With so many big-name games that come out each month, it can be hard to remember the little guys that make their way onto PCs and consoles in between the big releases: indie games. While some indie games do make their way into the spotlight, others sadly get left behind in the dust, and that’s a real shame because there are plenty of indie games that offer interesting twists on old mechanics, or even mechanics that we may not have seen altogether. I’m here to shed some light on some of those mechanics and what makes them so interesting.
1 – Cultist Simulator
Cultist Simulator, brought to you by the creator of Fallen London and Sunless Sea, is a whirlwind blend of resource management, card game, and Lovecraftian story adventure. The main draw of the game is exactly what the title suggests, yet at the same time is wholly different from what you might expect; yes, you are “simulating” your own cult, but how does it get started? Do you start your in-game life as a nurse, tending to a patient with mad ravings and rantings that lead you to the start of enlightenment? Or do you perhaps start as an average Joe, working nine to five, until a complete stranger wills you funds and notes, which sets you on a journey to find a mysterious bookshop?
Time is ticking, however, as this game plays in real-time. Yes, you have to develop your cult, but you also have to eat, lest you succumb to sickness. Sometimes your actions draw the attention of the authorities, and laying low for a while might be your only option to survive. You have to place the right cards in the right slots in order to achieve success, something that does not come easily when faced down with multiple ticking clocks that all require your attention right now.
The game is tense, tough, and evokes a sense of mysticism that draws you in to attempt an alternative route. While there is no tutorial to teach you the ropes, throwing yourself headfirst into the demon that is Cultist Simulator can be rewarding once you finally figure out some of the gears that make its clock tick.
2 – The Metronomicon: Slay The Dance Floor
No, I swear this doesn’t have anything to do with the last game. Yes, it does have something to do with slaying monsters to the sick beats of one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a rhythm game. The Metronomicon: Slay The Dance Floor is not just a rhythm game where hitting a note means attacking a monster, however; the player controls a party of four heroes, each with their own track of notes that you can switch to at any time. Hitting enough notes in a row allows you to activate your selected character’s first ability, and getting more notes allows you to activate their second ability, and even more notes go up to a third ability. Switching between characters while enough notes have been hit to activate one ability immediately casts it upon moving to another character, meaning instead of having to hit twenty notes to always do a character’s biggest attack, you can instead switch early to perform a smaller, but much faster, attack.
The differences from most other rhythm games don’t stop there, however, as the monsters themselves have a few tricks up their sleeves (do owlbears have sleeves?). Some enemy attacks apply statuses you might expect, such as bleeding to lose health over time, whereas others are more unique to something only a rhythm-RPG could provide, like a dizzying effect that makes note prompts wobble down the screen, making it more difficult to determine which note you should actually be hitting. Bosses and mini-bosses have their own mechanics as well, such as causing rocks to fall from the top of the screen over your characters. If you don’t switch tracks before a rock falls on your currently selected character, they’ll take massive damage — something you definitely don’t want while your healer is on cooldown from already healing the party once. Take too much damage to your party’s shared health bar and it’s game over, at least until you try again.
That’s one driving force behind The Metronomicon’s gameplay, though; if you fail a song, why not try again, but this time try a different party composition, or perhaps equip different skills to your heroes. If you like RPGs, rhythm games, and a bumping soundtrack, then definitely give this one a shot.
3 – Minit
What if you only had one minute to live? After your brief time is up, what if you only had one minute to live after that? Then after that? That’s the premise of Minit, a puzzle-adventure game that starts you off with picking up a cursed sword that only gives you a minute to live! At first, things seem directionless, cutting pieces of grass to explore some new areas. After a time things start to click together as you collect new items and complete tasks for the residents of the land. Kill some crabs for a resident, they give you a coffee that lets you push boxes. That lets you access a key to bring back to the lighthouse, better hurry or — aaand, you’re already dead. That’s fine, because you still have the coffee as well as the lighthouse key.
Slowly building up your stash of items feels rewarding, as does figuring out what to do with those items. A sense of progress is always present, thanks to everything being technically reachable in, well, a minute. The game isn’t too long, either, being just a few hours long if you sort of know what you’re doing and want to explore to find everything the game has to offer. So if you’ve got a spare minute, why not give Minit a shot?
4 – Darkest Dungeon
Darkest Dungeon might be the most well-known game on this list, having been around for some time now, thanks to starting in early access and delivering plenty of post-launch content for its players. Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawler with some light town management mechanics. Nothing too special there, right? What makes Darkest Dungeon different from other dungeon crawlers is the theme of the game, and some of the mechanics that are centered around it: despair.
The game itself doesn’t pull any punches, with its horrid enemies relentlessly assaulting you with attacks that not only drain your party’s health but their sanity as well. Traveling through a dungeon is itself stressful for your party members, and everyone knows that too much stress is a bad thing. If a character accumulates too much stress, one of two things can happen: they can either succumb to their despair and become inconsolable until the group leaves the dungeon, or they can find the sliver of hope through the madness and become beacons of light to the rest of the party. Should a despairing character max out their stress levels again they die of a heart attack, meaning your character’s mental health is just as important as their physical health, and you’ll have to maintain both.
There is a lot more to dig into with Darkest Dungeon; abilities, boss fights, trinkets, and especially character traits, both good and bad. The stress and what it does to your party is the biggest thematic point in the game, in my opinion, as no other dungeon crawler even comes close to demonstrating just how demoralizing and draining trudging through a dungeon is to a group of hired mercenaries.
5 – Pyre
Created by the same talented folks that conjured up Bastion and Transistor, Supergiant’s Pyre is a bit of a departure from their previous games, which were action-adventure games that tasked the player with exploring beautifully crafted worlds. Pyre still has an amazing world, don’t get me wrong, but instead of controlling one character tearing through dozens of enemies at once, you instead take the role of an exile, banished from your home and left to die in the wasteland far below. It isn’t long before you’re found by a small group of travelers, and thanks to your rare ability to read, you begin your adventure to lead your companions to redemption. Besides the lore and narrative choices you make along the journey, the other half of the game plays like a 3-on-3 RPG sports game.
You read correctly; this is almost a sports game in disguise. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise at first. Each rite the characters are tasked with carrying an orb to the opposing team’s pyre, weakening its flame. It isn’t quite that simple, however, as the enemy team is trying to do the same, and one does not simply walk into the opposing team’s “goal”. Characters have auras of varying sizes that can be manipulated in various ways. Should a character touch an opponent’s aura, they are temporarily banished from the battlefield, set to return some seconds later. The same goes for when a “goal” is scored; the character scoring the goal is out of the next round entirely, putting you at a disadvantage unless you really know what you’re doing.
The game starts simple and introduces you to more varied characters and abilities as time goes on. It’s surprisingly strategic for what sounds like a very simple idea, and team compositions can lead to very whacky matches that have you on the edge of your seat, passing the orb between players until you finally slam dunk that orb into the opponent’s pyre for the last time, securing your victory. Pyre is a game of low energy narrative that escalates into high energy sports gameplay, then back down to the narrative. It’s a wild ride, and for anyone that enjoys deep lore with truly unique gameplay, this one’s for you.
So what did you think? Are there any games with unique mechanics that should be on the list? Or an indie game with familiar mechanics that does something entirely different from what we already know? Let us know in the comments!