Top 5 Indie Games of 2013

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Thanks to the magic of crowdfunding and the combined strength of digital distribution across the PC, Xbox and Playstation, indies have had a stellar year. For every AAA-title in critics’ lists this year, there’s an indie straight after.

In every genre, there’s been a stellar performer. Here’s a look at some of the bigger hitters from the indie space this year.

5Path of Exile

I’ve already written for the staff GOTY nominations that Path of Exile deserves some kind of mention, if only for the elephant-sized dump it’s since left on Diablo 3’s reputation. Path of Exile, or the Little Kiwi That Could, has somehow managed to equal the size and scale of the biggest ARPG in the business without asking for a single cent.

Diablo 3, in a way, represents how games used to be made, represents old logic, archaic business models. Path of Exile is none of those, from its “ethical microtransactions” model to its take on potions, sockets, items, scrolls and most importantly: freedom. A Witch could end up swinging double axes just as effectively as a Marauder.

How you want to play is up to you and it won’t cost you a dollar. Free to play far too often means free to taste. Thankfully, the Kiwis have said “bugger that” and we’re all the richer for it.

4Divinity: Dragon Commander

The amount of people that have overlooked Divinity: Dragon Commander on release is a little frightening. What’s even scarier is that the amount of reviewers that gave Dragon Commander a first pass appeared to have such little grounding in strategy games — particularly the fast-paced variety.

The meat and potatoes of Dragon Commander is its RTS mode, where you’re often pitted against vastly superior enemy forces and forced to react quickly, at least if you’re prepared for a quick and dirty battle. At its fastest and most intense, Dragon Commander is a game for StarCraft addicts, which I suspect is why I’ve taken such a liking to it.

But the sheer challenge you can set for yourself aside, there’s so much more on offer. For an indie game out of nowhere, the art style is surprisingly gorgeous. The humour laced throughout the dialogue took me completely off-guard and the political quandaries are enjoyable, if a little simple.

All of this comes with a turn-based planning phase that dictates the movement of your troops and expenditure, coupled with some card-game mechanics and upgrades for your units and your dragon alter-ego. And you’re a dragon. Who has to go through a royal marriage. Potentially with a skeleton.

Why haven’t you bought this game already?

3Antichamber

It says a lot that Alexander Bruce “went a fair bit crazy” during Antichamber’s development. It’s even more revealing when you go back and watch Danny O’Dwyer’s piece on the connections between video games and depression, which features Bruce heavily.

The entire game is almost a visual representation of a mental breakdown. Your logic breaks and reforms repeatedly; your sense of sanity will be challenged. It’s not an aggressive or an imposing game. Antichamber is more of a sustained, niggling assault on common sense, like the person in high school who used to answer the question “why” with “why not?” and pretended it was a legitimate answer.

Once you get everything down, Antichamber can be completed within a couple of hours. But initially sorting through the confusion Bruce has weaved will take much longer than that. Genius amongst the madness, if you will.

2Shadowrun Returns

The new year will probably see bigger and better isometric RPGs than Shadowrun ReturnsPillars of Eternity (previously called Project Eternity), Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numanera — but Shadowrun is more important, if only because it came first.

Crowdfunding is still very much a risk, so the early projects need to show that the model can be successful. They set a path for the others to follow, not only in terms of the crowdfunding campaign itself but the communication throughout and the support that’s developed afterwards. Shadowrun Returns hit all the marks, delivered on time and was upfront about what was being offered. The Berlin expansion campaign hasn’t launched yet, but it’ll be free when it does and that’s ignoring the wealth of fan-made content you can enjoy through the Steam Workshop.

The mobile versions have since been launched and it’s not a bad port at all from reports; it’s certainly a lot more user-friendly than the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition iPad version, although the camera issues are just as jarring on mobile as they were on the PC. Nevertheless, Shadowrun Returns serves as a textbook method for how to announce, build and deliver on crowdfunding and in doing so, has raised the hopes for its more ambitious isometric RPG brethren to follow.

1Papers, Please

I didn’t want to mention the dystopian immigration checkpoint simulator Papers, Please, if only because you’re probably sick of hearing about it by now. It’s become the poster-child, along with The Stanley Parable, for indies this year. Papers, Please is a lesson, if you will, in gameplay not obsessed with graphics or netcode or centralised multiplayer networks or anything else. It’s just a very raw, honest and most of the time, confronting game.

Papers, Please sits right up there alongside Cart Life for me in a reason why indies should matter. They’re the reservoir of creativity and intrigue that the AAA scene has forgone for in its pursuit of the grandiose and the galaxy. The Mass Effect’s, Red Dead Redemption’s, Bioshock Infinite’s and The Last of Us’s are great to have, but for each one of those we have to tolerate all the others that miss the mark or don’t even try, recycling the same old mechanics, the same old plot lines.

Papers, Please throws that in the bin. Do you sacrifice your meagre government salary for a woman who claims she was forced into slavery? Do you worsen your own living standards to allow a husband and wife to be reunited, knowing your own family is struggling for food and heating?

Papers, Please showed that it gaming can mature as an art-form, since one of the keys to doing that is drawing entertainment out of any situation, even the monotonous. Gaming too often is obsessed with the extraordinary, saving the world or something equally heroic.

The ordinary can be fun too, as Papers, Please showed us. Developers and writers just need to be a little more crafty with their settings, stories and the demands they ask of the player.

So what’s your favourite indie game of 2013? Drpo down in the comments below and let us know!

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