Best Games of 2016 That No One Played

2016 saw a plethora of great games released. The indie scene is so massive at this point, that it’s impossible to keep up with the many high-quality games produced by small teams with no way to get their games out there except by word of mouth. Releases like 20XXFirewatchStardew ValleyPony Island, ABZÛ, OxenfreeINSIDEOrwellSalt and SanctuaryDevil Daggers, and the Witness all did pretty darn well for themselves — and that’s a lot of hours to devote to the year’s indie games — but what about the smaller titles? The titles obscured under Steam’s monstrous library of junk and more junk?

Below constitute my take-away for the year’s hidden gems: The neglected masterpieces (or fascinating ideas) that flew under most players’ radars. I expect most of these to, at the very least, show up as games #480-493 on many players’ wishlists and backlogs.

Get to playing, folks, before your backlog approaches the infinite!

The Count Lucanor by Baroque Decay

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The Count Lucanor is the creepiest sort of fairy tale, taking its nods from the Grimm brothers’ earliest editions. Play as Hans, a not-atypical fairytale hero: A young, naive child who lives in poverty and dreams too frequently of escape. After an afternoon of daydreaming, he finds himself lost in a castle occupied by the Count Lucanor of the title. The count’s servant offers Hans infinite reward for simply guessing his name.

The game turns increasingly horrific in a string of torture and just desserts from here. The smallest of decisions affect the lives of those around you, also lost in the creepy castle, and kindness towards strangers isn’t always to the player’s benefit. The Count Lucanor is a short 3.5-hour adventure, but has countless paths and endings to go down.

Perfect for fans of: Silent Hill, fairytales, scary fairytales, survival horror, terrifying small children with naked pig-men.
Available for $10 / £7 / €10 from Steam.

DarkMaus by Daniel Wright

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DarkMaus is a one-man project paying homage to the legacy of From Software’s Souls series. One of many games doing so in 2016, in fact. It’s also among the most polished of them, offering a simple, sharp style of sepia tones and strong black shapes representing animals. For the simple look of it, it gets the complex combat of Dark Souls down very well. Players dodge, use shields, backstab, unleash spells, push enemies into environmental obstacles, etc., as they progress across a fantasy world full of lost mice souls (and one talkative cat). DarkMaus isn’t much more than an homage, but it’s a wonderful one deserving of more players.

Perfect for fans of: Dark SoulsDemons SoulsBloodborne, environmental storytelling, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, sad animal stories, Milton Bradley’s Mouse Trap.
Available for $10 / £7 / €10 from Steam.

Epistory: Typing Chronicles by Fishing Cactus

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Epistory: Typing Chronicles is, as the title implies, a typing game. A really good one. The player, riding a big red fox, wanders a fantastical world (via keyboard-only, of course), using typing skills to free the world from a corrupting influence. You type to defeat enemies, stop the corruption, unlock routes and secrets, open treasure chests — everything. While this happens, the story of the young woman is narrated beautifully, the words overlapping on the origami forests, deserts, ocean waves, etc., that sprout around the player’s actions.

As a plus, I suspect there’s a geologist among Fishing Cactus’ team, as the breadth of obscure geological terms is vast. Epistory isn’t a simple typing game, and the words aren’t ever obvious or expected.

Perfect for fans of: Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, fantasy, arts and crafts, expanding their vocabularies, geology.
Available for $15 / £11 / €15 from Steam.

Gunmetal Arcadia Zero by Minor Key Games

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From the mind behind You Have to Win the Game and Super Win the Game — two of the most clever odes to gaming’s 8-bit past — comes Gunmetal Arcadia on February 7th. Gunmetal Arcadia promises to be a procedurally generated roguelite paying homage to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.  Before it’s released, however, be sure to play Gunmetal Arcadia Zero, a short prequel (< 2 hrs) showcasing the next game’s style and story across six hand-crafted — rather than procedural — levels. J. Kyle Pittman’s game captures the gameplay of Zelda II to a T.

Perfect for fans of: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, because those fans exist somewhere, and hey, it’s really not a bad game by any means, it’s only if we obsessively compare it to its prequel and immediate sequels that it looks a little iffy, but, I mean, it’s, like, no Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest by any means. I like it. You should, too.
Available for $6 / £4.80 / €6 from Steam.

Halloween Forever by Imaginary Monsters

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The appeal of Halloween Forever appears limited, being released on Halloween and being themed after the holiday itself. The stylistic choices disguise a masterfully-crafted platformer, however. The art style appears simple, but is amazingly detailed. It’s difficult, but not too difficult. It’s short, but the wealth of secrets and optional characters (all with different playstyles) will keep you coming back for more. Like the best NES platformers, Halloween Forever offers a really fun challenge that never overstays its welcome.

I never would have spotted it without the help of the Game Grumps.

Perfect for fans of: Halloween, 8- and 16-bit platformers, NES graphics, arcade, short-‘n’-sweet games, sweet treats, pumpkins, cavities.
Available for $5 / £4 / €5 from Steam.

Ittle Dew 2 by Ludosity

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Ittle Dew 2 greatly improves on the gameplay of its predecessor, which was essentially a single-player version of the classic co-op game, Goof Troop. The sequel packs a punch at three to four times the original’s length, and mixes the Goof Troop puzzle-solving with far more influence from Nintendo’s classic Zelda titles for the NES and SNES. The self-aware world of Ittle Dew is full of rich humor and clever writing — they’re seriously among the funniest games I’ve ever played.

Ittle Dew 2 is also packed with hundreds of secrets, including not one, but two secret levels, each with their own secret final bosses. One’s a bit more obvious, tied into the characters’ dialogue and the game’s achievement list, but the other is found only by finding all the game’s hidden objects, decoding a number of hidden messages, then standing in a specific place in a specific, obscure room for exactly seven minutes. Doing so transports you to the doubly-secret (and doubly-final) dungeon, housing the game’s most difficult villain: A…farting potato…?

Perfect for fans of: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Capcom’s Goof Troop (1993), good jokes, tons of secrets, more jokes.
Available for $20 / £15 / €20 from Steam.

Kathy Rain by Clifftop Games

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Kathy Rain is a throwback to the best of adventure gaming’s past, particularly, it seems, the mysteries of Gabriel Knight. Like Gabriel Knight’s adventures, Kathy Rain is about a snarky young investigator being thrust into a complex interweb of small-town conspiracies and, perhaps, the supernatural. Parallels with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series abound, as things in this small town are always more than they appear.

Except the owls. They’re just plain old owls.

See also Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet and Shardlight as two highly-praised adventure games with even less players — including me.

Perfect for fans of: old-school adventure games from LucasArts and Sierra On-Line, nostalgia for the ’90s, mysteries with detectives who detect things, sass, sassy goths, Wadjet Eye Games.
Available for $15 / £11 / €15 from Steam.

Momodora IV: Reverie Under the Moonlight by Bombservice

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Momodora IV has spread wonderfully by word-of-mouth praise — but not enough. Bombservice’s hyper-polished Metroidvania (and ode to the Dark Souls series) is a genuine contender for 2016’s GOTY, which is why its fanbase has been so vehemently supportive. The fourth in the Momodora series (the previous three developed independently by rdein, available here, here, and here), Reverie Under the Moonlight is the first to leave small scopes and Cave Story influences behind in favor of a massive, detailed, dark Metroidvania world. The story is complex, spanning hundreds of years and multiple family generations, and is told primarily through the game’s environment and by players’ interpretations.

Momodora IV is worth it for the combat alone, which accurately captures the complexity of From Software’s games in 2D form. See, in particular, the fight with Pardoner Fennel, perfectly mixing the game’s strengths in gameplay, music, art, and lore:

Perfect for fans of: Dark SoulsDemons Souls, Buttborne, environmental storytelling, Metroidvanias, pixel art, everything.
Available for $10 / £7 / €10 from Steam.

Rose of Winter by Pillow Fight

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I bought Rose of Winter based on the cuteness of its artwork. The heroine, the four princes, and the world were all drawn with maximum adorable-ness. The player takes on the role of Rosemary, one tough lady and a wannabe-knight who is hired on to protect one of four handsome princes traveling through the snowcapped mountains. Each prince offers their own unique story of atypical romance (or sadness, depending on player choices). The stories are braincandy, to be fair, but take after the cute artwork — Rosemary is a hilarious and fun lead to play as, too.

Rose of Winter was also created by three minds familiar to the webcomic scene: Magnolia Porter of Monster PulseAatmaja Pandya of Travelogue, and Victoria Grace Elliot of Balderdash. The soundtrack is also created by Toby Fox, the developer responsible for 2015’s indie hit, Undertale.

Perfect for fans of: Visual novels, Undertale, adorable artwork, the creators’ webcomics, braincandy.
Available for $12 / £9 / €12 from Steam.

Shrouded in Sanity by Steve Gal

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Shrouded in Sanity is, along with Slayer Shock below, the closest to an honorable mention this list gets. It’s not particularly great, and suffers from being an inexperienced developer’s first game. But it’s also among the many indie games riffing off of From Software’s projects, which, for addicts of that particular developer (like myself), is deserving of attention in itself. Instead of the Souls series — as Momodora IV, DarkMaus, and Salt and Sanctuary referenced — Gal’s game takes all its cues from Bloodborne. 

It’s admirable coming from a single-person team completely new to game development, even if the balancing issues, broken AI, and often juvenile writing get in the way of the atmosphere Shrouded in Sanity strives to deliver. Still, I’m looking forward to Gal’s next game, which promises to be far more polished and original. If you’re a fan of From Software, check it out; just, whatever you do, don’t repeat my mistake of looking the developer up on Twitter.

Perfect for fans of: Bloodborne, horror, Lovecraft, tentacles, mixing swords and guns, GamerGate, getting really angry about alien concepts, alt-right conspiracy theories.
Available for $6 / £4.80 / €6 from Steam.

Slayer Shock by Minor Key Games

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If ever a game deserved a Trespasser Award for failing to meet potential, Slayer Shock would take it in 2016. Slayer Shock, as it was released, is a pretty good game, but an amazing concept: It just feels incomplete, and that incompleteness unjustly led to it being forgotten within a week of its September release.

Slayer Shock is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer simulator with procedurally generated tropes from the series. Everything about it pays homage to the earliest seasons of Buffy, and the game’s story is even laid out like a TV show, with missions being episodes, and a randomized Big Bad gaining power over the course of a season. Rescue hostages from monsters, collect artifacts to combat each season’s Big Bad, listen to acoustic tunes reminiscent of ’90s hits, make and lose friends who help your cause from your cafe base, and upgrade the slayer’s skills as she goes through high school — much of Buffy is intact here.

Developer David Pittman has continually created updates to bring it closer to the excellent game lurking under the surface, but it perhaps would have benefited from Steam’s Early Access program. I’m still happy to support developer Minor Key Games, as NEON STRUCT was one of 2015’s finest indie games, and the experimental development risks he takes deserve a lot of respect.

Perfect for fans of: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, procedural and experimental storytelling, Joss Whedon, the Pittman Bros. and their handsome faces, James Marsters.
Available for $20 / £15 / €18 from Steam.

Solstice by MoaCube

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MoaCube’s Cinders was a careful retelling  of the Cinderella fairytale, one that took its time to twist every expectation of the original story, adding modern twists (and a lot of empathy) to every expected page. Solstice, their followup, is a sci-fi story set in an isolated dystopian city, protected under a technological bubble amidst an arctic wasteland. It’s an expansion of Cinders‘ accomplishments, to be sure, carefully taking every characters’ side and views into consideration. There’s no black-or-white, necessarily, and that’s something I appreciate in MoaCube’s style. Cinders did pretty well, but Solstice undeservedly seemed to disappear under a torrent of bigger names during its spring release.

Perfect for fans of: visual novels, fantastic hand-painted artwork, storytelling in video games, Cinders, empathy.
Available for $20 / £15 / €18 from Steam.

Sorcery! by Inkle

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Sorcery!, adapted from Steve Jackson’s choose-your-own-adventure series from the ’80s, had its fourth and final part released this last year. Inkle — it shouldn’t need to be reiterated — are champions of quality storytelling in video games. Their 80 Days is a retelling that beats out even the original Jules Verne story in creativity and quality. Sorcery!, similarly, is a masterpiece of fantasy fiction and player choice, where almost anything is possible within the narrative, and danger unpredictably lurks around every corner.

Sorcery! is a text adventure, sure, but a gorgeous one that dynamically adapts to your every choice and move.

Perfect for fans of: choose-your-own-adventure stories, visual novels, storytelling in video games, 80 Days, the type of player choice BioWare RPGs aspire and fail to offer.
Available for $24 / £16.80 / €24 from Steam for the complete four-part series, or separately for cheaper.

Sylvio: Remastered by Stroboskop

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A bit of a cheat, Sylvio came out in 2015 and received minor accolades, but mostly remained obscure. Developer Stroboskop’s KickStarter to fund a sequel fell through, so a remastering of the original game was released this last year to help fund the sequel. It’s a cheap-looking horror story with its depth and complexities buried under bad voice-acting, ugly graphics, and controls that occasionally bring Deadly Premonition to mind.

But also like Deadly Premonition, there’s a lot of thought and charm under a clunky surface. Sylvio casts you as a young woman looking for EVP signals in an abandoned theme park. Wherever you go, you listen for ghostly voices to break through the static of your recorder — sometimes distorted, requiring editing — piecing together the tragedies of the park’s history. Occasionally, there are evil spirits to avoid, their danger (and means of avoiding it) somewhat nebulous, which only add to the spookiness. This game is creepy.

Perfect for fans of: horror, cerebral spooks, scary sounds, ghost stories, environmental storytelling, the color red, ASMR, whispering.
Available for $13 / £10 / €13 from Steam.

…and that wraps up the great indie releases of 2016 that you didn’t play. As a reminder, 2015’s offerings were just as strong, so don’t forget to give your time to the obscure classics you neglected for two years in a row: Bulb BoyCastle in the DarknessEvoland IIa Good Snowman is Hard to BuildHylicsLISA: The JoyfulMetamorphabet, Mushroom 11Mystik BelleNEON STRUCTSpider: Rite of the Shrouded MoonSquarecellsSunsetWesterado: Double Barreled, and Why Am I Dead at Sea.

Give thanks to our backlogs, which will only get longer and longer every year. We shall never complete you.

written for That’s Not Current
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