Two thousand and twenty has been a year. A global pandemic has kept much of the world population isolated in their homes, giving those of us lucky enough to have access to videogames plenty of time to play them. That same pandemic has also made it difficult for studios of all sizes to publish the videogames we love to play. Despite this, it was still a year of solid releases. As has become my habit, I’d like to look back at the five indie releases this year I think are most worth owning on the Nintendo Switch.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition
Cardboard Computer/Annapurna Interactive
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition is a narrative adventure set in rural Kentucky. I begin the story following Conrad, a delivery driver for an antique store about to make his final delivery before he is laid off. The delivery address is on Dogwood Drive, a location Conrad cannot find on his map. Stopping for directions, Conrad is directed to the subterranean Kentucky Route Zero. The rest of the story follows his long journey along the strange and mysterious Route Zero and the broken people he encounters along the way.
Playing Kentucky Route Zero is difficult to describe. In simplest terms, I choose a scripted response to what has just happened and the plot continues based on my choice. To describe what its narrative is about is much more complicated. It dips into magical realism, southern gothic, the new weird, slipstream, folk tales, ghost stories, urban legends, and many more storytelling styles practiced throughout the United States. No two sections are quite the same. The character I control can change between scenes or even between sentences, at times feeling more like experimental theater than like a videogame.
In the four yearly lists I’ve written so far and the twenty videogames included on them, Kentucky Route Zero is the most challenging one I have ever selected. By that I don’t mean it’s difficult, I mean it’s not a traditionally fun one. It captures a despairing mood of life in the rural United States that few other videogames have managed, if any. I want you to play this not because I believe you’ll enjoy it, though I hope you do, but because I believe it’s important.
Read my full Kentucky Route Zero review here.
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling
Moonsprout Games/DANGEN Entertainment
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is an RPG set in a world of anthropomorphized insects called Bugaria. Elizant I, the ant kingdom’s queen, has fallen into an enchanted sleep, so Elizant II forms an Explorers’ Association to seek the Everlasting Sapling, a legendary tree whose leaves may revive her mother. My RPG team consists of misfits thrust together because nobody else will have them: a honey bee named Vi, a beetle named Kabbu, and a moth named Leif. Dubbed Team Snakemouth following their unlikely first success, the trio undertake the quest for the Everlasting Sapling while upending the politics of Bugaria along the way.
Vi, Kabbu, and Leif’s unique abilities are utilized to make Bug Fables engaging to play both when I am exploring its world and combating its hostile denizens. Out of combat, Vi’s Beemerang lets her strike distant targets and switches, Kabbu pushes objects with his horn, and Leif uses ice magic to freeze objects or create small platforms over deadly water. In combat, Vi’s Beemerang can knock flyers to the ground, Kabbu’s horn can pierce tough defenses, and Leif’s ice magic can lock down dangerous enemies. Their team dynamic creates a great world to explore and it only grows deeper as they increase in power and learn new skills.
The elevator pitch for Bug Fables is it’s indie Paper Mario starring bugs, but to dismiss it as a clone of a more popular series is a mistake. It borrows Paper Mario’s visual aesthetic but only uses its systems as a basis for its own, expanding and refining them to create something deeper. It treats its world seriously and treats me with some of the most finely-balanced RPG combat I have experienced in years.
Read my full Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling review here.
Thunder Lotus Games
Spiritfarer is a management videogame about caring for the spirits of the dead until they are ready to pass on into the afterlife. I help a young woman named Stella as she assumes the mantle of the Spiritfarer and sets out on a ship into a vast purgatorial sea. By visiting the islands that dot this sea, I can find spirits who are almost ready to pass on but have a few final tasks they need to take care of. Once aboard the ship, I help the spirits with their last wishes while also tending to their needs. Every spirit needs a place to sleep, a daily meal, and will also request other amenities to keep them happy. If I can keep a spirit’s mood up and complete all their requests, then they will be ready to pass through the Everdoor into the afterlife.
As a management videogame, there is always something to do in Spiritfarer. While traveling between destinations across the sea, I can occupy my time with a long list of activities. Spirits under my care need to be fed once a day, so the ship’s kitchen is always cooking one of dozens of recipes. When I run low on cooking ingredients, I can fish off the ship’s stern to replenish my supplies. I can also grow fruits and vegetables in orchards and gardens. I can use the loom to weave thread and fabric, use the windmill to grind flour, or use the forge to smelt ore, all needed to construct new buildings and craft presents to please the spirits. There’s never time to stand still but the pressure is gentle. No spirit will ever abandon ship, and if I’m less efficient juggling the ship’s activities than another player the only consequence is Spiritfarer will take me longer to finish.
Spiritfarer’s creators describe it as “the cozy management game about death” and that’s a great description. It addresses a heady and serious topic in a breezy and relaxing way. It’s also gorgeously animated, the spirits’ reactions to Stella’s efforts masterfully captured by hand-drawn traditional animation. Spiritfarer is a soulful pick for players looking for a little more exploration to go with their management activities.
Read my full Spiritfarer review here.
Hades is an action videogame about Zagreus, the son of Hades (the Greek god), and his attempts to escape from Hades (the Greek underworld). I help Zagreus fight from his father’s palace at Hades’ bottom-most depths up through Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium, and through the surface gates. Determined to keep Zagreus in Hades, his father’s army tries to stop me. Luckily I am aided by Zagreus’ cousins in the Greek pantheon who empower him with new abilities in every new room during my escape. This is almost enough to help, but I will still die many times in the attempt, always returning to his father’s palace in Hades’ depths equipped with more knowledge, skill, power, and determination to help in the next attempt. But the more I try to escape, the more unasked questions are revealed: Why does Zagreus’ father want to keep him imprisoned, and what will happen to Hades if he escapes?
I don’t like using this word, but I will in this one case for the sake of brevity: Hades is the videogame that finally made roguelites cool. It is credited with making the protagonist’s death and subsequent revival at the dungeon’s beginning a part of the story—which is unfair, as Hades is not the first roguelite to do this. But there’s no denying that Hades does it better than most. The underworld’s denizens have new exchanges with Zagreus each time he dies, their relationship with him deepening over time. It takes many visits to complete each character’s subplot, continuing even long after I have helped Zagreus finally escape. These characters are sympathetic and well-written, making repeated death an appealing prospect and not a tedious grind.
Hades incorporates the favorite design tropes of its developer, Supergiant Games. I felt right at home with its faux-isometric view, array of weapons, equippable trinkets, difficulty modifiers, and a codex that slowly fills in as I reach certain milestones in plot and progression. It’s not my favorite roguelite, but it’s probably the best one released in 2020, and certainly the first to achieve mass appeal.
Happy Ray Games/Humble Games
Ikenfell is an RPG about a girl named Maritte who travels to the magic school Ikenfell to investigate the disappearance of her sister Safina, the school’s star student. I help Maritte break through Ikenfell’s sealed gates to find the school grounds overrun by out-of-control spells that span from the classrooms to the libraries to the dormitories. Helping Maritte to gather a party of other student witches and wizards, I uncover a threat to the entire world that is somehow connected to Safina and an incident buried in Ikenfell’s past. In broad strokes, Ikenfell’s story isn’t much to get excited about, but its particular strengths lie in the tension between the students and the staff. How Ikenfell’s plot unfolds is predictable; how the characters relate with each other is not.
Ikenfell introduces strategic elements to typical turn-based RPG mechanics. I must move a three-person team around a grid in order for their spells, which have various ranges and areas of effect, to hit their targets, while also avoiding attacks from enemies who have similarly varying capabilities. Each spell is accompanied by an elaborate animation and I may increase the spell’s power by pressing the action button at key points during the cast, or fizzle some spells entirely by pressing with poor timing. It’s an efficient battle system that challenges me without being unfair, though there are difficulty modifiers available for players unable to master its timing mechanics.
I believe Ikenfell will be best remembered for its diverse cast which draws from a range of races, genders, and sexualities without making these identities integral to the plot’s conflict. Instead what threatens Ikenfell’s world is the same thing that threatens our own: weakness from its leaders and misunderstanding from those they lead. Ikenfell is an empowering experience that defies its simple graphics and familiar setting.
Read my full Ikenfell review here.