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Amazing indie PC games you probably missed

Production budgets, schedules, and team sizes have skyrocketed in this HD era of gaming. A title like Assassin's Creed can involve development teams from all over the world working together in concert. The increasing costs of all this have led some to prophesize doom, calling the current environment unsustainable. The AAA gaming industry is struggling under the weight of its own expectations.

But there is hope! Because, increasingly, AAA is not the only way. With fantastic tools like the Unity engine and digital publishing platforms, even a small team with a tiny budget can cobble a game together and release it for all to play. And the word has gotten out, because the year-over-year increase in games released on Steam is out of this world. To be fair, a lot of this is shovelware: cheap garbage slapped together and spit back out again without even the pretense of a quality pass.

Then again, some of these smaller games from tiny teams are jewels. They innovate where AAA games stagnate, or show a vitality and imagination that only a passionate crew could ever develop. Given the sheer number of titles coming out now, you might not have heard of all the good ones. Here's a list of amazing indie PC games you should definitely check out.

Conarium captures the dread of H.P. Lovecraft

For the 2017 game Conarium, developer Zoetrope Interactive turned to one of America's greatest horror writers, H.P. Lovecraft. Conarium is a recasting of the author's seminal novella At the Mountains of Madness in video game form. Players navigate their way through an Antarctic research station as the protagonist himself starts to go mad. Or is he going mad? Is it the world around him going mad? What is even going on?

Drenched in the eerie atmosphere that Lovecraft's text always evoked, Conarium is a fantastic adaptation of the horror genre, which is notoriously hard to sell in the AAA space. But this is where the indie PC scene can thrive: by finding what can't sell in large numbers, but then producing a game on a shoestring budget that captures that audience. If you've been itching for a game to scare you, or even just fill you with existential dread — but AAA has let you down – Conarium is a great example of what indies can do for you.

If Conarium has an issue, it's that the gameplay itself isn't all that challenging. Plus, it's a relatively short experience. But as Lovecraft himself proved, a work doesn't have to be long to be long-remembered. Conarium is all about atmosphere. Step into its world, and try to stay sane until the end.

Massive Chalice takes place over a massive amount of time

Double Fine Productions has become a premier purveyor of indie titles. Founded by legendary adventure game creator Tim Schafer, their creations burst with imaginative art and unusual gameplay choices. While they formerly went the AAA route with games like Brutal Legend, they've since stuck to mostly smaller projects. Of them all, one of the strangest, and best, is Massive Chalice. (And if you think that title sounds filthy ... that's entirely in your head.)

Massive Chalice starts with the hero-centric, turn-based tactical gameplay of XCOM. Heroes can earn experience and gear, becoming more powerful over time; but if any one hero dies, you lose that character — forever. So how does the indie PC game distinguish itself from its bigger-budget inspiration? By setting its timeframe over the course of centuries. Your hard-earned heroes will age and die quickly, since decades can pass in the blink of an eye. What's more, your heroes will marry and have kids. Critically, those kids will inherit certain traits from their parents, allowing you to play matchmaker with your best heroes to (hopefully) breed a race of super-characters!

Combining long-term strategy with right-now tactics, Massive Chalice is unique, challenging, and just so wonderfully weird. It's pure Double Fine. And it's not the kind of game a AAA studio would even think to think about making.

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is up-close and brutal

Half-Life 2 has been one of the most modded titles in the history of gaming. One of its more inventive off-shoots was a first-person medieval combat game named Age of Chivalry. This mod was a surprisingly rich experience, with three different classes allowing for a range of playstyles. On top of that, its multiplayer maps had multiple stages: for instance, if one team is assaulting the walls of a castle and succeeds, then the gameplay switches to a whole new area of conflict within the castle itself, and so on.

This mod was so successful that the modding team became a formal company, Torn Banner Studios. What did Torn Banner make first? Why, a brand-new version of Age of Chivalry, of course! Detached from its Half-Life 2 roots, Torn Banner was free to expand Chivalry: Medieval Warfare into a full-fledged, feature-rich product. Typically, melee combat doesn't suit the first-person perspective very well, but Chivalry has refined that particular format into an art.

If the real-world is too boring for you, the team has also released Mirage: Arcane Warfare recently, which lets you cast spells in a medieval Arabian setting. However, it does seem that Chivalry is the more-played of the two games; and since these are multiplayer-only experiences, you'll probably want to go where the people are.

Pyre is a beautiful fantasy world … with sports

Have you ever wanted to play magic basketball with demons, dogs, and eels? No? Well, Pyre is waiting for you anyway! The 2017 release from Supergiant Games, the developer of Bastion and Transistor, is a wildly original spin on the epic fantasy genre. Yes, you lead a ragtag team of various supernatural races across a rugged and varied wilderness; yes, there's a great conflict in which you'll ritually participate; and yes, there are ancient secrets to unearth. But this isn't a fight against a dark lord: this is a sporting event! The prize: a pardon for your exile from your home country.

That level of imagination weaves itself through the whole game, including its fantastic artwork. There are a number of characters to get to know and grow close to, while those looking for backstory can discover how this strange ritual came to be. Speaking of the ritual: it's a kind of real-time ballgame, in which your team must reduce the enemy team's pyre (essentially a goal) by running an orb into it (touchdown!). That sounds simple enough, until you add in the auras, energy waves, and flying. It's actually a fairly involved sport that can get extremely challenging if you crank up the difficulty.

For those who get into the ritual, you can choose to partake in a multiplayer mode in which two human players' teams go head-to-head, no story required. However, this is limited to local matches only.

The Banner Saga is a whole new kind of strategy game

Before diving into The Banner Saga, one thing has to be said upfront: this is some of the best art you will ever see in a game. Inspired by the artwork of legendary Disney artist Eyvind Earle, the game is drenched in vibrant colors and expressive landscapes. And, yes, there is a banner, waving proudly across the entire screen for a good portion of the gameplay.

Set in a Norse-style fantasy world, the story involves the forced migration of entire populations as their homes are invaded by strange stone men. The protagonist must manage the competing agendas and priorities of his ever-growing band of survivors, all the while keeping them fed. At various points, important decisions must be made about how to distribute limited resources, or how many survivors to commit into battle to defend the rest. The right answer is usually ... non-existent. You just have to make the best choice from a bunch of bad options. As for the combat, it's an addicting, turn-based tactics system that relies on clever positioning and a thoughtful use of ability points.

The Banner Saga is the kind of game that will challenge your mind through the gameplay, pull at your heart through the story, and feast your eyes through the artwork. A sequel is already out, and the trilogy is on-track to be concluded soon. This is a must-try for strategy and tactics fans.

Ori and the Blind Forest is haunting and beautiful

Some games have very emotional stories. Some might even make you cry. Ori and the Blind Forest can get you there in about five minutes, without a line of dialogue.

Then it will frustrate you until you throw your controller across the room.

And you'll love it the whole time.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a modern take on the classic Metroidvania format, featuring a forest creature traveling through his blighted woods to save his dying land and escape a vengeful owl. While there's some very simple combat, the core of the experience is platforming. And boy, did developer Moon Studios go to town on this part of this indie PC game. Ori is swift and agile, and slowly gains more and more movement abilities. Yet the levels he must navigate are unforgiving and will punish the slightest mistake. Worse, there are no automatic checkpoints: players must remember to manually save. And saving itself consumes energy resources, which you also have to dip into for the combat!

But once you master Ori's movements and wrap your head around the saving-as-resource-management mechanic, Ori and the Blind Forest comes alive as one of the most gorgeous, fluid, and rewarding platformers in years.

Gods Will Be Watching is minimalist, yet profound

Gods Will Be Watching doesn't have a whole lot going on. And yet, there's nothing else quite like it.

Intentionally minimalist, this indie PC game has a pixelated art style, single-location chapters (no sidescrolling or moving at all), and only one mechanic: choosing. You'll be making various decisions throughout each chapter, all of which revolve around time- and resource-management. And the game gives you basically no information about any of them. After repeated trial-and-error, you'll hopefully start to pick up on very subtle clues, but otherwise, you'll be making life-or-death decisions based on little more than gut instinct. Who lives? Who dies? Whether you're marooned on an alien planet or resolving a hostage crisis (as one of the hostage-takers), the stakes are sky-high from the start of each independent chapter, and only get worse from there. Can you navigate your way to a happy ending? Probably not. It's a question of how many you can save. If any.

Where most games require a degree of technical skill, be it in shooting or platforming, God Will Be Watching tests only your choices. While there are other games where you make hard decisions, few have stripped themselves down to the bones so fully as this one. It's an exercise on how much can be done at the absolute minimum. And it's worth your time to check out.

Spelunky is so simple, yet endless

Armed with a fedora and a whip, you descend into an ancient Mesoamerican temple. Sound familiar? Spelunky is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve, from the Indiana Jones-meets-Mario aesthetics to the rouguelike gameplay it imitates and yet deviates from at the same time. It's simple enough that anybody can play it, but so challenging that few have ever gotten to the farther levels. Oh, and one other thing: those levels are different every single time, since the whole game is procedurally-generated.

While the goal of the game is simple — get to the end — doing so will require the player to explore a vast labyrinth split into multiple sections, picking up various new items along the way, all while avoiding traps and enemies. Since every runthrough features a new, procedurally-generated map, even experts who've sunk hundreds of hours into Spelunky don't have any better idea where to go than a noob. And the game hides so many secrets within its deceptively-complex design that you'll never run out of new achievements to strive for.

Spelunky has remained a cult classic in the independent gaming scene for years, due to its intricate and exquisite design. With no real story to speak of, it's an experience that succeeds based solely on its superlative gameplay. If you've played a platformer before, you can play Spelunky. And yet, you can sink 500 hours into it, and still be a rookie. If you're looking for a simple game that will hold you for years upon end, this is it.

The sandbox the size of the world

What's the goal of a game? What are you trying to achieve? What's the objective? For Paradox Interactive's two enormous sandbox experiences, Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV, the answer is, "Anything you can think of."

The games both feature similar formats, with slightly different focuses. In both, you'll be in charge of a historical fiefdom, anything from a small Italian duchy to the whole of France to a minor territory in India. In Crusader Kings II, your concern will largely be dynastic in nature: you need to keep your family in a position of power by negotiating, marrying, and bribing your way through the byzantine politics of the Middle Ages. In Europa Universalis IV, your concern is the fiefdom itself, developing your territory through economic, political, and military alliances and conflicts.

What does success look like? Anything you want! These games have no real end or goal, just a fantastic simulation of medieval history. Perhaps you'd like to turn your duchy into a trading powerhouse? Or you'd like to conquer the British Isles as France? Or maybe you'd just like to see what would happen if medieval Russia invaded China? There are no right or wrong answers. Just make sure your family and/or territory doesn't fall apart. Which, spoiler alert: they will. A lot.

Pro tip: if you do choose to go with Crusader Kings II, be sure to check out its superlative A Game of Thrones mod.

Hyper Light Drifter is bloody, with a heart

Hyper Light Drifter is a throwback to the glory days of the 16-bit era, when top-down exploration was all the rage. Drawing influence from The Legend of Zelda and Diablo, Hyper Light Drifter combines those games key tenets of discovery and fast-paced combat into a modernized and brilliant experience. The art style is appropriately retro, weaving pixelated environments with a vibrant color palette.

Where Hyper Light Drifter really stands apart is in its raw speed. Enemies come fast and numerous, but the player character can dash, slash, and shoot quickly enough to take on all comers. Weapons are upgradable over the course of the game, but mobility is the real superpower here: you'll dash around the screen to either escape to safety or get in a quick slash, even if only for a moment. The controls are tight, which means if you screw up, you have no one to blame but yourself.

The story is minimalist, told in a very visual style, and some critics have found this to be off-putting. Your personal taste may vary, as this is a game that is more concerned with its gameplay than its narrative. Nevertheless, this is a heartfelt tale of a hero struggling with chronic illness, a metaphor for the designer's own life. And that story has a happy ending: the game has gone on to be an underground sensation since its release in 2016. If you can dash fast enough, you can see why for yourself.

Kentucky Route Zero is atmospheric and introspective

Need a break from all the fast-paced combat, relentless challenge, and life-or-death decisions? Kentucky Route Zero eschews all of that in favor of a moody, atmospheric, and magical realist journey through the titular US state. A truck driver finds himself taking a bit of a detour when he somehow ends up on Route Zero, and underground road where nothing is quite as it seems, and none of the rules seem to apply.

And yet, this indie PC game itself has no real mechanics; it's closer to the modern walking-sim genre than to the classic adventure games that it resembles on the surface. There are no puzzles to solve, no enemies to fight, and no platforms to jump: you simply make your way through this strange, bizarre world and try to interpret what it means to you. That said, dialogue options open up different possibilities for the story and the characters, so your interaction does still carry weight.

Be warned, Kentucky Route Zero isn't exactly an upper. It's a long, slow meditation on futility and hopelessness. And yet, even so, it's a relaxing and ultimately cathartic experience involving a memorable cast of characters.

Parts I-IV are available now, and the final chapter is in development as of this writing.