Friday, November 29

Top 20 Indie Story-Driven Games on Nintendo Switch

While gameplay should always reign supreme in great games there’s certainly a valid place for a compelling narrative to back it up. These games are the ones that I’ve been the most interested in or even moved by over the course of playing through my catalog on Switch. Not all will be tear-jerkers (some definitely are), but all of them have some element in their narrative that’s unique, interesting, and worth checking out if you’re up for something deeper than the surface level. As always the goal is to get broad representation of taste and style here so the list has been curated with diversity in mind.

The Gardens Between - When we first saw footage of this title in one of the Nindie Directs it was already clear that the game was brilliant visually. What's great is that those amazing visuals then paired with a touching story about friendship told without words and some of the most unusual and fascinating puzzle designs I've seen in quite some time. The time shifting mechanic is put to great use throughout, and by the end you'll really need to pay close attention to every detail to figure out how to make it work to proceed. Among many great stories told this year it's one of the most relatable of the bunch and is paired with a creative puzzle style.

GRIS - A tricky thing with story-driven and emotional games is that typically the more powerful they are the more their gameplay mechanics tend to suffer. That's very much not the case for GRIS, another terrific story told without words, outstanding visual design, and surprisingly satisfying puzzle platforming as well. I always enjoy puzzles that push you but don't break you and make you feel smart when you figure them out and this is something it manages effortlessly for the most part. It's a feast for the senses that is highly recommended.

Last Day of June - While it has play elements that make it feel like an adventure what makes Last Day of June most compelling is the roller coaster of emotions it takes you through as you play it. Given the opportunity to try to alter the events that lead to your wife's untimely death you'll work to save her, finding that fate can be extremely difficult to avoid. Ending with an emotional punch, this is a game well worth experiencing.

Figment - While a pretty solid action puzzler with strange characters and some great original music it’s the game’s somewhat sad family-oriented story and small moments that touched me as a parent. Trapped in the subconscious and trying to repair the damage done by a horrible accident, Figment will make you think more than fight and is full of wonder and terrific hand drawn art at every turn.

Night in the Woods - Returning from a failed attempt at going to college you'll play the part of Mae, a young woman with a checkered past who returns to her home town to live with her parents. Though in terms of pure gameplay it's all pretty basic, consisting of exploring and small mini games for the most part, what's compelling here are the characters. Exploring depression, the plight of small towns in decay, and a variety of other themes Night in the Woods is a pretty unique experience with interesting characters and stories to tell.

Bastion - While people with access to other systems may well have played Bastion before since it's been around for a number of years, it still is absolutely a great title that doesn't feel at all dated on the Switch. Very much an action-oriented RPG similar to a classic like Secret of Mana, in Bastion you'll slowly accumulate a variety of weapons that you can then upgrade and customize your combat with as they each make the game play pretty differently. While the art is fantastic its the solid gameplay and the ever-present narrator, telling the game's story in real time, that make it a memorable title.

Katana Zero - Katana ZERO was absolutely one of the best games of 2019 and I’d be shocked it if didn’t end up in my Top 10 (and those of many others as well) for the year. While it is perhaps a bit too heavy to be a wide mainstream title, its constant focus on changing up the formula and never letting you get very comfortable is quite an accomplishment. Throw on a narrative begging to be revisited in search of greater understanding of all of the story beats and it also has a surprising degree of replayability on that front as well. As a whole it is an experience without a peer on the system and serves up a handful of intense and creative insanity well worth experiencing.

Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf - Very much the dark horse on this list Joe Dever's Lone Wolf is just a thoroughly different kind of experience. Playing out like a mix of a Choose Your Own Adventure story and mixing choices you make in the story with action sequences you'll then fight out connected to the story beats it's thoroughly unique. The combat itself also takes some getting used to but once it clicks I also found it to be pretty engaging. While it won't be for everyone I appreciate its attempt to strike out on a path of its own and would be thrilled to see a sequel with some refinements.

Transistor - As the follow-up to Bastion, Transistor has some of the same base elements as an action-oriented RPG but they're very different games with very different play styles. In Transistor you'll gain enhancements you can then manage and combine in a variety of ways to produce very different effects. The ability to stop time and plot out the attacks that you'll then execute also gives the game a far more tactical feel to help differentiate it. Also featuring terrific art, it is this time paired with some exceptional music to complement the on-screen action.

Cinders - Pretty well instantly upon finishing my initial version of this story I was compelled to start up and try another path as there are quite a number of key decisions I can imagine would greatly affect the outcome. While my choices lead to Cinders becoming Queen, and very much the equal of her husband, they also made her a bit cold and loveless, which given some choices I’d made ended up being a realistic end. That ended up being the kicker for my enjoyment I think, the element of finding success but at what cost that permeated parts of the game. Overall, if you’re a fan of interactive fiction, strong characters, and choices that carry consequence I’d say this one is well worth checking out.

The World Next Door - As the final credits rolled The World Next Door felt like a satisfying experience on the whole but I was also left with questions. I suppose that could be the goal, to encourage people to play through again making different decisions and see what would happen, but given minimal feedback from the game on the effect of what you chose to do or say it’s hard to be confident enough would change to make it worthwhile. I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure the game took me on, and the characters I got to interact with along the way, I just wish the story’s conclusion was more clearly a culmination of my choices, good and bad, somehow.

Old Man’s Journey - I’d say the moral of Old Man’s Journey relates well in a somewhat tangential way to my thoughts on reviewing games. Your time is precious, so be sure to make the most of it and try not to give yourself things to regret. The further along in your own life and experiences you are the easier it is to recommend it wholeheartedly as its story will likely hit you quite a few ways right in the feels. The younger you are it is probably harder to justify since that shifts more responsibility to the adequate-but-not-incredble puzzle aspects of it. Old Man’s Journey fits well into the Switch library with its own distinct story to tell complemented by outstanding art and satisfying puzzles.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter - When a game starts up showing a warning that establishes it isn’t meant to hold your hand I’ll admit my “Ruh Roh Raggy” meter tends to go off the charts. There’s something to be said for discovering a game in your own way and time and if you don’t mind the frustrations that can come with that Vanishing is an unusual, unnerving, and unconventional adventure. Be ready to explore, adapt, and challenge yourself with the reward being what feels like random breadcrumbs that help to slowly begin to paint a picture of what has happened and who is involved. If you give it some patience and your full attention it can be rewarding, just be warned you may be tempted to hit some guides to figure out what you’re doing wrong as you can be prone to getting stuck.

Abzu - Moving a bit further into the abstract you have Abzu, a game that relates the framework of a story with no words and that may be lacking in action but delivers a thoroughly unique experience nevertheless. You'll swim through environments, solving puzzles along the way, and exploring the areas you find yourself in. Calming in almost a meditative way, Abzu is just thoroughly different and worth a look if you're open to something that tilts more towards and experience than a game.

My Memory of Us - Overall, this is yet another great visually-impressive puzzle adventure to add to the Switch library. The art and the narration of Patrick Stewart peppered throughout are absolutely the highlight, but there’s also an abundance of small and quirky details in the kids interactions with others that amused me as well. Despite the dire circumstances they found themselves in, their teamwork and determination saved the day and created a meaningful bond between them. If you’re looking for a new adventure that will challenge your mind and leave a lasting impression with its story, this will be a terrific fit.

Late Shift - I must say that on pretty well all levels Late Shift is an amazing exercise in interactive storytelling. While I’d imagined it would be a lot like The Bunker, sharing quite a bit in common with the likes of laser disc games ala Dragon’s Lair and its ilk, it instead has made an appropriate generational leap ahead. Nothing will change the fact that your ability to interact with and control the events taking place in the game is limited, but it is all handled so deftly, and without hesitation, that you get much more immersed in the story. The fact that the production values and acting are easily on par with even middle of the road TV and movies then pulls you in even further. I think that Late Shift really represents the future vision people dreamed about when they were making those original FMV games, and that if more titles at this level of quality continue to be made it is a genre set for a comeback.

Moon Hunters - All said, Moon Hunters is an ambitious and well-executed exercise in storytelling as much as it is in implementing the game’s action. I found the change of pace to be refreshing, and the presentation and imagery helped establish lore without it just being a bunch of gibberish written to the screen as some games have done. There’s a care and attention to detail to it all that I hope people will give a chance and discover, but I can see where people may give it a rough playthrough or two and decide to move on as well. If you’ve been looking for something that sets itself apart from most of the games of its kind out there, even if it may not meet all of its goals, Moon Hunters is a worthy attempt worth giving a try.

Neo Cab - When it comes to cyberpunk stories/adventures who knew that the Switch would slowly end up with a collection of them of sorts? I suppose the neon-tinged visuals and semi-futuristic settings that are then possible allow for exploring slightly different narrative territory, and that’s something that Neo Cab does well. Moving to a big city with some emotional baggage, but hoping to rekindle love, you character Lina is a cab driver just trying to make a living. Throw in the complications of your love life, an overarching theme of trying to fight back against the tidal wave of automation replacing human workers, and an eclectic mix of characters you’ll encounter as your fares and Neo Cab creates an interesting world to inhabit for a little while. The degree of agency you have in making choices also sets the stage for replayability, letting people who are curious explore a variety of outcomes and get the most out of the title.

80 Days - Though the act of traversing the world is no longer such a grand feat in the time of Jules Verne, when he wrote Around the World in 80 Days, it was by no means a simple feat. 80 Days puts you in the driver’s seat (well, not literally, you’re generally a passenger) and tasks you with pulling off the title feat, using a mix of smarts, luck, and careful management of your time and money to pull it off yourself. If you’re not a fan of reading a lot of text this won’t be the game for you, but it is essential to fleshing out your adventure, winding in some intrigue and plenty of details to mine for hints on your best bets for getting around quickly and minding your budget. With so many potential routes to choose from there’s actually ample room for replay as well, by making a few different choices early on you can embark on very different journeys to not only try to do better but simply enjoy more of this richly written world.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons - Whether played solo or with a friend Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons makes for a thoughtful and generally satisfying puzzle adventure. The world and its characters are generally endearing, the puzzles simply have a different and more organic feel than much of the competition, and though it may not be a long journey it also doesn’t overstay its welcome. Throw in a fair amount of heart all along the way and it’s well worth enjoying on Switch.

This list will continue to grow and be pruned as time goes on, as well as numerous other lists that try to keep track of all of the best titles the Nintendo Switch has to offer in the Indie space!