It seems lately that a lot of people have been complaining about the sheer lack of RPGs on store shelves today. Not only that, but it seems that even big publishers have a hard time being convinced that it's a genre worth investing in localization efforts anymore for the Western market (I'm looking at you, Nintendo and Namco Bandai). It doesn't help that game budgets are growing exponentially larger while the "mainstream consumer" feels far more granular than it has ever been. The days when the market was flooded with choices seems like a long time ago.
The great thing about indie games is that you can get the same compelling experience for only a fraction of the price, and that includes having a team that isn't censored or has to worry about someone in corporate forcing them to bend to the will of the market. In fact, from the different interviews I have read about people in this particular field, many of them consist of people who left their salary jobs working with large publishers because they were tired of working on games they didn't like making in the first place. Instead, there are a lot of fundamental qualities about indie gaming that are admirable. Plus, there is the aspect that the opinion of even a single person in the community can create a large impact on the product as a whole. A strong connection can be made when one is in direct contact with a small group of amateur developers who all care about what each person has to say about the game.
And that brings me to this article. An interesting thing happened the other day on Twitter. I asked a question to our followers, "What is your favorite indie RPG?" Surprisingly, very few people could actually think of one. To all of those who were asking for some sort of list, I will be running down four of my favorite indie RPGs out there, and at the end I will post some upcoming projects people should take note of. Of course, if you have any you would like to share, please post them in the comments below. Feel free to share your own projects as well. We would love to see them!
To the Moon (PC)
Who Made It: Freebird Games, a studio founded on the principles of creating thought-provoking and fully interactive stories that allows the player to become engrossed in its fiction.
What Is It: A story about two doctors using newfound technology that lets them weave artificial memories into the heads of others on an old man who wishes to, as you can probably tell from the name, go to the moon. This scientific breakthrough however can only be used on those near the brink of death as the artificial conflicts with the actual memories a person has and as a result can cause a person to lose their bodily functions. In order to ensure that this happens, the doctors must embed themselves into the brain of their patient and start the process during childhood where the new memories begin, thus allowing the person to die a fulfilled life. It's not a conventional RPG wherein you gain experience points and level up, but it takes the literal approach where you are tasked with collecting clues in order to solve puzzles to unlock further portions of the story.
Why You Should Play It: The story was an emotionally captivating one for me. Although the game ends in a relatively short period of time (it is only a single episode after all), there were plenty of powerful moments to be had during that period that kept me fully engaged to what was happening in front of me. The character development is solid, and the gameplay seemed to do its best to support the strong storytelling. It really embodies the elements that I want from a good RPG. Artistically, To The Moon is one of the finer examples that you don't need a lot of resources to convey a powerful narrative.
The Next Project from this Developer: To The Moon is an episodic series, so apparently the next episode!
Who Made It: EasyGameStation, a small developer in Japan who are known for their unique doujin games. Carpe Fulgar, a team made up of only two people (Andrew Dice and Robin Light-Williams), helped localize it for Western audiences.
What Is It: This game takes the typical RPG design and flips it on its head. Instead of playing the Hero out to save the world from the threat of evil, instead you play as Recette - a young girl who just got hit with a massive amount of debt after her father suddenly decides to become an adventurer and leaves her only a few months prior. With the help of a fairy named Tear, the player must run her item store to help generate enough profit to pay off this albatross. They will be able to hire their own adventurers who will go out to dungeons with her to try and find lucrative treasure to sell in the store. For more, you can read my review.
Why You Should Play It: As you can probably tell in my review, Recettear is a highly addictive experience with a ton of replay value that keeps dragging you in; whether that means increasing the size of the shop or gathering better loot to sell, I always had a pretty good time. Plus, there's a good amount of charm to be found throughout the game, including the fresh take on the well-weathered genre with a concept that makes you wonder why no one attempted to do it before. Capitalism, Ho!
The Next Project from this Developer: Territoire, which Carpe Fulgar also plan on localizing.
Cthulhu Saves the World (PC/MAC/XBL/MOB)
Who Made It: Zeboyd Games, a duo that lately has been focusing a lot on delivering 2D role-playing games.
What Is It: A parody of the genre, Cthulhu Saves the World is actually a sequel to Breath of Death VII: The Beginning. In the original game, you are helping Cthulhu weave his path of destruction over the lands with the ultimate goal of placing himself upon the throne in order to wreak havoc on its populace. Unfortunately, a dastardly group of heroes just happened to curse away his powers. In order to regain his evil abilities, he must ironically enough become a hero himself. With several party members to recruit, a fun combo system, and a tiny asking price, there's a lot to admire here.
Why You Should Play It: I found this game to be hilarious in both the interactions between Cthulhu and his party members and how it makes a mockery of a genre that, like it or not, is associated a lot of unfortunate cliches. The combat is challenging, the boisterous synth soundtrack is commendable, and the overall pace is such that at no point did I feel the game had overstayed its welcome. Plus, you can get both this game and its prequel for only $3 bundled together on Steam! How could you not at least give it a try?
The Next Project from this Developer: Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
Legend of Grimrock (PC)
Who Made It: Almost Human Ltd., a Finnish developer made up of people with industry experience working with companies like Remedy Entertainment (Alan Wake) and Futuremark (3DMark).
What Is It: A modern first-person dungeon crawler inspired by the likes of Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master. You take control of a group of prisoners who have been told that if they can escape the clutches of Mount Grimrock, they can earn their freedom and be on their way. Unfortunately, no one has ever managed to escape Grimrock alive. The story serves as more a supplement to the dungeons themselves, there are copious amounts of puzzles, and the RPG mechanics are as hardcore as they come with the ability to have full control over the statistical progression of your party. Elements such as Hunger and Health management also come into play rather frequently.
Why You Should Play It: For fans of this particular type of RPG, this is a no-brainer - Legend of Grimrock is one of the best dungeon crawlers to come out in years, if not decades. It leans heavily into what makes these types of games fantastic, namely the focus on smart enemy AI and a nice variety of puzzles, and it happens to be one of the most intellectually demanding games I have ever come across. It goes without saying that if you want to play this game, prepare to bring along a journal to take notes in. Visually, the game looks fantastic and feels like it has a production budget much larger than what it actually has.
The Next Project from this Developer: A full-fledged editor for Grimrock, along with unannounced plans for either an expansion pack, sequel, or a brand new project.
Other games to make note of include our pick for last year's Indie RPG of the Year, Bastion; Barkley Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden; and Sweet Lily Dreams.
Upcoming Games to Get Excited About
Grim Dawn (PC) - An isometric RPG from the developers that created Titan Quest, one of the best of its genre in my humble opinion, Grim Dawn has some insane features like the ability to progress to level 200, a deep crafting system that includes recipes of different tiers, and my favorite: the promise of a powerful game editor that will allow modders to create their own adventures in a relatively simple fashion. These guys get that modding communities provide the backbone for a game that endures the test of time.
Kitaru (PC/MAC/XBLA/PSN/MOB) - A fascinating-looking game that has some incredible CGI for a small independent studio, the story alone makes it sound epic in scope and the inclusion of celebrity talents like Yuri Lowenthal (Yosuke from Persona 4) and Tara Platt (Mitsuru Kirijo from Persona 3) means that this game will have the pedigree to support it. It will include a turn-based active-time battle system and a plethora of mini games to keep the action fresh and intriguing.
Secrets of Grindea (PC) - This is a product that pushes all the right buttons for me: the classic 16-bit look with its own unique animation style, plenty of ways to customize both the look and abilities of your player with a complex skill tree, the makings of an immersive crafting system, and even four-player online co-operative multiplayer. There's not a whole lot of information available on it, but from everything I have seen about it, it definitely looks to be a solid retro-style RPG for nerds of nostalgia to get their hands on.
Banner Saga (PC) - The look is what really sells this game to me. Looking like it was pulled straight out of a big-budget animated film, there is a real attention to detail from what I could see in the trailers for the game. Everything from the characters to the environments have all been lovingly hand-drawn, and the developers sure look like they have put in the long hours to pull off what can only be called a landmark art style. The development studio, Stoic, happen to be made up of former employees at BioWare, and they have cited the game's influence from titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force. Perhaps the best news has to be the fact that they plan on releasing a free version of the turn-based combat featured in the game as a standalone to the retail product!
Dust: An Elysian Tale (XBL) - A game made almost entirely by a single person (save for the sound design), Dust is best known as the game that won the Dream.Build.Play competition back in 2009 and is finally seeing a release on August 15th as the anchor for the Xbox's Summer of Arcade 2012 promotion. From what I played at E3, this game already looks extremely polished and fluid, which is quite the feat considering its bucketload of mechanics: a very fun and rewarding combo system, a MetroidVania-style map layout, a good amount of character customization when leveling up, and a drop-dead gorgeous visual style. This game is already shaping up to be an instant indie classic.