the beat down on your doting admirers. The writing and cast are just fantastically rich in culture and sexuality, making it even more sizzling a melting pot of emotions.
A Space for the Unbound
If you’re looking to get your heart wrenched from your chest at the cusp of the new year, look no further than this beautiful but melancholic story set in Indonesia in the late 90s where fantasy and reality come together in consistently surprising ways. It deals with some pretty heavy, childhood-adjacent topics, but does so with enough care and levity that it’s easy to recommend to anyone interested in a unique narrative experience.
Former Playdead lead gameplay designer Jeppe Carlsen’s brand-new studio has churned out an immediate banger with Cocoon, which showcases impeccable puzzle design that feels bewilderingly alien and intrinsically intuitive at the same time. There’s just nothing else like Cocoon, and it’s a must-play for puzzle game fans.
El Paso, Elsewhere
El Paso, Elsewhere is cool. It’s the coolest game I’ve played in a very long time. From the razor-sharp writing to the old school Max Payne-esque gunplay and a soundtrack that slaps harder than a flour tortilla in a tumble cycle, it’s got style oozing out of every orifice. Don’t miss it.
This dark and violent 2D metroidvania sequel might not break a whole lot of new ground over its predecessor or contemporaries in the genre, but it delivers some horribly memorable moments and refines the gameplay design and production to a supremely impressive level. If “Castlevania but fucked up” piques your interest at all, look no further.
Jusant is a really special game that immediately draws you into its richly-considered world and perfectly marries its themes with its climbing gameplay, inviting players to go on an upward journey of discovery. It’s beautiful, serene and comfy as hell.
Another hyperviolent metroidvania to make the list, this one’s got a bit more of a punk rock vibe, both in its aesthetic and attitude as well as its production. It’s scrappy, not always polished, but hugely entertaining and full of unique and bold ideas. Also you’ll be accompanied on your journey by a talking robot vagina named Regina, so there’s that.
Oxenfree II: Lost Signals
The sequel to Night School’s 2016 darling had a lot to live up to, and it managed to deliver another great character-driven drama amidst the backdrop of an otherworldy sci-fi mystery in a sleepy town. It hits many of the same notes as its predecessor, but does so with enough new ideas and grander storytelling that it’s undoubtedly worth a second trip to Northern Oregon.
Laika: Aged Through Blood
Billed as a “motorvania,” Laika: Aged Through Blood hands in a tough-as-nails but unabashedly badarse adventure with a striking style and a killer soundtrack. It’s relentless but novel with some blistering boss fights and touching story moments that makes it worth checking out for anyone that doesn’t mind a bit of on-road punishment.
Born of Bread
If you’ve ever gotten into any of the Mario RPG/Paper Mario stable of Nintendo’s lite-RPG efforts, you’ll feel right at home with Born of Bread. While it doesn’t do a whole lot to stray from that template, the game’s writing – especially the turbulent pace at which it fires off freshly-baked puns – is seriously good stuff. It’s wholesome and whole wheat.
There were a brief few days in 2023 where I simply could not tear myself away from Steamworld Build. Building off of the already-excellent Steamworld universe and capacity to distill distinct genres into easily-digestible short form games, it takes both RTS and dungeon crawler mechanics and smashes them into a thoroughly addictive but succinct two-pronged experience that I can’t recommend enough.
The Talos Principle II
The original The Talos Principle was an underrated indie puzzle gem, and Croteam’s sequel delivers all over again with the same combination of incredibly satisfying brain teasers and philosophical musings on humanity and civilisation – deftly giving players ideas designed to be solved at the same rate as ones that by nature can’t be.
The creators of one of my favourite games of all time, Mutazione, could likely have done anything to impress me with their next joint, but Saltsea Chronicles is something else. Taking video game storytelling ideas and flipping the script by giving players control of an entire crew amidst an impossibly-malleable journey, it’s one that I’ll be replaying over and over until Die Gute Fabrik comes back with the next big thing.
Goodbye Volcano High
The idea of a choice-driven narrative adventure combined with a rhythm game is already literal music to my ears, but Goodbye Volcano High blew away my expectations at every turn. The art and animations put it at the level of quality of a televised production and the teen garage band musical styling is so intoxicating that I still listen to the soundtrack on the regular.
Moving Out 2
Just when you thought the folks at SMG Studio couldn’t possibly have any more new ideas to stuff into their chaotic couch-chucking co-op removalist sim, they go and toss enough into the truck to make for a whole dang sequel. Moving Out 2 delivers all over again with even more devilish challenges and the same admirable level of baked-in accessibility that makes it the perfect family game for the holiday break.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical
Melbourne’s own Summerfall Studios finally dropped its hugely-anticipated musical RPG this year, and Stray Gods delivers a fantastic story full of memorable characters inspired by Greek mythology and some infectious earworms to make panicked dialogue choices to, and then continue to keep in your Spotify rotation for months afterward.
If you’re looking for the perfect game to sit indoors and chill out to on a sweaty, Aussie summer day, then Dordogne should be on your list. It’s simple, sweet and so very pleasing to the eye with beautiful watercolour visuals and a low-stakes tale driven by nostalgia that won’t ask more from you than a handful of hours on a lazy afternoon.
I’ll leave it to our very own Brodie Gibbons’ glowing endorsement of Knuckle Sandwich, specifically aimed at those of you out there who “prefer your sack time sippers spiked with benzos that’ll steer you into a fifteen-hour fever dream only to see you come to on a makeshift cardboard bed behind a Woolies clutching to day-old news,” as all the recommendation you need for this one.
Eternights marries a satisfying, Persona-esque dynamic of dating sim and RPG gameplay with some truly well-considered writing and romance options. It’s not a huge time sink though, so if you’re looking for a fresh take on this style of game to smash out over a weekend, it’s a great choice.
World of Horror
Junji Ito-esque body horror and 1-bit pixel art visuals are a perfectly grotesque match if World of Horror is any indication. Technically this one had been digesting in early access for a while before its “final” release version landed back in October, but it’s still worthy of a shout if you’re a fan of the strange and macabre and haven’t yet checked it out. Just, uh, be prepared. It’s a lot.