Indie Hell Zone – Game of the Year 2019

Gamers? It’s that time of year. Contrary to what some popular gaming Twitter users posted, it’s been a good year for games – if you aren’t solely paying attention to the big blockbuster scene.

Here at Indie Hell Zone, we’re just giving awards out to indie games. As with last year, these awards are completely vote driven by you, the readers. So hey, if you have a problem with the results, well, maybe you should have voted.

There is still a chance for your votes to matter, though, as I’ve been running a second poll. Since it’s a much broader category, I’ve decided to extend the “Best of the 2010s” poll to January 10th. I’d really like to see more votes in there! Like hey, if you don’t know what to put, just writing down “N/A” is cool.

Best Gameplay

All games play and engage with players in different ways. Sometimes, great gameplay is something fresh and original. Sometimes you don’t need a lot of original ideas, you just need good execution.

3rd: Hades by Supergiant Games

Originally among the early Epic Games Store exclusivity line-up, Supergiant’s latest game Hades is now out on Steam – just in time for this list.

You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades in a roguelike dungeon crawler where you fight your way out of the Underworld to get away from your father. Random blessings from Olympians can be found along the way, providing a lot of different possible builds to beat your way out of the Underworld with. Compared to a lot of other roguelike games, there’s a fair amount of story with NPCs with their own sub-plots and the fact that bosses will remember you on future attempts. Given Supergiant’s track record, this is definitely something to check out.

2nd: Anodyne 2: Return to Dust by Analgesic Productions

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust is the sequel to Analgesic Productions’ 2013 game. The game’s dungeons follows in the vein of the Gameboy Zelda games, but instead of revolving dungeon design around items, the design and challenges are focused around the theme of the dungeon. And sometimes, Anodyne 2‘s dungeons aren’t traditional gamey dungeons but are moreso narrative adventures.

Outside of Anodyne 2‘s dungeons, you can explore an overworld in the style of a 3D PS1 game. There’s even some knowingly arbitrary collectibles to pick up later on for the sake of unlocking bonus content. It makes for a relaxing reprieve in-between diving into the minds of others.

1st: Baba is You by Hempuli Oy

Baba is You was the captivating puzzle game that released early in 2019. It’s a puzzle game that takes the genre of block pushing puzzles and melds them with logic puzzles in a bizarrely memorable twist. Alongside all the simple character drawings are blocks that dictate the level’s logic if strung together like a sentence. “Baba is You,” but “You” can also be whatever word is pushed in place of “Baba.” “Flag is win,” or you could make the win condition be something else – including Baba.

The game’s logic gets increasingly convoluted as you proceed through the game, and at the end of the day, even if can reason a solution among the word blocks, you still need to find a way to push them together.

Best Story

Sometimes the gameplay isn’t all there, but that’s okay, because a good story can carry a person’s interest. And sometimes a game is just all story, nothing wrong with that at all.

3rd: Yuppie Psycho by Baroque Decay

I’m going to be honest, this game is probably the big darkhorse of the nominations I was presented because even though it looks like my jam, I’ve never heard about it until this point. So hey, thank you voters for bringing this game to my attention.

In Yuppie Psycho, you are Brian Pasternack, an average low-class guy blessed with the opportunity to work at Sintracorp, giving him the chance to move up in the world. However, the workplace is miserable for multiple reasons – one of them being that the company is cursed by the occult and Brian’s tasked with killing a witch. It’s an adventure that flip-flops between crushing mundanity and mystical horror, whose shared common thread is indifference toward the plight of the workers.

2nd: Disco Elysium by ZA/UM

Disco Elysium advertises itself as the most faithful attempt at portraying role playing in the medium of video games, and with all the rave reviews for it, it may have succeeded. You play as an unnamed detective waking up from a drunken bender he was on when he was supposed to be investigating a dead body. Joined by fellow officer Lieutenant Kim, you head off into an open world to investigate that crime. Or to look for your missing gun. Or just follow any sorta plot thread.

The narrative diverges in a lot of ways depending on your choices and personality traits, even up to flavor text that’s only available if you’re favoring certain traits. The detective himself starts out as a scummy guy, but through your decisions and getting concepts for him to internalize, he could either become the hero cop that people think the police is, or he can just slide further into scumminess. Or heck, you can drive him toward revolutionary politics, make him an irritating centrist or make him become the “hobo cop.”

1st: Anodyne 2: Return to Dust by Analgesic Productions

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust follows Nova, a Nano Cleaner tasked by the Center to jump into people to clean out emotional dust infecting them. Born within an almost religious framework that’s dictates what’s right and wrong, with a clear “enemy” set in front of her, Nova goes out to cleanse the world of dust.

But then Nova starts to grow up mentally and as she explores the world, she learns that the world is more complicated than she first thought, with growing doubts about her mission. Each dungeon is essentially a personal vignette of a person Nova jumps into, showing off different scenarios of the human experience and its positives – as well as the negatives that the Center wishes to erase. It’s not just a game about a young woman’s coming-of-age, but a game that explores life and acknowledges it for what it is.

Best Soundtrack

Unlike The Game Awards, I will not relegate the best music to a quick side thing. Music is a significant part of a game and helps form a game’s identity, whether it’s just setting the mood or is essential for a rhythm game experience. Let’s give it up to the musicians.

3rd: Sayanora Wild Hearts by Simogo

Sayanora Wild Hearts is advertised as a “Pop Album video game,” where the universe fractures after a young woman’s heart breaks, sending her on a flashy stylish adventure to find harmony. It’s a game whose identity lies heavily in its soundtrack, as its various levels and obstacles are structured around the soundtrack’s songs to the point of coming off as a rhythm game.

The catchy pop to ride through town on a motorcycle to is made by Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng and Linnea Olsson. The former two are frequent collaborators with Simogo while the latter is a successful Swedish singer-songwriter in her own right.

2nd: Anodyne 2: Return to Dust by Analgesic Productions

As with past Analgesic Productions games, Sean Han Tani takes the mantle of composing the game’s soundtrack. The soundtrack’s got a lot of variety to fit in with the moods and different locations the game takes you, from the distortion of the first Anodyne‘s main theme in the welcoming Center to the frantic theme that plays in the mindscape of an angry woman. Personally, it’s my favorite of the soundtracks he’s put out.

1st: Cadence of Hyrule by Brace Yourself Games

Unexpectedly, Nintendo’s lone out another IP for another studio to make a game out of. This time, the developers behind Crypt of the Necrodancer got their hands on the Legend of Zelda, combining Zelda‘s gameplay with the frantic rhythm gameplay of Necrodancer.

Much of the soundtrack is rearrangements of music throughout the Zelda series. The lead composer of the soundtrack is Danny Baranowsky, an indie game composer that’s most known for his work on Necrodancer and the early versions of the Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy. Contributing musicians include Jules Conroy, Kate Letourneau, Riley Koenig, Michaela Nachtigall, Adriana Figueroa and Kevin Regamey.

Best Art Direction

Good and interesting visuals helps make a game. For a lot of people, those visuals are the first impression they get on a game, and some games make absolutely sure that’s a good first impression.

3rd: Later Alligator by SmallBü

Everybody loves games that look like cartoons. It’s kino. Later Alligator embraces the cartoon look, but unlike the old-styled cartoon look of Cuphead that captivated people a few years ago, Later Alligator is more in the style of modern cartoons. It’s very CalArts, though I mean that as a compliment unlike the sad sack Twitter users that probably thought the Pokemon Sun and Moon anime was bad because of an out-of-context smear frame. The color palette of its environments is mainly muted, presumably to give off a noirish vibe as the game has you trying to take down the protagonist’s own goofy alligator crime family.

2nd: Untitled Goose Game by House House

There they are. The terrible goose. In this game you terrorize a town for no real good reason, but you’re doing it as a goose, so it comes off as some wacky Looney Tunes antics. The goofiness of the goose’s crusade of terror is highlighted by the art style, which is simple and playful. Everything is bright and colorful, creating a setting of an idyllic town whose way of life is ruined by a simple goose.

1st: Anodyne 2: Return to Dust by Analgesic Productions

One of Anodyne 2‘s main things is having two main distinct art styles. The overworld is a lo-fi PS1 game styled world where Nova runs around in to talk to NPCs and collect arbitrary coins. Dive a layer deeper and the world becomes top-down 2D styled game presenting what I think is the best sprite work the studio’s put out yet. These switches in art style conveys the different planes of reality that Nova jumps between, with the more vibrant 2D spaces essentially acting as separate worlds to contrast against Nova’s 3D reality.

Best Game of 2019

And now, the best games in general! …Which was mostly decided by Twitter poll because almost everyone was in agreement with the number one pick on this list.

3rd: Slay the Spire by Mega Crit Games

this wasn’t my best attempt at playing the game

Slay the Spire technically popped into existence last year or so, but it was in Steam Early Access. It came out of Early Access early this year, so it’s a viable pick for this list. That’s just how award shows work.

Slay the Spire is a deck-building roguelike, and while there are a lot of deck-building roguelikes, this is one that’s really risen above the rest. It achieves a nice balance between the randomness of card games and strategy with enemies showing their intents to get players to plan for the attack phase, while offering a lot of different playstyles between the game’s three playable characters. Personally? I love the Silent. Repeatedly stabbing someone or poisoning people to death is my jam.

2nd: A Short Hike by adamgryu

A Short Hike is a simple game compared to everything else on this list. You are a funny little bird fellow going on a hike in Hawk Peak Provincial Park. While that’s the end goal, there’s so much else you can do on the way up. You can go exploring, you can go fishing, you can find hidden treasure, etc. It’s a nice slice-of-life experience, especially compared to the other entries on this list. Sometimes you don’t want to kill things. Sometimes you don’t want to terrorize other people, which is just a different kind of violence. Sometimes you just want to explore a little world and be a part of it.

1st: Anodyne 2: Return to Dust by Analgesic Productions

Like last year, you’ve probably guessed what’s number one on this list based on how much it showed up in the rankings. Anodyne 2: Return to Dust is an ideal sequel game in that it expands on the original while fixing its flaws. I know a lot of people that consider this their favorite game of 2019, or at least, they have it way up on their list.

What if you don’t? Well, again, you should have voted.

Of course, for some people, all these game of the year awards stuff is just validation for people that think the game they like deserves even more honors than they already have. Like, Disco Elysium getting 2nd place on this dumb site is probably meaningless considering that the developers picked up like, three awards from Geoff Keighley’s award extravaganza.

But for some people, these award show kinda things shows off neat new things they may have missed otherwise. They can act as reminders and open calls to check out something new for the next year. And heck, for smaller developers, even small awards from meaningless sites are meaningful and at the end of the day, it’s worth letting them know that there are people out there that appreciate their work.

Thank you all for reading through this and for sticking by this site throughout 2019. I hope for another exciting year full of interesting things to play. As we close out this decade, here’s one last reminder to vote for what you think was your favorite indie games in this decade. Have a happy New Years, y’all.

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