Indie Hell Zone 2021 Awards

It’s finally time for Indie Hell Zone to do the esteemed tradition of game sites posting the best games of the year. As with past years, I’ve left the award decisions to you, the readers, because I’m incapable of focusing down on things that were solely released this year.

The world of Gaming is too huge for one person. However! This was the first year that I paid other people to write things for this site, so before heading on, allow me to give shout-outs to Victoria, Leaf, Bez, Fang, Zach, Quail, UT and Andrew for contributing to the site and giving me days off. Thank you.

If you’re upset that something you wanted didn’t show up, remember that all this is pageantry anyway and that I have no legitimacy or power (it’d be cool if I had power, though). If you’re still upset, do the liberal thing of getting mad at other people for not voting hard enough instead of being mad at me, I guess.

1/18/22 Note: Due to some recent allegations about the original 3rd place winner of some categories, they’ve been swapped out for the 4th place ones.

BEST GAMEPLAY

3rd Place: Cruelty Squad – Consumer Softproducts

In third place, we have Consumer Softproducts’ Cruelty Squad, the first-person indie hit about a miserable guy that kills people as a rise and grind hustle. That sounds like a lot of games, but this is different, trust me.

Cruelty Squad can be viewed as an immersive sim, with a list of targets strewn about a level and just letting you have free roam to do what you can to kill them. You could just go in guns blazing with a straightforward gun or a grenade launcher that poisons the surrounding area, or you could try taking a more stealthy approach, which is actually somewhat viable in a lot of situations. Or you can be more creative through using grappling hook intestines or the bizarre power to flip the world upside down to get to your target quicker as weirder yet more efficient routes toward them.

Facilitating this, the game’s levels are huge with lots to explore. Besides looking around for targets, there’s lots of weapons to add to your armory that’s hidden off the beaten path, so it doesn’t hurt to poke around. Further tying into the game’s exploration elements, Cruelty Squad also offers a simple fishing minigame where every level has a hidden fishing spot with unique tables for what you fish up. Can’t go wrong with a good fishing minigame.

2nd Place: Deltarune: Chapter 2 – Toby Fox

In second place, we have the second chapter of Toby Fox’s Deltarune, released for free to celebrate Undertale’s sixth anniversary and to make up for the fact that the world is kinda hell. Primarily an RPG, Deltarune and its predecessor Undertale defined themselves by enemy attacks being portrayed through dodging shmup styled bullet patterns within a box while navigating dialogue choices to end the battle – assuming you want to spare an enemy, that is.

Throughout the series, bosses showed off unique patterns that not only challenged the player, but also defined who the bosses were – and Deltarune Chapter 2 is no exception. If anything, Chapter 2 is more over-the-top, while the big final boss of the chapter is completely different from anything that came before, showing that Toby Fox can still surprise when it comes to fighting.

It’s fun but also, @ the people who say that Undertale/Deltarune are the only good RPGs because of its approach to battles, I’m begging you to play different RPGs or just play shmups.

1st Place: Rhythm Doctor – 7th Beat Games

Ending things off, we have 7th Beat Games’ Rhythm Doctor, a one-button rhythm game tied into a character-centric story. People with heart and stress problems need your help, and to keep them healthy, you must pump their hearts on every 7th beat of a song to keep their bodies in sync. Each character’s heart beats to different rhythms to go along with their unique themes, while some characters hearts beat irregularly to demand focusing on the musical beat rather than the visual indicators.

Notably, the game actually has an extensive editor to make custom levels. In looking things up on the game I saw this custom level based on A Long Fall from Final Fantasy XIV, which rules and also highlights the potential of custom levels for this game. I feel that if you’re into rhythm games (especially if you liked the Rhythm Heaven) series, this is a game for you.

BEST STORY

3rd Place: Gnosia – Petit Depotto

In third place, we have Gnosia, a game that technically belongs here because it originally released on the Vita but got a new lease on life with a Nintendo Switch release. It’s made by Petit Depotto, who previously… made Unholy Heights? Huh, that’s a weird jump,

In Gnosia, a crew of shipmates find themselves besieged by the Gnosia, a humanoid alien race that aims to kill everyone aboard. It’s a visual novel revolving around a Werewolf situation, where you must find whoever is Gnosia.

It sounds simple… but it’s not a completely linear story. You are actually playing through different time loops, where the circumstances and roles change between each one, effectively changing the mystery. In fact, you may be given a loop where you are a Gnosia, where you can collaborate with the other Gnosia to kill everyone else while making sure you stay above suspicion. Throughout these loops, you slowly learn about the other characters, which may also help tip off who was replaced by a Gnosia on an alternate route. All in all, it’s a pretty interesting way to present a story like this, and you know, given that hit indie space-Werewolf game Among Us got popularized the year before, it’s weirdly prescient.

2nd Place: OMORI – Omocat

In second place is OMORI, directed by internet artist Omocat, the game that suddenly emerged from the Kickstarter abyss on Christmas of last year – which made it too late to be considered for any 2020 awards, so it belongs over here.

Initially, OMORI comes off as a happy looking game, even if its title character seems to be kind of a downer. However, there’s something underneath the happy world, and it becomes clear when it turns out that Omori is the imagined dream figment of a boy named Sunny. Sunny became a depressed shut-in after a tragedy that happened years ago and has been spending his days dreaming of having fun adventures with his friends through Omori.

However, he’s moving soon, and the news inspires him to seek some closure. On Omori’s end, you play through a goofy JRPG adventure that slowly turns into a horror game. In between those segments, you play as Sunny in a more slice-of-life setting, where he reunites with his friends and tries to reconnect with his forgotten trauma over what happened years ago. It is honestly a real downer. Pretty good.

1st Place: Deltarune: Chapter 2 – Toby Fox

But coming up to defeat OMORI, by only one vote, was Deltarune Chapter 2.

Of course, Deltarune follows up on the previous chapter, where Kris and their new friend Susie return to the realm of the Darkners. They head into a cyber world ruled by the Queen, this time accompanied by their classmates Noelle and Berdly. As with the previous chapter, there’s tons of fun writing mixed with genuine sentimental moments, along with some new worldbuilding that better defines the setting and what’s at stake.

There’s a weird little puppet man that basically became a meme. He is also somewhat horrifying and sad. That’s a Toby Fox character, to me.

In defiance of the linear nature of the previous chapter, Chapter 2 features a hidden path that drastically changes the tone of the story. However, it’s not like the No Mercy path of Undertale, which was a commentary on violence and players that are willing to destroy what they love for the sake of finding More Content. It instead reads as a – honestly more realistically terrifying – narrative of being an abuser, where you have Kris manipulates Noelle toward violence and makes her dependent on them – while it’s also implied that you, the player, are forcing the sentient player character down a path they don’t want. Normal!

BEST ART DIRECTION

3rd Place: Hypnagogia 無限の夢 Boundless Dreams – sodaraptor

In third place, we have sodaraptor’s Hypnagogia: Boundless Dreams, a PS1-styled game dream exploration in the vein of games like LSD: Dream Emulator.

As with its inspiration, the game has a low resolution style that supports the general dreamy atmosphere. Though, Hypnagogia‘s main strength lies in portraying a variety of settings to capture a broad spectrum of dreams. You have this vaguely creepy manor pictured above, you got the more fantastical dreams like a colorful swamp with talkative mushroom people, and the mundane turned unnerving like a distorted mall. Each world has its own distinct style and look while keeping within the limitations of PS1 sensibilities, which I think does a good job at showing the range of this developer, who as far as I could tell, mostly made the game on their own.

2nd Place: Chicory: A Colorful Tale – Finji

In second place is Chicory: A Colorful Tale, by Greg Lobanov, Alexis Dean-Jones, Lena Raine, Madeline Berger and A Shell in the Pit. It’s a fun sort of art direction, because it encourages you, the player, into contributing toward a direction.

In Chicory, you are the fan of the titular artist, and you must take up her paintbrush to repair the world when it’s suddenly drained of color. The world of Chicory was rendered into a big cute coloring book because of the disaster. How do you choose to color the world? Any way you want. You paint the world in as you go and use paint as abilities to traverse around. You can decorate the world further with doodles and decorations, if you want. You even get the opportunity to create your own paintings to recreate ones that were destroyed, taking the artwork into an original direction.

Participating in the game’s art direction yourself also ties into the game’s narrative. The player character has their own inadequacies regarding picking up Chicory’s mantle. Can you be as great of an artist as her? You can damn well try. In general, the game eases you toward becoming an artist and fighting the insecurities that comes with it. While I haven’t played the game myself, Leaf sure did. This is a game where the good art direction is also a good narrative direction.

1st Place: Cruelty Squad – Consumer Softproducts

And in first place, we have Cruelty Squad. So, “Best Art Direction” doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a traditionally good looking game, and Cruelty Squad spits in the face of tradition.

The game’s visual identity is apparent before starting the game proper, with a title screen of a messed up looking corpse inside of a simple yet grossly-textured car while 3D word art of the game’s title is splashed awkwardly over it, all framed within a weird UI picture frame. Going into the actual game is hardly any better, with a world that’s utterly grotesque and off-putting – but deliberately so.

Within the context of the story, it makes sense for Cruelty Squad to look this way because the world is a mutated mess from emerging technologies and overconsumption. Cruelty Squad captures the essence of all that, with glitzy colors mashing with grime and locations that could be ordinary getting twisted with garish textures or Weird Platforming. It’s a game that figuratively and literally oozes confidence in how it presents itself, just not giving a fuck about tradition because it’s not as if its world cares about that.

BEST SOUNDTRACK

This was a stressful category because one game just completely dominated it. The poll was more of a competition to see what came in second than anything else. It’s also stressful for me because talking about music is my weakest point.

3rd Place: Unbeatable [white label] – D-Cell Games

And in third place was Unbeatable – or more specifically, Unbeatable [white label], a standalone side story to the upcoming rhythm game by D-Cell Games. It’s a world where music is illegal, and one girl aims to fight back through rhythm action gameplay.

[white label]‘s OST is a sort of fusion of garage rock with peppy vocals, which captures the rebellious feelings of the narrative and the bright anime aesthetic. If [white label]‘s a good indication of what to expect from Unbeatable, rhythm game fans will be in for a good time.

2nd Place: Rhythm Doctor – Hafiz Azman

Beating that, it shouldn’t be shocking that fellow rhythm game Rhythm Doctor comes back in. Rhythm Doctor‘s got a variety of different tunes to match the situations they’re used in. From the calm yet despondent song of a musician that finds it hard to work on things to a glitchy remix of a past song representing technical difficulties treating the patient on your end, provides more than 20 levels of original bangers.

And of course, though not part of the official soundtrack, your enjoyment of Rhythm Doctor can be extended with custom levels with new music.

1st Place: Deltarune: Chapter 2 – Toby Fox

And in first place – winning more than half the votes- is Deltarune. You know Toby Fox, you love Toby Fox, and he’s back again with the hits. Tying into the new cyber-themed Darkner world the cast find themselves in, there’s a bigger focus on chiptune and electronic music than there was with the previous chapter. Some of the songs are collaborations with other famed indie game composer Lena Raine, so you know that you’ve got some Good Stuff with this soundtrack.

MOST INTERESTING

3rd Place: Get in the Car, Loser! – Love Conquers All Games

In third, we have Love Conquers All’s Get in the Car, Loser! Cultists threaten the world and the main government is too liberal to meaningfully fight against them, so four rebels set out on a road trip to take them down, fighting monsters and hanging out all the way. It’s like if Final Fantasy XV focused on the “car trip with the boys” aspect that people liked more than the actual story, except with femmes and explicitly gay tension.

The game is notably pay-what-you-want, with a big expansion, Battle On the Big Boardwalk, acting as an incentive. You know how anime nerds complain about beach filler episodes? This is a canon beach episode, where a fun divergence gets serious when the team’s mystical sword gets stolen. But I think this perfectly embodies the sensibilities of Get in the Car, Loser!: an RPG where its characters have fun together, even in light of serious circumstances.

2nd Place: Cruelty Squad – Consumer Softproducts

In second place, we have Cruelty Squad. It already feels unique out the gate with its completely unorthodox art direction, but it plays a lot with the conventions of what you’d expect in an FPS.

The creator himself posted the above picture and I feel that it’s actually a pretty apt description. The levels in Cruelty Squad feel less like shooter levels and more like big open platforming levels – especially a particular endgame one. It really does feel like you’re being plopped into Mario 64 levels, or in some cases, setpieces in surreal walkaround games in the vein of LSD: Dream Emulator that shows up pretty often on itch.io. This disconnect between levels and the actual genre helps fuel the game’s uncanny feel – especially since it all actually works.

Also, again, what other FPS has a fishing minigame, let alone a surprisingly extensive one? In what other FPS can you access a stock market on the fly to sell organs that you’ve legitimately acquired?

1st Place: Inscryption – Daniel Mullins Games

But in number one, we have Inscryption, by Daniel Mullins Games. The developer was previously known for Pony Island, an arcade game that morphs into a horror puzzle game – which I think is a good indicator of what to expect with Inscryption.

Inscryption is a fascinating game because it takes the roguelike deck-builder genre – a popular game genre in the past few years, especially with the emergence of Slay the Spire – and combines it with other elements to take it in a unique direction. The atmosphere of the game is creepy with the ambience and the host’s narrating like this is some table-top game, sure, but then you draw the Stoat card and it begins talking to you. Beyond the stylings of the setting, the card game itself seems to be cursed, with the Stoat being someone cursed into that form – and that will be your fate too, if you lose.

And it turns out that it’s a game within a game, because you can get up from the table when a fight isn’t going and explore the cabin you’re forced to play in. There are puzzles to do around the cabin that advance the mysterious plot or get you more cards into the card game part. These layers of intrigue elevate what could have just been a normal roguelike into a really fascinating experience – in fact, the card-game roguelike could even be seen as secondary to the narrative Inscryption tries to tell.

And well, if you’re just in it for the card roguelike part, there’s going to be an Inscryption update that gives a mode that’s just the card game. But honestly, I feel that if you’re only in it for the card game, you’re missing the forest for the trees.

GAME OF THE YEAR

And now, (drum rolls) it’s the Game of the Year, where I declare what was the best indie games this year (whispers) according to what was nominated and what got the most votes, shh.

3rd Place: Cruelty Squad – Consumer Softproducts

In third place, it’s Cruelty Squad! It’s a game that’s fairly representative our time. In fact, it’d probably make fun of NFT people too if that started up while the game was still in active development. Like honestly, the ugliness of Cruelty Squad is rather prescient with the big number of nerds obsessed with buying and re-selling JPEGs of the ugliest pictures you’ve ever seen.

As an FPS, it’s kinda hard, at least from a novice’s standpoint. You will have Power in Misery for a long time. But it’s a game with a strong, unapologetic identity that you can’t help but appreciate, even if you’re not into the FPS genre. And really, in a never-ending sea of games where I continue to drown in a backlog that grows forever, having a strong identity is fantastic.

2nd Place: OMORI – Omocat

In second place, it’s OMORI. It’s not everyday a game that was seemingly stuck in limbo to actually come out, and it’s not everyday that it comes out to big acclaim with a fancy Switch port on the horizon.

Though, while it’s also my favorite thing from this year, I do have to acknowledge that it’s a bit of a problematic fave. Like, Omocat was a Weirdo years ago and while I don’t know if she’s the same today and I don’t think that it reflects into the game (if it did, OMORI would not be here), I get why people would be uncomfortable with that. But when it comes to material harm, there’s the fact that Pedro Silva/Slimegirls, who composed most of the music for the soundtrack, is a self-admitted abuser, which is something that I only knew after playing the game and their behavior is still something that most people don’t know and would be uncomfortable with.

Like, there’s a reason why OMORI was not in Best Soundtrack. So, if you’re still into the game, I sincerely say that you shouldn’t support the soundtrack at all.

1st Place: Deltarune: Chapter 2 – Toby Fox

And finally, the game that’s been decided by voters to be the best indie game of this year, the game that you’ve probably been expecting by now: Deltarune Chapter 2.

Overall, Deltarune Chapter 2 is a pretty strong game by all metrics. It’s a fantastic continuation of the story that Toby Fox dropped on everyone that one Halloween a long time ago, it’s got a great look, it’s got a banging soundtrack, it’s not weighed down by anything negative outside of the game itself, etc.

Notably, Deltarune Chapter 2 was released for free, as a little gift for the trying times we’ve been in. It’s awfully generous for a quality release, and it’s something that Toby Fox acknowledges. So, let’s close things off with his words:

“Just one request – please remember, games like this aren’t normally free. If you can afford it, spend the money you saved from getting this game for free by supporting other indie devs.”

…So, you heard him! Take the time and money (if you got it) to support the other games on this list – or just support other games in general! I got a thread of recommendations made up of things I looked at for the site, but maybe be on the look-out for recommendations from other people if you want a better variety in stuff, like Spacetwinks.

Honestly, this was a pretty miserable year, both in general and personally. In fact, while I was typing this up, I learned that I may have possibly been exposed to COVID, which ain’t good! I don’t know if things will get better, but we at least have each other and cool video games, and that at least means something, right?

Anyway, thank you all for another year. Good vibrations.

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