The games industry is on fire. Countless layoffs, anxiety and strife abound. Despite that, 2023 is probably the best year I’ve ever seen for games themselves, with something new and exciting dropping every single day. Forget the award shows, we’re going hipster here—outside of the obvious indie must-haves of the year (such as Pizza Tower and Turbo Overkill) these are my personal candidates for indie GOTY, plus a few honorable mentions.
Best FPS: Vertigo 2 (VR only)
I love me some VR, but only one game for my future-goggles feels worthy of GOTY consideration. Vertigo 2 is heavily inspired by Half-Life, set in a quirky super-science facility overrun by aliens from a dozen different dimensions. What it lacks in graphical fidelity, it makes up for in scope and scale, with you traveling between various underground alien habitats. There's a forest centered around a colossal hollow alien tree that fights against you with humanoid sap-blobs, a subterranean ocean, and a robot city caught in the middle of a civil war where you get to pick which side to join.
It's a hefty ~12-hour campaign, feels every bit as good to play as Half-Life Alyx, and is arguably a more confident shooter with tons o' guns, each with their own tactile twist on reloading. I got a few good laughs out of the script, which puts a Rick & Morty-esque spin (albeit with a bit less cynical edginess) on the multiversal chaos. It would be a stunning production from a mid-scale studio, but Vertigo 2 is almost all the work of one guy, and he started development on the game as a teen. I'm still not quite sure how this is possible.
Vertigo 2 was great at launch, but the recent 'Bottomless' content update really pushed it into GOTY territory. There are now three extra playable characters each with their own gimmicks, a slew of mutators to spice up New Game Plus runs, and a fully integrated level editor and sharing system, giving it absurd replay value. You can even make and upload levels without ever leaving VR.
It's also worth picking up Vertigo Remastered, a comprehensive remake of the old n' clunky original using Vertigo 2's engine. At around four hours long, it's a great warm-up for the beefy sequel.
Don't have a VR setup but want another weird, silly solo-dev FPS adventure where you fight hordes of bizarre aliens? Gotcha covered: Zortch is a short but sweet gem, heavily inspired by N64 shooters like Turok, and fully leaning into retro spacey weirdness. The guns are offbeat and fun to use, there's lots of oddball creatures to splatter with them, and the level design is great at keeping things moving.
My only complaint is that Zortch is only a few hours long… a gripe completely undermined by the game only costing five bucks and coming with a level editor. There's an expansion in the works, too!
Best Platformer: Gravity Circuit
A heartfelt tribute to the (wildly underrated, IMO) Mega Man Zero series, but also a fantastic fast-moving platformer in its own right. Driven forward by an earwormy soundtrack (I can still hum half the level themes) and eye-catching thanks to its cute Game Boy Colour-style limited palette, Gravity Circuit could easily pass for a long-lost Capcom or Inti Creates game. It's using the classic Mega Man structure—beat the bosses, steal their special moves, save the day—and every level is a joy to navigate, thanks to snappy controls, level gimmicks that are almost never repeated and a satisfying and intuitive grappling hook in place of a gun.
That hook is also the heart of Gravity Circuit's combat. After a few satisfying punches and kicks, enemies are stunned for a moment before exploding, opening them up to being grappled then yeeted at the next enemy to do enormous damage. In turn, that'll probably stun them, giving you yet another victim to snare and lob. It's easy to get into a flow state where you're just chaining one encounter into another, bowling each enemy into the next. It feels so very good that I often replayed levels immediately after completing them, just to be smoother than last time.
It's not a huge game, but secret hunters will find a whole mess of optional areas with robot friends to rescue and bonus items to hoard. Fans of the original GBA Zero series might also want to consider cranking the difficulty up to Hard right off the bat. Normal mode, while a lot of fun, is tuned towards your average modern player, delivering minimal frustration. Hard mode takes off the gloves, adding extra enemies and giving the bosses a few extra tricks.
Runner-up: Rusted Moss
Were it not for Gravity Circuit's toe-tapping tunes, Rusted Moss would have had its crown. Another grappling hook-centric platformer, this time a surprisingly non-linear Metroidvania with springy, physics-driven movement and a uniquely grim story about the twilight of mankind, end of technology and the return of fairy magic to the world. Just to make things interesting, you're on the side of the fae.
Anyone who has read any old-school fairy tales knows that the fae are arseholes, and incredibly dangerous.
Best Boundless Obsession: Void Stranger
Previously featured here (by me!), I figured this cute Game Boy styled puzzler would only take me an afternoon or two, considering the studio’s previous game was a short arcade shmup. One month and fifty hours of brain-strain later (though I’ve seen smarter players do it in 30-40), I've finally witnessed the true, spectacular finale of this game. It was worth it. Not to say I've seen everything (there is a seemingly never-ending rabbit hole of secrets and easter eggs), but the final credits have rolled.
Weeks later, I'm still thinking about it. No longer do Void Stranger's Sokoban-style block-swapping puzzles haunt my dreams, but its characters, themes, music, twists and mysteries have burrowed deep into my brain and feel like they’ve become permanent residents. Watching other people stream the game is a joy too, as every player seems to find their own route through its surprisingly non-linear puzzle dungeon, and come to different story revelations at different times. It’s a very smart game that trusts players to think for themselves and make their own intuitive leaps when they're ready.
Despite its narrative unfurling into a JRPG-scale epic, Void Stranger mechanically remains a relatively straightforward block-pushing puzzler (almost) the whole way through. If you're on the fence as to whether you can stomach that, I recommend TieTuesday's stream of the first 90 minutes—it features no real spoilers and only the first glimpses of its greater mysteries. If that leaves you hungry for more, I highly recommend it. You'll be eating good for weeks.
Runner-up: Rain World: Downpour
I took a deeper dive on this sprawling bit of DLC earlier this year, and mods have only since improved it. Good as Phantom Liberty was, I still feel Rain World: Downpour should win 2023's Best Expansion award. A colossal collaboration between the cult survival-sim platformer's modding community and original developers, resulting in closer to a sequel than DLC. Effectively tripling the game’s length, depth and scope, it takes an already mesmerizing (if deeply hostile) world and transforms it into a place you could live in.
For those put off by the original game's brutal difficulty, the patch accompanying Downpour's release adds a slew of options to ease up on the pressure. Personally, I think the game is at its best when the slightest twitch in the long grass prompts a fight-or-flight response.
And one more...
Lastly, a bonus final shout-out to my underdog indie pick of 2022, Astlibra Revision. Now with an improved translation, a Switch port and some hefty DLC on the way.