It’s the end of the year, yet most importantly it’s the time for counting down our top games that have released over the last 12 months. Alongside our usual Games of the Year listicle, we at TXH also like to show some love to the stellar range of indie titles that may have gone under the radar when shadowed by the big boys – diamonds in the rough, if you will. Not to be too cliché, but 2020 has been a year where we’ve commonly resorted to video games as a form of escapism, more so than usual, and as such some of the smaller titles have been the ones to get us through this long, long, long year. Without further ado – TheXboxHub’s Indie Games of the Year 2020!
“If Superliminal was an actual dream we all had, it would probably take the biscuit for being the most unusual”
And what an unusual game our first entry, Superliminal, turned out to be when it released back in July. A first-person puzzle experience, developers Pillow Castle had us toying with the concept of perception in order to solve a variety of increasingly confusing challenges. It’s quite difficult to put into words just how mind-bending Superliminal is, so we recommend checking out some vids on the old YouTube to gather a better interpretation of the gameplay.
But in short, what we had here was an incredibly novel idea that produced a number of ‘aha!’ moments; always the hallmark of a good puzzler. In addition, this is all enclosed within a backstory that has elements of Portal, invoking sinister ideas of just why you had been placed in what appears to be a never-ending maze of puzzles.
It’s unique; it’s mind-boggling; it’s sometimes even creepy – but boy are we glad we took in some Superliminal action this year.
“Should you be in the market for a fun puzzler that never takes itself seriously, PHOGS! on Xbox is the game for you”
From the perplexing of Superliminal we move to the downright mental, as earlier this month we managed to take in some cutesy co-op action in the form of PHOGS!
In a nutshell, PHOGS! has you and a sofa-based or online mate take control of Red and Blue – two dogs that have unfortunately been fused at the belly (trust me, it’s not as macabre as you think) – who must work together to solve a number of physics-based puzzles. Each of the 24 brilliantly created worlds (joined by worms, because of course) is based around a number of themes, and these themes are represented in the plethora of puzzles that you and your friend will have to work your way through.
Whether it is ridding a world of darkness in the Sleep biome, or chucking some food into a bowl in the Food biome, every action performed in PHOGS! exudes the playful nature of our lovable canine protagonists. This helps greatly when it comes to the trickier of the challenges, as how could you get frustrated at their little faces?
The same can’t be said for whoever you sit alongside, however, as the most fiendish of puzzles will test that relationship to the max – maybe it’s better to be playing this one online, no chance of things getting physical then!
The colourful and engaging nature of PHOGS! allowed us to easily overlook the few incidences of glitches and oddities, which are to be expected in a physics-based puzzle title, and overall PHOGS! rightly takes pride of place in the list as a game that one can always fall back on for a (usually) relaxing time with a mate.
8) Nexomon: Extinction
“Nexomon: Extinction is an addictive RPG that should be embraced by anyone who enjoys Pokémon”
PlayStation can have their Nathan Drakes and Rachet and Clanks, because what we over in Xbox Land really miss are those Nintendo classics – one of which being the timeless title that is Pokémon. Luckily, Nexomon: Extinction sorted us right out!
But it’s not just a PokéClone, and instead September’s Nexomon borrows some of the key elements that made that series so popular, and installs a unique spin on proceedings that makes Nexomon a must-play for both Pokémon veterans and newcomers alike.
The main part of your time in Nexomon’s world will consist of wandering the lands, progressing the story, but also attempting to collect all of the 381 Nexomon present in the game. Of course, the ultimate goal is to be the very best, like no one ever was, and the journey to achieve this is an enjoyable one, as you take on a variety of trainers (or, ‘tamers’, as Nexomon cleverly puts it) using a number of moves in the traditional turn-based manner. The key is to understand your nine elements that a Nexomon could possess, as only in learning resistances and weaknesses to each can you produce the ultimate world-beating party of six.
And we can’t leave this one without mentioning the art style, as every move you make in Nexomon will be surrounded by beautiful cartoony visuals: few Nexomon resemble any of the Pokémon counterparts, and as such very quickly do you understand this to be less of a clone, and more of a title inspired by Nintendo’s franchise.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all, and Nexomon: Extinction is both a near-perfect representation of Nintendo’s classic, and provides its own ideas to be a must-play in its own right.
“It has finally landed on Xbox One and other platforms with all of its ideas in place… and then some”
CrossCode is what you would get if The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy had a child – a ridiculously ambitious scope, a number of RPG elements such as an in-depth leveling system, and compelling combat that has you coming back for more, time and time again. All of this from an indie studio such as Deck13 – surely it couldn’t be done?
Well, do it CrossCode did back in July, and the product of all of this was indeed a beautifully presented RPG that many of us sank a number of hours into, all in the pursuit of solving a conspiracy gripping the world of our protagonist. Even the plot seems too big for its boots, but CrossCode managed to collate all of its ambitious ideas into a package that was never too overwhelming, and instead one that urged us to push on past the next boss, to see what would await us on the other side.
The 16-bit art style may evoke thoughts of turn-based combat, as seen in Final Fantasy titles of old, yet CrossCode prefers to go all in with rapid real-time combat. You’ll have to make the most of careful aim in order to fire projectile attacks at the number of enemies that you will encounter on your travels.
‘Massive’ really is the buzzword for CrossCode, and words can’t do enough to convey the scope of this humble indie game – if you’re a fan of RPGs, get out and play it!
“Spiritfarer is an absolutely gorgeous game, with a touching story, and a fun and unique combination of gameplay elements”
August’s Spiritfarer is so good, our reviewer simply couldn’t think of a negative point to make, and is a strong contender for his game of the year. Had more of us found the time to play this 5/5 title, then perhaps Thunder Lotus’ masterpiece of a game would have been situated higher up this list.
But I digress, as Spiritfarer is probably the most emotionally significant game you could have played this year. An experience that handles the taboo subject of death with as much grace as could be mustered, it has you developing a community of characters that you come to adore and connect with as you discuss meaningful topics with them.
The only twist? You are the Spiritfarer, and you are transporting said characters to the afterlife; they will die along your journey to the ‘Everdoor’ – the border between life and death. The fact that these characters are all playful animals makes your final words to them even more poignant – anyone who has lost a pet in their lifetime will definitely understand the sadness that Spiritfarer replicates.
In a gameplay sense, the day-to-day operation of Spiritfarer is one of management, as you build a haphazard amalgamation of buildings that each serve a different purpose on your ship. You’ll need a kitchen to produce food, a garden to grow such foodstuffs, and a number of other structures that all combine to give the ship a personality of its own. As well as the building side, you’ll have to venture out to farm crops, using light platforming elements, and ensure your crew is properly fed.
Ultimately, the gameplay takes a backseat when compared to the exposition of your journey: whilst incredibly heart-wrenching to see your favourite animal head into the afterlife, Spiritfarer wonderfully conveys the inevitability of death at the end of life, and this enables the player to experience complex emotions that very few games evoke. Put down your Cyberpunk and Call of Duty for a bit, and sit back, relax, and take in the beauty of Spiritfarer.
5) Kentucky Route Zero
“Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition on Xbox One is a one-off game. In fact, I doubt we will see a game like this for years to come”
Back in January (which was around a decade ago now) we were treated to another story-driven title in the form of Kentucky Route Zero, which had previously been released a few years ago on PC. Now Xbox fans could see what all the hype was about – and boy was it deserved!
A point-and-clicker at heart, Kentucky Route Zero sees you interact with a number of characters, using dialogue trees to further the story in a way you see fit, so much so that 5 separate endings are possible, ranging from the tear-jerking to the… well, tear-jerking. Yes, you may need to keep your tissues for this one too, following your playthrough of Spiritfarer.
Our reviewer also gave special commendations to the visual style of Kentucky Route Zero, especially in the lighting department and camera angles to constantly shift the focus of the player – it plays out like an indie movie at times; one which you can mention to impress your mates.
It’s not exactly the longest, nor is it the most complex game to get your head around, but we definitely recommend settling down to play Kentucky Route Zero during this Christmas break, warm cocoa (and tissues) in hand.
4) Golf With Your Friends
“Golf With Your Friends is about as good as it gets without going and doing the real thing”
Golf With Your Friends is exactly as it says on the tin, and is a mainstay in the schedule for TXH gaming nights. By being so easy to pick up and understand (aim your ball, adjust for power, hit the ball) all that is left to do is get a couple of mates together online, and play a few rounds of crazy golf.
What makes GWYF the best of the best amongst Xbox’s extended golfing library is the sheer number of different maps that your group can enjoy; each with their own unique obstacles and moving parts that contribute to the overall theme. The addition of multiple game modes, such as replacing the golf ball with a hockey puck, and an array of customisation options to ensure your ball stands out provides the incentive to come back for more, each and every night. If you like golf, you simply cannot get bored of Golf With Your Friends.
3) Coffee Talk
“It is an early contender for Indie Game of the Year – it is such a joyous game”
It really does seem 2020 was the year of the narrative-based, emotion-fueled indies, as this year had a ton of them, and a ton of them were great. Alongside Kentucky Route Zero, Coffee Talk was another such release from January, and exuded suaveness through beautiful pixel art and calming lo-fi beats.
The basic premise is that you are the barista of a popular haunt of many wacky characters – all you have to do is remember their favourite beverage, and also throw in some neat latte art if you fancy. Yet, much like the aforementioned Spiritfarer, the gameplay is simply the backdrop for the true factor in play – the story. You see, every character you serve will engage in an enlightening conversation with you, and devs Chorus Worldwide aren’t afraid to tackle taboo issues like racism, PTSD, and the controversial video game ‘crunch’ that has been a hot topic as of late. The catch? Provide the correct drink, or they’ll be out of there before you can see their mini-story to completion!
The addition of a mobile phone in which you can log recipes, keep tabs on how your relationships are faring, and also check out some other small stories makes all the gameplay systems come together in an incredibly intuitive way: there is certainly nothing distracting from the engaging plot at hand.
We’re spoilt for choice with regards to ‘talking sims’ in 2020, but if there is one you must play this holiday season, make it Coffee Talk.
2) Hotshot Racing
“On the whole the basics of the retro arcade racer are utterly nailed by Hotshot Racing on Xbox One”
And despite the abundance of slower-paced titles from the indie scene this year, our two top spots belong to some of the most action-packed, exhilarating experiences currently out there on Xbox.
Hotshot Racing harks back to the good old days of arcade racing, and is definitely one for those who miss the likes of Daytona and Ridge Racer. Yes, it’s arcade racing back at its fastest, wackiest, and most colourful.
What really helps Hotshot Racing along is the fact that it is entirely capable of running at a smooth 60fps, which when combined with slick slipstreaming and drifting action, makes the game run butter-smooth. Simply nothing is in the way of you settling down, controller in hand, and leaving all the other racers in your wake!
Throw in local and online multiplayer, a Speed-inspired game mode, and the obligatory Time Trial mode to allow the best speedsters to put pedal to the metal, and Hotshot Racing has everything it needs to ensure replayability for the months ahead. We’ve certainly been playing constantly since the September release, and Curve Digital have been so kind as to add the Big Boss Bundle DLC for free recently, so we are hopeful of additional content in the future.
1) Zombie Army 4: Dead War
“Zombie Army 4: Dead War is a tsunami of limbs and guts – and it’s bloody great”
Aaaand coming in at the top spot this year, it just had to be Zombie Army 4: Dead War. We at TheXboxHub have been routinely playing ZA4 since it’s debut in February. Why? Well, we have to agree with our reviewer here, and say it simply is bloody great.
That’s in the literal sense too: you can’t go five minutes on the Nazi-ridden European streets of ZA 4 without seeing limbs flying about, as you dismember what must be your thousandth zombie of the round. But the joyous nature of the gore can only get you so far, and it is the introduction of a meaningful progression system into the franchise that we stayed for. Upgrading your character through performing unique kills has remained one of the most exciting feelings in gaming this year, and had us coming back for more throughout the visually distinct levels and multiple campaigns.
Aside from the meat of the campaigns, Horde mode made a return, providing the classic wave-based zombies gameplay we all know and love. Getting together a group of friends to see how long you could survive offered yet another incentive to return, progress, and grab that high score.
Given their repertoire of titles such as Strange Brigade and the Sniper Elite series, it’s still unbelievable that Rebellion are an indie studio. Their games always stand against the best of them year on year, and Zombie Army 4 is no different. Given that Rebellion is still releasing content for it, there’s no excuse not to pick it up – and then never put it down!
In a year so grave and serious as 2020, it’s refreshing to see such a mindlessly fun game like Zombie Army 4 take the top spot. But honourable mentions must go out to the likes of SiNKR – the innovative and minimalist puzzler – and another arcade racer in the form of Inertial Drift, that just missed out. Make sure to check out our definitive Games of the Year article, which will be going live very soon, where the top triple-A titles from the Xbox Store come into play; you know, stuff like Cyberpunk and all that jazz. And of course, we’d love to hear your thoughts, so throw down some alternative shouts for Indie Game of the Year in the comments below.
We’ll see you in 2021!