There’s no doubt about it: Microsoft has had a standout year. But it’s easy to linger on the bigger games, like Halo Infinite, Forza Horizon 5 and Microsoft Flight Simulator, when it has had just as strong a year on the indie front. Some of them have been exclusive, others multiplatform, while a couple have finally arrived on the Xbox after success elsewhere.
In celebration of these humble triumphs, we’ve come together as a team and all voted for our favourite Xbox indie experiences of the year. From those votes, we’ve tallied our favourites. So, without further ado, we bring you the stars of the studioless, the most lauded of the low-key: our five best Xbox indie games of 2021.
5. The Ascent
We kick off with an Xbox exclusive and – possibly discounting the number one on this list – the best looking indie of the year too. Developed by an improbably small Swedish development house, Neon Giant, this arrived to a perfect storm of factors. It delivered a polished and immersive cyberpunk experience while Cyberpunk 2077 was still floundering; it offered co-op thrills just as lockdown was easing; and it arrived day one on Game Pass, giving yet another good reason to pick up a subscription.
Reviews across the industry have been mixed on The Ascent, decrying the repetition and difficulty, but we fell in love. This was an extraordinarily lavish take on the cyberpunk genre, offering up some superb voice-acting, beautiful lighting, a wealth of weapons to unlock and upgrade, and some incredibly intuitive twin-stick shooting mechanics.
If you haven’t given it a go, we’d heartily recommend it: you will quickly know if it’s your thing from the opening, which captures The Ascent’s thrills almost immediately.
4. Genesis Noir
This jazz-soaked and kaleidoscopic caper showed that gaming doesn’t always have to come with a sawn-off shotgun. It’s not as easy as you’d expect to distill what Genesis Noir’s about, though. You play a form of cosmic PI, investigating the shooting of a lounge singer. We say ‘shooting’ in the present tense, as your investigation takes place in the period between the bullet being fired and hitting its target.
Not weird enough? As that bullet travels through space, it creates life and universes, effectively mapping to the stages of creation. Genesis Noir is, to use the old cliche, a feast for the senses, and it incorporates jazz, Fantasia-like synesthesia, and film noir trappings to create a unique ride. You won’t have played anything remotely like Genesis Noir, and we imagine that none will repeat it.
3. The Artful Escape
It wouldn’t be an indie list without Annapurna Interactive making an entry, and lo, we have The Artful Escape. This is a game where words don’t really do the experience justice, but let’s try anyway. This is a psychedelic rock opera, a Bill & Ted rollercoaster, where you take the role of Francis Vendetti, who is in a musical creative rut. He’s also had to live in the shadow of his legendary father, so he is rife with anxiety. But how better to remove that anxiety than being abducted by aliens and traveling from planet to planet on the grandest of grand tours?
The Artful Escape is gorgeous. Like really, truly gorgeous. It’s a platformer with some rhythm action elements, as you careen around 2D platforming levels, with your actions collaborating with the music. When the two are in concert, The Artful Escape can hit some wonderful peaks. Plus it’s got the voice-acting of the great Carl Weathers, so what’s not to like?
2. Rain on Your Parade
Not every indie game has to be a pretentious rock opera. Indie games often know how to bring the party and chuckles, and that’s precisely what Rain on Your Parade manages to do. It’s a simple old premise: you are a raincloud, and the world demands to be moistened. As you play Rain on Your Parade, you soon realise how versatile a raincloud can be. With a small amount of precipitation, you can water plants, wash away gloop, send people running and put out flowers. But as the game progresses, you gain the ability to chuck down lightning bolts, and even harness acid rain.
There are a multitude of reasons why you should play Rain on Your Parade now now now, but the greatest is its boundless creativity. The tools you are given are used in a slew of funny and imaginative ways, and the way the world reacts to you is often surprising. There are 50 challenges to play here, and with continued support and additional DLC only bolstering the fun, we couldn’t recommend it more.
We know, we know, we’re hardly offering you a deep cut as our number one indie game of the year. Hades has already snagged BAFTAs, Game Awards, Nebulas and even a Hugo Award for its brand of dungeon crawling, and now we’re chucking a Best Indie Game on top of that pile. It’s starting to look a bit like Smaug with all the trophies it’s accumulating.
But, you know what? Sod trying to be different. Hades is that good. In every possible category, it dazzles. There’s a reason so many people are cosplaying it’s characters: their design and that of the world is stupendous. It’s a riot of comic book imagery and mythology, and we love it. There’s the combat, which is balletic and a joy to replay. But the peak of Hades’ Mount Olympus is its replayability. This is a game that absolutely stacks you with unlocks and trinkets as you play, and you can’t help but feel the tug of ‘one more go’ every time you finish a run.
You know what, we might bugger off and give it another run now.
There are plenty of honorable mentions to our list of favourite indies. If you have a love for board games then give Wingspan a try. It might choose ornithology as its theme, but it’s about a hundred times better than it sounds. Echo Generation is yet another Game Pass goodie, and it surprised us all with its voxel-based adventuring, which gave us some Stranger Things vibes. Mundaun is plain creepy, using its simplistic Gameboy-like visuals to tell a mysterious tale, and Disco Elysium – The Final Cut was only not included because of queries over its newness and indie-ness. If you haven’t given it a play-through and you love your narrative adventures, then it’s borderline essential.
All that remains is for us to thank you for reading, and to encourage you to try our top 5 indie games out. You will be pleased to know that all of them – yes, all of them – are available on Game Pass. Just get them downloaded from the Xbox Store. If you have a subscription, that’s your holiday season sorted. Adios!
Do you agree with our Top 5 Xbox indie games list? Let us know in the comments or on our social media channels.
And if you want to know more about these games, have a listen to Episode 108 of TheXboxHub Official Podcast – it’s dedicated to these indie games.