The indie RPGs of Summer Game Fest 2024

While several big high-budget RPGs had big presence during this week's Summer Game Fest stream showcases and show floor demos, this article is not about those games. This article is about the numerous smaller independent RPGs at this weekend's event, as well as the developers who made their way to LA to showcase their games.

Several components of the Summer Game Fest week, including things like Geoff Keighley's live showcase or the accompanying Xbox and Ubisoft events, feel like big spectacles trying to recapture the magic of E3. But the show floor itself is much more quaint, and I got the chance to speak with several creators of much smaller development teams. Instead of having to deal with external public relations liaisons and restrictive content embargos, the indie developers I spoke with were just so earnest and outwardly excited just to show off their game. 

Big passion often comes in small packages. These are the five independent RPGs that stood out to me.

Fera: The Sundered Tribes

Fera: The Sundered Tribes is the next game from the team at Massive Damage Games, the developer behind Star Renegades and Halcyon 6. I reviewed Star Renegades when it was released a few years ago, enamored with its visual style and mechanical RPG depth, and we even gave the game our 'Best Art' award for our 2020 end-year awards. I was always going to keep an eye on what Massive Damage did next, but Fera ... was not quite what I was expecting.

At first glance, Fera seems like it might simply be "indie Monster Hunter" in the way you hunt down beasts, using them to craft new weapons and armor so that you can hunt down stronger beasts. While it is certainly that to some degree, the ambition on display appears to go quite a bit deeper. After spending some hands-on time with the demo and speaking with co-CEO Ken Seto, I got to see several other components of the game in addition to the monster hunting, which includes survival elements, town-building & automation, and some light RPG progression.

As you explore the game world, not only will you collect materials from monsters as you might expect, but you also can set up harvesting points and portals that instantly take you back to your village. You'll command a team of villagers to collect resources, and you can also set up villagers to work on crafting and upgrades back at your camp. While the demo I saw only had three villagers to work with, I understand that you can grow your camp's population, who can continue to perform more and more tasks at your base, sort of how you would expect in an RTS or automation game. This game is as much of a city-builder as it is a monster-hunting game.

Another component of the game that is evident based on previous trailers is that there is a significant aerial component to both exploration and combat. Your home base is located high up on a cliffside, and you'll run off a pointed ledge to jump with your glider to roam around the map. A considerable component of the game is quite literally your skill in maneuvering your glider and accompanying tether line to move around the environment as effortlessly as possible. I can tell you firsthand that it takes some practice to get well acquainted with movement mechanics, but once you start to get the hang of movement, even just navigating the world is exciting.

Having all these mechanics come together, monster hunting, city-building, and aerial traversal is an ambitious undertaking, to be sure. The demo I played was definitely a game in mid-development, as I ran into a handful of bugs and visual glitches, but hopefully, feedback from demos and Early Access allow the team at Massive Damage to fine-tune their monster-hunting colony sim as needed.

Fera: The Sundered Tribes is set to release for Steam Early Access in 2024, followed by releases on both console and PC. A demo is currently available as part of Steam Next Fest June 2024. More information can be found in the August 2023 announcement.

Robots at Midnight

Originally revealed in November 2023, Robots at Midnight is a souls-like adventure RPG from the team at Finish Line Games (Maize, Skully, Cel Damage HD).

I was initially hesitant to refer to the game as a souls-like RPG, until I sat down with Finish Line Games in which that's explicitly how they described Robots at Midnight to me. Broadly speaking, members of the development team are fans of that style of role-playing game that requires skill-based combat, risk-reward choices, as well as games that require persistence. However, Finish Line Games also wanted to create something a little bit more approachable, and a little bit more lighthearted compared to the majority of similar action RPGs available today.

In Robots at Midnight, you play as Zoe, a young scrappy heroine who mysteriously arrives on the planet Yob from a space pod falling from the sky. After a quick introduction to the local populace, which seemingly happen to all be robots, Zoe ventures out into the world to learn more about it. However, not all the robots found on Yob are as accomodating.

In my short hands-on time with the demo at Summer Game Fest, the combat mechanics seemed to fit the part. You had both heavy attacks and light attacks, as well as a guard that all worked off a stamina-like meter. You move how you would expect, waiting for openings to land attacks while dodging and guarding to minimize the damage you take as much as possible. What felt a little bit more unique to Robots at Midnight was how Zoe's left arm has a mechanical gauntlet (known as the MITT) that operated on its own energy meter, allowing Zoe to perform a staggering punch attack that could knock foes off balance.

Zoe also has a pair of jet-boots of some sort, in which she can dash away at quick speed, but only every-so-often. One of the mini-boss encounters I tackled more-or-less required proper timing with the jet boots to avoid getting hit with his wide-ranging attacks.

I only briefly got to see it in action, but the robot foes Zoe encounters also seem to power up at night (hence the game's title), acting as a respawn mechanic for the enemies you can meet out on the field. Also familiar to the genre, the game seems to feature less of an outward narrative and more of a story found through exploration and lore, as Zoe learns about the mysterious planet on robots that she has landed on. It was hard to get a feel for this in the short demo experience, however.

I come away from my time with Robots at Midnight curious. I enjoyed my time with Asterigos, which seems to have a similar tonality, although Robots at Midnight looks to be considerably smaller in scope. Regardless, it's something I will keep an eye on in the coming months.

Robots at Midnight is set to release for Xbox Series X|S and PC (Steam) in 2024.

Sky of Tides

Sky of Tides is a narrative RPG from the team at Lofty Sky Entertainment — a film, television, and digital media production based in Toronto. While the studio mostly works on film and VR, Sky of Tides is a foray into the video games space.

The most interesting component of Sky of Tides is its setting: the fractured world of Numen now separated into nine celestial 'islands' while the ocean hovers in between the pieces of the broken planet (hence the name of the game). Two different factions of power - the Sovereign and the Syndicate - vy over control of these planet fractures and a mysterious source of power.

You are placed in the shoes of Rin, the daughter of a Syndicate researcher who has suddenly gone missing. The game itself is the adventure she undertakes to find her father, all while meeting people he knew, learning more about the stakes of the world, and presumably getting into a conflict much bigger than she expected.

Sky of Tides is a narrative RPG, and while I didn't want to say it myself, Disco Elyisum was the comparison made. You control Rin from an isometric perspective, inspecting the environment and talking with NPCs while making some dialogue choices. There is no combat, either, so Disco Elysium does seem a fair enough comparison to make. In my short time with the demo, I interacted with a few NPCs, investigated some spots in the world like a point-and-click adventure game, and saw RPG components in the game's dialogue systems.

Unfortunately, there's one significant component of Sky of Tides that I come away unconvinced about.  When speaking with creative director Judith Cheung, one thing she emphasized strongly was maintaining a balance between the game's five social stats. It seemed to me that the ultimately goal of the game requires achieving a good balance in these stats, rather than organic choice and consequence. It's of course difficult to critique in a small vertical slice, but coercing players to keep a balance in your stats can seem run against the idea of role-playing. The story and setting of Sky of Tides are definitely interesting, but I wonder how the role-playing elements will land in the end.

Sky of Tides is set to release later this year for all major consoles and PC (Steam). A demo is currently available on the game's Steam page.

Happy Bastards

Of all the indie RPGs I saw at Summer Game Fest, Happy Bastards was perhaps the most outlandish, but also the one most far from release. Unlike the other demos on this page, I didn't have a chance to go hands-on with Happy Bastards. Instead, I got to see a small presentation while talking with members of the development team. 

Happy Bastards was only just announced during the Future Games Show stream ahead of Summer Game Fest. Developed by Clever Plays (Operation Tango), this is a tactical RPG with a little bit of a twist. The first thing that Clever Plays wanted to emphasize was that none of the people in this game are 'good people'. Rather than trying to create a just team of heroes in a perfectly tuned squad, this game is all about gaining skill, power, and fame by whatever means necessary. As stated in the announcement trailer, this is "a morally-bankrupt campaign across a parody-filled fantasy world".

Another component of the game that works differently than a lot of tactical RPG is that the player doesn't necessarily play with the Hand of God. As it was described to me, while a lot of strategy games have your units on the field do exactly what you ask of them, sometimes your team of "bastards" won't quite do exactly what you want them to do. In this way, a part of your strategy is to work about bastard personalities as best as possible to achieve successful results. To me, it seems a little like playing babysitter.

Happy Bastards is not really about a compelling story or about compelling characters. It's all about collecting fame, powering up your bastards, and reaping the rewards. If that involves selling a baby to some mercenaries. So be it, I guess.

Happy Bastards is set to release in 2025 for PC (Steam).

Afterlove EP

Okay. This one is cheating a little bit. Afterlove EP is not actually an RPG, insomuch that it has no real role-playing, stats, skills, or combat. Instead, we have a sidescroller adventure game with some rhythm elements. While we sometimes cover visual novels, otome games, or dating sims on RPG Site, Afterlove isn't quite any of those either. It is definitely a game about character relationships, though, and it's immediately obvious this is a game with a lot of heart behind it.

Afterlove EP takes place in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, developed by an entirely Indonesian team. It is also the final, posthumous project from narrative designer developer Mohammad Fahmi Hasnii — the writer behind the beloved Coffee Talk — who sadly passed away in March 2022 at the age of 32.

It is unfortunately fitting that the theme of the game itself matches that of its surrounding development circumstances. Afterlove EP has players placed into the shoes of Rama, a young musician struggling to move on with life after the death of his girlfriend, Cinta. While he's been falling into a deeper and deeper depression over the past year, he suddenly begins to hear Cinta's voice in his head, unsure if she is a spirit or if he is simply hearing things that aren't there.

Cinta is there to help guide Rama rekindle his failing friendships, his love for himself, and perhaps even new relationships. Just as with the tragedy of the developer himself, Afterlove is a story about moving on.

The artstyle is immediately eye-catching and easily stood out among the surrounding games on the Summer Game Fest show floor. Afterlove uses a manga-like doodle sketch style (I mean 'doodle' in the most affectionate and endearing way possible) by Indonesian artist Soyatu, with a mix of taupe and pastel colors that really draw the eye. The music from Indonesian band L’alphalpha seems to mix alternative rock, electronic, and shoegaze mixed together in a way that's heartfelt, relaxing, and somber when it needs to be.

One thing that also immediately caught my attention in my time with the demo was that the characters you meet do not always wear their true emotions on their face, and do not seem to be paper-thin in characterization. In my short demo time, I had Rama meet with Regina, a friend who has begun a modeling career. She seemed to have some relationship issues of her own, but it wasn't immediately apparent her mood or current state of happiness. You do have to pick some dialogue choices as Rama, and I was careful in trying to be considerate to her problems, but not overstepping my bounds. In short, it felt like the other characters had personalities and problems of their own, such that not everything revolves around the player character, which is something I appreciated.

Rama has one month before his band plays its next gig, and you'll be spending that month meeting your bandmates and friends, all while trying to get out of your current slump. Afterlove is a slow-paced, thoughtful game, which doesn't always work well in the hectic bustle of the SGF showfloor, but I was captivated by what I saw, and I am eager to see more. Afterlove EP also has a rhythm game component to it, although I did not get to check this part out during my hands-on time with the game.

Afterlove EP is set to release later this year for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC (Steam). A demo is currently available on the Steam store.