There’s far more to video gaming than megabucks, slick-as-a-greased-weasel AAA titles like Red Dead Redemption 2, Anthem or Ghost of Tsushima.
Sometimes, it’s with lower budget titles where true innovation lies, alongside finely-honed mechanics and pure old-fashioned fun – and the upcoming year has a healthy haul of upcoming indie games in store.
Join us as we delve into the release calendar to take a closer look at some of the highlights.
Stranded Sails (PC/Switch)
Stardew Valley is a certified indie blockbuster, a wonderfully heartwarming and involving farming simulator (and much more) created almost solely by a single person, but played endlessly and beloved by millions of gamers. Stranded Sails takes the Stardew Valley concept and runs with it, adding pirates for good measure.
Yes, Lemonbomb Entertainment’s upcoming open world farming game sees you shipwrecked on a tropical island, and forced to establish a camp and small farm along with your crew mates. Once that’s done, you’re able to go out and explore the island and its neighbours, seeking out new resources, equipment and treasure to bring back to camp – all the while keeping an eye out for dangerous hazards and foes. And all that happens in a gorgeous, bright low-poly 3D art style.
Frankly, we can’t wait to be stranded.
Out Spring 2019
Xenonauts 2 (PC/Mac)
With no upcoming titles announced for Firaxis’ superb XCOM series, lovers of games that marry turn-based tactics to overarching global strategic planning (hey, we know you’re out there!) have two main releases to look forward to in 2019: Phoenix Point (see below) and Xenonauts 2.
Developed by London-based Goldhawk Interactive and due to hit Steam Early Access mid-March ahead of a full release later in the year, this sequel promises a more grounded alien invasion experience than the somewhat overblown, crazed heroics-based XCOM games. Set in an alternate history in which the Cold War hasn’t ended, players must balance fighting off the ETs with preventing humanity spiralling into nuclear conflict, all while developing new weaponry, expanding their network of bases and engaging the aliens in tense tactical ground battles.
Out "Soon" 2019 (Early Access)
A Plague Tale: Innocence (PC/PS4/Xbox One)
Undoubtedly among the slickest-looking indie games, this long-awaited action-adventure-stealth title – a medieval take on The Last of Us, judging by early impressions – should sneak onto shelves before the end of the year.
Set in France during the Hundred Years War, the game puts you in control of a young noblewoman who must escort her even younger brother through a land ravaged by conflict, religious strife and, yep, plague: here be deadly swarms of rats, tidal waves of teeth and fur that’ll devour anything in their way. These diseased vermin inspire one of the game’s tidiest mechanics, as you’ll need to use fire to clear paths through them – or extinguish fire used by your enemies in order to let the rats loose on them.
Out: May 2019
Phoenix Point (PC/Mac/Xbox One)
With its development headed up by Julian Gollop, best known as the creator of the original 1990s X-Com games, Phoenix Point was shaping up to be one of 2018’s biggest PC strategy games – until it got delayed until the summer of 2019. Boo, hiss and indeed, bugger.
Mixing up the oppressive, horror movie atmosphere of the original X-Com titles with the faster-paced cover-based combat of Firaxis’ new XCOM generation, Phoenix Point developer Snapshot Games seems determined to deliver a “best of both worlds” solution. Expect in-depth turn-based squad-level tactical combat with an overarching strategic layer that sees you building bases and exploring a virus-ravaged Earth in search of allies and resources, all the while fighting off horrific creatures.
Can’t wait until June [Edit: as of 6th February, the game has been delayed until September 2019]? You can get early access to portions of the game by pre-ordering the Platinum or Signature editions.
Out: September 2019
Psychonauts 2 (PC/Mac/PS4/Xbox One)
Tim Schafer is something of a god amongst adventure game fans of a certain age, being a creative force behind classic LucasArts titles like The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, as well as 2005’s Psychonauts, a quirky platform game he oversaw at his own studio, Double Fine.
After a break of almost 15 years, a full sequel is currently in development, and it looks to recreate the same kind of third-person 3D platform action as its predecessor. You’ll play as a newly minted Psychonaut, able to travel into the minds of others – and it’s within these minds that your adventures will take place.
Spelunky 2 (PC/PS4)
The original Spelunky has been one of the most enduring indie successes of the past decade, and its long-awaited followup looks not only to maintain the core elements that made it so beloved, but build on them – plus wrap the whole thing up in a much slicker-looking graphical package.
Judging by the trailers, it’s nailed the latter part already, with the side-on platforming action looking sharper and smoother. Add in a bunch of new enemies, usable items and allies and things start to sound even more interesting – but as any Spelunky player is aware, it’s the roguelike elements (the auto-generated dungeons and caverns) that make this game so unique.
If developer Derek Yu can nail that system again – or make it even better at creating the sort of fiendish, foe-filled levels that populated the original – he’ll have an even bigger hit on his hands.
Untitled Goose Game (PC/Mac/Switch)
Developed by tiny Melbourne-based studio House House, Untitled Goose Game is at its heart a stealth game – albeit one that’s about as far from the likes of Metal Gear Solid or Hitman as it gets. The player assumes the role not of a sneaky assassin or secret agent, but a mischievous waterfowl in an English village.
Each mission takes the form of a children’s picture-book sandbox in which the goose must tick off a list of objectives, through utilising its skills and interacting with objects in the environment. And rather than attempt to avoid the attention of NPCs, the idea is to gain it, in order to get them into position – so in many ways, we suppose, this is almost an anti-stealth game.
Out: March 2019
If you’re a fan of great writing in games but have never played Oxenfree, you’re missing out – and this followup from its developer Night School Studio looks to take its formula of dialogue-driven adventure to the next level – by descending to the depths of Hell.
However, this isn’t the underworld as portrayed in video games like Doom, but a place where demons, fiends and the departed sit around boozing and partying – a bit like 1970s Soho, perhaps. Our heroes – a pair of recently deceased friends – can get up to all sorts in Hades depths, but the general idea is to escape via the one potential means: beating Satan himself in a drinking contest. Expect snappy dialogue and plenty of ways to change the story via decisions.
In the Valley of Gods (PC/Mac)
Developer Campo Santo made its name in 2016 with the superb first-person narrative adventure Firewatch, and looks to be continuing in the same vein with In the Valley of Gods, which not only boasts a similar art style but apparently a similar play style.
While details have been fairly scant since the game broke cover in late 2017, we do know that it’s set in 1920s Egypt and casts the player as a filmmaker and explorer looking to make an historic discovery. Unlike Firewatch, however, you’ll get an AI-controlled partner here, which promises to make for richer interactions and character development.
Since the announcement, Campo Santo has been acquired by Steam owner (and, ahem, onetime game developer) Valve, which perhaps puts its “indie” status in peril, at least technically. Valve is reportedly allowing the studio to take the game in its own direction while providing support, so we reckon the game will be indie in spirit at least.
Disco Elysium (PC)
With a gorgeous hand-painted art style and original score from post-rock pioneers British Sea Power, Disco Elysium (formerly known by the far less snappier title No Truce with the Furies) nails its presentation, but it’s its intriguing premise – part Baldur’s Gate-style old-school isometric RPG, part police procedural – that’s got our attention.
You play a cop (and, this being an RPG, you get to decide precisely what kind of cop) investigating a huge open-ended case in the corrupt modern fantasy city of Revachol, where you’ll fight via a dialogue system, take drugs to boost your skills and choose your apparel for its social effects.
Ooblets (PC/Xbox One)
According to developer Glumberland, Ooblets is inspired by such beloved heart-warmers as Animal Crossing, Pokémon and Harvest Moon – gentle games that manage to fire the imagination without plunging the world into peril, spilling gallons of gore or pitting the player in a deadly race against the clock.
It also brings to mind recent indie darling Stardew Valley, by blending a simple farming simulator with a rich town life, plus some lightweight adventuring and monster battling. For those looking for a welcome break from the grim, gritty darkness explored by some of the other games mentioned in this article, Ooblets might be just the ticket.
Telling Lies (PC/Mac)
Sam Barlow, who created the superbly inventive and involving mobile indie game Her Story (read our glowing review here) is back with a brand new game this year – although on the surface it looks more like a movie.
Starring Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus, Quarry) and Angela Sarafyan (Westworld), Telling Lies is reportedly “four or five times bigger” than Her Story (which took around 2.5 hours to complete), but uses a similar concept: the player selects and views videos to slowly piece together a story and solve a mystery, using a search function to find new clips to watch. Here, the videos are stored on a laptop connected to a stolen NSA hard drive, suggesting the story will revolve around espionage, secrecy and, well, lying.
If it’s half as good as Barlow’s previous game at getting its hooks into you, it’ll be a smash hit, albeit a bit trickier to play on your commute – it’s coming to PC and Mac first, rather than smartphones.
My Friend Pedro (PC/Switch)
A breathless 2D shoot ‘em up that lets (nay, demands) players engage in a beautiful ballet of badassery and bananas, My Friend Pedro looks like a side-scrolling answer to Hotline: Miami.
The protagonist holds two weapons, which allows for split aiming (i.e. shooting in two directions at once), plus he has the ability to slow down time and twist his body to avoid return fire from the bad guys. To describe it on paper doesn’t do it justice – you need to see it in action to understand why it’s got so many people excited. So click on the video above, why don’t ya?
Out June 2019
Wasteland 3 (PC/Mac/PS4/Xbox One)
Now that developer inXile has been acquired by Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios, Wasteland 3’s status as an actual indie game is somewhat debatable. Still, it started life as a fully crowdfunded indie project, so we’re keeping this party-based roleplaying game right here.
Set in the same post-apocalyptic America as the first two Wasteland titles (released 1988 and 2014), Wasteland 3 is very much an old-school RPG, eschewing modern action mechanics for a more open-ended approach with tactical combat and choices galore. If you loved the first two Fallout games, Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment, this should be right up your alley. It even features multiplayer, allowing you to play though the entire campaign with a buddy in two-player co-op. Who says players of 100-hour-plus RPGs have to be loners?
Out late 2019