2017 was an incredible year for video games, indie and AAA alike. We were buried in an endless avalanche of sequels, fan games, and entirely new surprises. Whenever it seemed like things were starting to slow down, a shining new release would come out of nowhere to keep the excitement flowing. This was also a remarkably varied year where no one genre clearly dominated the scene; every genre had at least one stellar game to offer and we saw a healthy mix of refreshingly new ideas and highly polished old ones. This was a highly competitive year, it was very likely one of the best years in history for video games, yet only ten games can make this list, Indie Overlook’s Top 10 Indie Games of 2017!
Before getting into the list itself, there are two quick rules I want to clarify. First, a game must have been fully, officially released in 2017 to qualify for this list, so any games in an Early Access state don’t count no matter how polished or enjoyable their existing content may be. Secondly, I’m only including games which I’ve finished. MagiCat and The Elmian Warrior are strong contenders which I have yet to finish and I haven’t gotten around to playing Night in the Woods and Super Hydorah yet, though I’m sure I’d enjoy them a whole lot, so consider these four games Honorable Mentions. Now on to the list!
#10 Griptape Backbone by SteveHarmonGames
Easily the strangest and most creative game on this list, Griptape Backbone is an existential, surreal skateboarding game. It holds a great sense of reverence for the irreverent, immersing you in the art and music of memes. Everything in Griptape Backbone is trivial, yet it shows how, in a very real way, a huge part of who and what we are is made from the collective total of these trivialities. This is a game with a surprisingly provocative, bittersweet message behind it, yet the actual skateboarding is great too. You’re never in danger of crashing, gravity will always bend to your skateboarding whims no matter which direction they may point in, so you can just chill out to the vaporwave soundtrack and leisurely collect “aesthetics” while skating around on the memes of our lives.
#9 Stories Untold by No Code
It may be the only game on this list without an Indie Overlook article (for now), but Stories Untold directly lead to me binge watching Stranger Things after hearing some vague comparisons between the two so that has to count for something. Stories Untold is a text adventure of sorts which constantly plays with boundaries. It loves to unexpectedly expand the scope of what you’re capable of in just as much as it delights in surprising you by snapping limitations back into place.
For a game where a good chunk of the gameplay consists of typing in commands to the tune of “use key on door”, Stories Untold has excellent sound design and creates a dense atmosphere with aesthetic flourishes. As so much of this suspenseful game revolves around throwing twists and turns at players, I don’t want to go any deeper into the details here, but Stories Untold caught me off guard multiple times and I loved just about every minute of its four very different vignettes.
#8 Zangeki Warp by ASTRO PORT
I love a good shmup, yet the genre is desperately in need of innovation and that’s exactly what Zangeki Warp brings to the table. The warp mechanic is such a seemingly simple addition, but its impact is immense. Warping around is a blast regardless of if you’re doing it to hack enemies to pieces or to perform some precision dodging (or both simultaneously). Every single level is built with the warp in mind and each brings a new challenge to the table, whether that bean upside-down river, rotating walls, or a barrage of blood-stained blades. Add in an aesthetic which gradually shifts from sleekly mechanical to grotesquely fleshy, a solid upgrade system, and some significant changes between difficulties and the end result is an incredible horizontal shmup which excels at its execution as much as it does at innovation.
#7 Bleed 2 by Ian Campbell
Bleed set a high bar when it released in 2012, yet Bleed 2 vaults over that mark with little difficulty. Adding in an Ikaruga-style bullet color mechanic, this sequel improves on everything which made the original great with better aesthetics, even tighter controls, and, of course, a leap up in both the quality and quantity of boss fights. A larger cast of unlockable characters and more variety between those characters further boosts the already high replay value. With both major and more subtle tweaks to the original formula, Bleed 2 is everything you could ever want from a sequel. Slamming attacks back at bosses in slow motion is incredibly cool and satisfying every time and the whole game is a joy to play.
#6 Alvora Tactics by Rad Codex
Yes, I like Voidspire Tactics more, yes, I wish this game was longer, and, yes, I think the procedural generation sometimes results in areas which are a bit too empty. Nonetheless, I love Alvora Tactics. While I may enjoy the handcrafted, surprisingly open world of the original more, it’s undeniable that this sequel makes some massive improvements over the original. A town hub with a storage vault and a blacksmith cuts down on backtracking time and virtually eliminates any inventory management woes. An expanded party size allows for even more creative class combinations and larger scale fights which remain as brutal as ever thanks to low stats.
Old classes have been better balanced, many extremely fun new classes have been added (I’ll never get tired of setting everything ablaze with Ignis Knights), and the implementation of a recruitment area means you can play around with class combinations as much as you want. I’m excited to see what direction this series goes in next, but for now Alvora Tactics is still one of the best turn-based strategy games out there, indie or otherwise.
#5 Northwall by Zevia
With its default RPG Maker graphics, Northwall is extremely easy to overlook, which is rather unfortunate as it may well be the best RPG released in 2017. Following the adventures of a cleric named Suven and a rotating cast of characters, Northwall clocks in at around only six hours, yet nothing is wasted. Combat revolves heavily around buffs and debuffs and the shifting cast ensures that you’ll frequently need to change up your tactics. Random encounters are heavily limited, you only run into about five per dungeon, if any, before a random encounter bar becomes permanently depleted, which puts the combat focus dead center on the engaging and creative boss fights.
As for the writing, protagonists have absolutely nothing in the way of “plot armor” and most of them have a decidedly grey morality, leading to a story which is equally engaging and surprising. Pacing is also handled well (aside from a bridge puzzle near the end) and the game flows at a brisk pace which never feels rushed. I remember just about every moment of my journey through Northwall and I was continually impressed until the very end.
#4 Monolith by Team D-13
I love shmups and I’m not usually fond of roguelikes, so I wasn’t sure of how I’d feel about Monolith. It turns out, I like this game quite a lot, enough to earn it the #4 spot on this list in a highly competitive year! I think the biggest trick behind why this game works so well for me is its run length. Even a good run where you enter just about every room only lasts about 30 minutes and failed attempts take considerably less time. It’s the perfect length to keep the whole game fresh and engaging whether you’re going in for a single run or tackling multiple attempts in a row.
Great weapons and equally great modifiers for those weapons also go a long way towards keeping the action entertaining. Basic quality of life features like room warping and a huge variety of well-crafted rooms further help to prevent Monolith from falling down many common roguelike pitfalls. The post-launch additions of a hard mode, even more weapons, and some other handy features all add up to make one of the strongest games of 2017 even better.
#3 Cuphead by Studio MDHR
Does this game even need any introduction? The indie darling whose graphics blew everyone away in a short clip shoved into an E3 sizzle reel. The game which had impossibly high expectations to meet and yet somehow met them. Cuphead is an aesthetic marvel with the gameplay to match. Each of Cuphead‘s many boss fights is even more imaginative and challenging than the last. Sure, the run and gun sections feel a bit tacked on, but they’re still fine enough and serve as fine opportunities to gape at even more graphical marvels.
The graphics are intricately tied in with the fights themselves; every movement is an attack, every minor expression is a tell. Beyond the graphics, the controls are incredibly tight and precise and the fights are exquisitely demanding. Cuphead gained mainstream appeal due to its aesthetics, yet it would be an incredible boss fight game even without them. But wow does it look beautiful.
#2 Mega Man Maker by Mega Man Maker Team
It’s no secret that I love nearly all things Mega Man. When Capcom announced Mega Man Universe I was ecstatic and when they cancelled it I was heartbroken. Mega Man Maker was a dream I had long given up on and its release took me by surprise. In many ways, this is the game I’ve been wanting since at least 2010 and likely for quite a while before then.
That a freeware indie fan game has online level sharing capabilities complete with sorting features and rankings is incredible, that the editor is fun and intuitive may be even more so. The parts available within the editor were somewhat lacking at launch, but it has quickly become far more fleshed out and updates show no signs of slowing down. This is very much in Mega Man equivalent of Mario Maker in far more than just name and it is glorious.
#1 Hollow Knight by Team Cherry
While Cuphead was the game on everyone’s radar, Hollow Knight was the smash hit which, for many, seemingly came out of nowhere. The world of Hollow Knight is truly massive; I can’t count the number of times when I thought I was nearing the end only to stumble upon an entirely new region. Beyond its scope, the world is packed with secrets and there is a freedom to the exploration which most Metroidvanias only give the illusion of. Creative character designs, great environmental art, and scattered pieces of lore all further come together to bring this world to life. Backtracking sometimes felt excessive at launch and, while it hasn’t been completely eliminated, features added in patches have gone a long way towards reducing backtracking time.
Aside from everything else, the combat system is great as fights have a wonderful sense of flow to them where you seamlessly switch between offense and defense. The platforming is on par with the combat with smooth controls and plenty of fun abilities to discovery. Tying everything together is the downward slash, an ability which lets you pogo jump off of everything from enemies to spikes; combat wouldn’t flow so well, platforming wouldn’t be so smooth, and exploration wouldn’t feel quite as free without this fantastic design decision. Hollow Knight is a massive game which offers everything players could want from a Metroidvania and it is Indie Overlook’s Best Indie Game of 2017!