Best Indie Games to Play Now: Cuphead, Katana Zero and More

If you've spent your life playing mostly AAA games — such as your Grand Theft Autos and Halos and Assassins Creeds — you've been missing out, just like I was. But as I watched friend after friend lose day after day inside of the improbably slow Red Dead Redemption 2, and after I got tired of spending $60 on new releases, I realized I needed to spend some time in the indie circuit. Credit: Askiisoft/Devolver DigitalCredit: Askiisoft/Devolver Digital

And that's when I found the coolest games I'd seen in awhile.

Katana Zero

In this 8-bit-stylized hack-and-slash, you wield a blade and the ability to slow time, and a series of wild assassinations to perform. Your targets aren't out in the open, but at the end of a series of long, winding corridors that are soaked with neon lights and techno music filled with goons whose blood will splatter over the walls.

Those baddies are no slouches, and kill you in a single hit, which brings in a fun planning mechanism, as you rewind to the start of a section when you die. And when you finish a level, you're presented with footage of your successful gameplay, which you can skim through to see what you did right.

While I thought Ape Out (more on that below) felt like a spiritual successor to Devolver's hit series Hotline Miami, this is a more-true follow-up. Just like Hotline Miami, you're in the shoes of a hitman who's clearly being manipulated by greater forces, and going through a seriously bad patch of mental health.

  • Available on PC and Switch
  • Released April 18, 2019
  • Developer: Askiisoft
  • Publisher: Devolver Digital

Cuphead

Credit: Studio MDHRCredit: Studio MDHROnce an Xbox-exclusive, the side-scrolling adventures of Cuphead and Mugman have now gone portable on the Nintendo Switch. Don't worry, this version plays just as smoothly as the original, and it's just as hard (even harder if you use a Joy-Con controller and not the Switch Pro Controller). Cuphead's hand-drawn look and big-band jazz soundtrack still provide enough wow and awe to keep you going when the game's difficulty frustrates. Plus, with this enhanced portability, you've got even more opportunities to make progress.

  • Available on Xbox, PC and Switch
  • Released: Sept. 29, 2017 (Xbox, PC); April 18, 2019 (Switch)
  • Developer: Studio MDHR
  • Publisher: Studio MDHR

Ape Out

Credit: Gabe Cuzzillo/Devolver DigitalCredit: Gabe Cuzzillo/Devolver DigitalIn Ape Out, you control a nameless primate making a break from captivity, and fighting through waves of armed guards to get there. With an artsy style that looks like Jackson Pollock crossed with jazz album covers, Ape Out is a great breath of fresh air in the somewhat stale 8-bit-everything scene. Its simple controls make it a breeze to get started, but they add enough complexity to stay engaging.

  • Available on PC and Switch
  • Released: Feb. 28, 2019
  • Developer: Gabe Cuzzillo
  • Publisher: Devolver Digital

Baba Is You

Credit: Hempuli/Hempuli OyCredit: Hempuli/Hempuli OyOne of the weirder titles that's crossed my Switch in forever, Baba Is You is a game about making and breaking logic statements. As Baba, you're a sheep who's trying to get to a series of flags, with walls and moats and other objects in your way. Your only strategy, though, is to change the rules of each level, which are spelled out in word blocks, such as the three words Wall Is Stop. By moving the word Stop away from Is, you take away the wall's ability to block your movement, and you can walk right through it. This format gets more and more difficult for greater and greater reward.

  • Available on PC and Switch
  • Released: Feb. 28, 2019
  • Developer: Hempuli
  • Publisher: Hempuli Oy

Credit: Nomada Studio/Devolver DigitalCredit: Nomada Studio/Devolver Digital

Gris

All I knew going in to Gris was that it was supposed to be like the PlayStation 3 hit Journey, but even stranger. Almost immediately after I hit play on Gris, my jaw hit the floor as my eyes widened in awe.

Above all else, Gris is the most beautiful video game I've seen since Cuphead. With a hand-drawn pencil and saturated watercolors aesthetic, you feel like you're pushing a sketchbook character throughout this world, which is amazing to witness and to play.

The story of Gris seems to be what you want it to be, as you're dropped into a crumbling monotone world, as a woman floating through it, looking for an escape. Along the way, you start to unlock specific hues, restoring color to this sick, sad world.

Soon, your dress isn't just a billowing fabric, but one that can gain the power to take shape and weight. You'll use that option to break through walls and push through obstacles.

"Gris is the most beautiful video game I've seen since Cuphead."

Yes, Gris isn't the craziest game, nor is it exactly a massive, radical step forward in a direction. But with its gorgeous soundtrack — your roommates will ask where they can listen online, send them this YouTube link — and excellent look, plus those clever gameplay mechanics, Gris is the kind of game that can restore faith to even the most jaded gamers.

Credit: Nomada Studio / Devolver DigitalCredit: Nomada Studio / Devolver Digital

  • Available on PC, Mac and Switch
  • Released Dec. 13, 2018
  • Developer Nomada Studio
  • Publisher Devolver Digital

Other indies you need to check out

Hades

Credit: Supergiant Games/Epic GamesCredit: Supergiant Games/Epic GamesStill in early release and active development, Hades has us hooked already with its grim sense of humor (with dialogue that includes "Well, time to go get killed again"), beautiful style and challenging combat. You play as Zagreus, the prince of the underworld, trying to escape from Hades, who has to fight a pantheon of mythical figures on his way out.

What sets Hades apart from other rogue-likes, though, is its gorgeous, polished art style. No retro, pixely chicanery here, folks, this underworld looks like a modern animated series.

  • Available on Windows via Epic Games Store
  • Released Early Access in Dec.
  • Developer Supergiant Games

Return of the Obra Dinn

Credit: 3909 LLCCredit: 3909 LLCIf you're the kind of person who yearns for the days of gaming on the Macintosh Classic, and can't get enough murder mysteries, it's time to set sail on the Obra Dinn. You play a detective set with a nigh impossible task, solving dozens of murders that took place on a pirate ship.

Your only tools for this job are a captain's log where you'll input your guesses and a magical compass that can bring you back in time to see a slice of the moment of the kill. If you think that sounds like a lot to handle, you're right. Find an actual pen and pad for taking notes, and watch this video if you're having trouble.

Obra Dinn comes from Lucas Pope, the mastermind behind the morally gripping Papers, Please.

  • Available on PC, Mac
  • Released Oct. 18, 2018
  • Developer 3909 LLC
  • Publisher 3909 LLC

Below

Credit: Capybara GamesCredit: Capybara GamesDo you hate games that want to help you figure out what you're doing? Do you relish the opportunity to be completely befuddled? Then take a trip Below, dear reader, as this atmospheric adventure game hopes you suffer.

I've only gotten my toes wet in its murky caves and clue-free world, but I'm already impressed by how freeing this experience is. Yes, you might be completely stymied by its moody, mysterious opening sequence, which slowly pushes in on wisps that become your sailboat, but just relax and accept the fact that you know nothing. And get ready to craft together the items you need, because you're on your own, now.

For the unfamiliar, developer/publisher Capybara is the house behind the iOS hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.

  • Available on PC, Xbox One
  • Released Dec. 14, 2018
  • Developer Capybara Games
  • Publisher Capybara Games

The Messenger

Credit: Sabotage Studio/Devolver DigitalCredit: Sabotage Studio/Devolver DigitalMaybe you're not the one true hero who comes to save the day, but you might be the guy tasked with delivering an important message. Such is the story of The Messenger, where you're a mid-level ninja who's never impressed his masters, but somehow survives a demonic onslaught.

Once you stop laughing at the over-the-top premise, though, you'll find yourself learning how valuable a well-timed double jump can be, such as the Cloudstep, which lets you leap after hitting an enemy. So while The Messenger looks a lot like your old kick-and-punch platformers, it asks a lot gamers.

  • Available on PC, Switch
  • Released Aug. 30, 2018
  • Developer Sabotage Studio
  • Publisher Devolver Digital

Celeste

Credit: Matt Makes GamesCredit: Matt Makes GamesYou see how many platforms Celeste is on? That means you have no excuse to not try this surprisingly challenging platform game, which features a delightful chiptune soundtrack and poignant story.

The title's protagonist Madeline is climbing Mount Celeste, an infinitely treacherous peak, filled with tons of spiky crags for her to die on. Fortunately, death is just the beginning, as you're quickly bounced to the start of the screen you're on to try again. But don't think you can die all you want, as the game is keeping track of your deaths and will rub your face in that count at the end of each level.

Oh, and while Celeste may not be a new game, those who haven't played it already are getting a chance to catch up, as Celeste is the headliner of the January 2019 titles in Xbox Live Games With Gold.

  • Available on Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux
  • Released Jan. 25, 2018
  • Developer Matt Makes Games
  • Publisher Matt Makes Games

Moonlighter

Credit: Digital Sun/11 bit studiosCredit: Digital Sun/11 bit studiosMany games become increasingly rewarding as they ask more and more of you, pulling you in deeper and deeper. Moonlighter is one of those games, as it splits the time of protagonist Will between the dungeons he explores and the family business he runs in the day time. Fortunately for young Will, the two are related, as he sells the bounty of goods he finds during his adventures at the shop. Oh, and your experience as a shop owner is a hilarious, nuanced bit of salesmanship, where you deal with customers reacting to your prices in real time.

Oh, and the combat and dungeon crawling aspect is totally solid, with fluid fighting mechanics that feel a lot better to use than the 8-bit games that Moonlighter resembles.

  • Available on PS4, Switch, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux
  • Released Nov. 5, 2018
  • Developer Digital Sun
  • Publisher 11 bit studios

Dead Cells

The Prisoner, your headless character in Dead Cells, lives at the ongoing punchline of the game. Everyone around you is aware of your repeated desks, and you soon see the pile of spare parts that constitute your former selves.

One half rogue-like, the other Metroidvania, the award winning Dead Cells is one of the more popular indie games of the last year. And if you arm yourself with the right weapons, time your attacks accurately and tackle baddies from above, you might have a chance.

  • Available on PC, Mac, Linux, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
  • Released Aug. 7, 2018
  • Developer Motion Twin
  • Publisher Motion Twin

Atomik: RunGunJumpGun

Remember Jetpack Joyride? Imagine if you turned its difficulty up to 'painfully hard' by setting a crapton of obstacles in your way. That's Atomik: RunGunJumpGun, which gives you two guns: one to propel you up and the other to knock out dangers blocking your narrow paths.

This one's a little simpler than most, but it will definitely tickle the fancy of certain gaming crowds. A heads up, though, this game packs that familiar mix of EDM and 8-bit pixel graphics that some still love and some might be finding oversaturated.

Originally released on PC and Mac in 2016, A:RGJG saw new life on Android and the Nintendo Switch when it landed on the handheld this past February.

  • Available on PC, Mac, Linux, Switch, Android
  • Released Aug 31, 2016, Feb 08, 2018
  • Developer ThirtyThree
  • Publisher Good Shepherd Entertainment

The 25 Best Games of 2018

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