There needs to be a clear logic to the puzzles throughout that acts as a foundation for each sequential one to build off of. What elevates it even further is world building and music design that sews it up into a tight, cohesive experience. A Monster's Expedition's quick hits of small puzzles passes all of those criteria with flying colors, and you owe it to yourself to give it a look.
None of that could dull my enthusiasm though. Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos is a beautiful application of a roguelike system with a 2D dungeon crawler format married perfectly to a town-building system and overworld that invites exploration and grinding gems to uncover more things to do outside of combat. This is a no-brainer for classic Zelda fans or anyone looking for co-op fun, and it's absolutely been the best gaming experience so far for me in 2021.
Tinykin is a "stop and smell the roses'' kind of game that is brief in a way that gives a meaningful experience without overstaying its welcome. Its charming world and endearing characters are a pleasant window dressing to this safe, mellow bit of fun, and that's all it needs to be. Splashteam's singular focus on exploration and charm runs deep, and the end result is laudable for their Sophomore outing.
Eschewing direct combat for a nearly purely stealth focus helps simplify without dumbing down the essential structure of what makes this genre great, and the efficiency that it demands for success is challenging but rewarding in ways that make me want to replay it over and over until I’ve scraped all the meat off the bone.
Grindstone is an example of a game which hits all the right notes and keeps up a quality in gameplay throughout that many struggle to maintain. The divine gameplay mechanics give a wonderful sense of control in spite of the randomness of how enemies fall, and the inputs of buying equipment or using currency to give temporary boosts gives ample opportunity for improvisation if things don't go quite your way. I only wish there were more to play.
The world is vibrant and colorful, and the characters have distinct personalities and relationships that feel genuine. Dipping up and down to close those weave gaps is one of the most meditative experiences I've had this year, and it's only one small piece of the gameplay pie that's chock full of delicious combat filling. Weaving Tides is a treat, one to share with friends and make room for seconds.
Boomerang X is a textbook example of short and sweet. It's a bite-sized experience that rewards persistence with a vague, mysterious narrative, dynamic combat, challenging enemies, and so much satisfaction when you squeeze out a victory in the last wave. I had to test my mettle and tolerate a bit of slowdown, but Boomerang X is one of the best indies I've played this year.
Okinawa Rush attracted me the moment I played it and dragged me in with its visceral, fast paced powerful battles. You won't find a developed story or a stellar soundtrack, but sound design in combat is top tier, with each hit feeling like it's forceful enough to crush skulls. If a dark, gruesome brawler that empowers you to be a badass is what you're itching for, then Okinawa Rush is just the right scratch for you.
The Easy mode is a welcome reprieve, giving several more lifeboats before letting your drown, but even that has the ethos of "you will be testing your limits". But if ready to climb that mountain, players will be rewarded with some of the most refreshing hand-to-hand combat out there with inspired stylistic flair. If you enjoy the struggle, SIFU is in the upper echelon of video game fighting.
Its simplicity is its strength, focusing on the action first and foremost and using those limited toolsets to approach each flame. An impressive approach to difficulty and an appropriate amount of mystery puts this game into a neat package that is approachable and as challenging as you'd prefer. Nuclear Blaze is short, sweet, and definitely worth a look.
Even if you don't have a fondness for Amiga like I do, it is a wonderful contemporary take on a classic puzzle platformer with a visual flair, well-thought-out puzzles, and a cheeky personality. Attention to detail was paid in making Road to Ballhalla, and elevates it from good to great.
Deru: The Art of cooperation is a delightfully relaxing puzzle-solving experience that leans into its tone and provides a mellow fun whether you're sitting alone or with a friend on the couch. The levels are challenging without being aggravating and it's clear just as much thought was put into its presentation. I just don't expect you'll be playing this at a rooftop party with Karen anytime soon.
Lots of shoot-'em-ups provide the exhilaration of narrowly dodging a flurry of projectiles then tagging the enemy. Multi-wave bosses with clever, varied patterns are almost cliche at this point. But this is the first time in recent memory I've seen those elements married to elevate the experience to something that might be both my favorite indie so far this year and in a rare club of games I'll keep playing for some time to come.
This is a system where crowns make the world go round and everything is replaceable, for a price. The breadth of dialogue, world-building paragraphs, and light agency in storytelling let you build the world according to what you hear. It's a world I want to dive into again and again, even if I know this incarnation will be just as taxing.
Teslagrad Remastered is an accomplished 2D platformer with a unique magnetic-based ability that shines while traversing the tower and being a puzzle-solving tool. Though the boss battles sometimes feel a little less tight an experience, that's a small blemish on an otherwise fantastic gameplay experience. With a fresh coat of paint and sharing the same price point as the original, this is an easy recommendation for those who enjoy older feeling indie platforms or as a primer to Teslagrad 2.
Its unassuming look might make you skim over it in the eShop, but it's hard not to recommend you give Spy Chameleon a chance. This is a game greater than the sum of its parts, and the fun to be had here is absolutely worth the price of admission and overlooking its small blemishes.
It should be noted that the Switch version is meant to also include an Escape Mode where you control an inmate trying to find their way out. For the purposes of this review, we haven't been able to check it out. Despite that omission, it's not hard to pour a bunch of time into Prison Architect, and I am happy to recommend it to anyone looking for a sim game to play on their couch.
Whether it's because I can play it untethered from the television or how it eschews the alien threat for a relatively more grounded espionage take on the genre, I found the break-up between on-the-ground missions and reconnaissance activities fresh if uneven, and the removal of dice rolls for hit rate removes obfuscation that for me made combat a much more rewarding endeavor. If you're someone like me who liked Mario + Rabbids but wished there was more depth or don't particularly love sci-fi themes, Phantom Doctrine is a worthy alternative.
In the end, The Long Dark won me over through the same war of attrition it demanded of me during playing. What starts as an oppressive wilderness and battle of the elements eventually unfolds into a gratifying progression as I learned how to survive efficiently through trial and error. They say that adversity builds character, and if you can grow some thicker skin, there's a lot of character in The Long Dark to discover.
The growth in combat complexity was not only satisfying, but the various upgrades and equips allowed multiple strategies and approaches to levels that were surprisingly robust. There's a beauty to the clean but vibrant backdrops and interstitial drawings. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a rewarding beat-em-up that belongs in every fan's library.