Thursday, December 31

Top 30 / Best Indie Story-Driven Games on Nintendo Switch


[Last Updated: 12/31/2020] 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.


Spiritfarer - While many gamers enjoy blowing away enemies, racing through hairpin turns, or guiding their team to victory there’s a growing contingent of gamers who either prefer or enjoy more soothing experiences. While there are a few notable titles in this space already on Switch none are quite like Spiritfarer, which combines exploration at sea with a variety of building and cultivation elements, a wide assortment of charming characters, and a generally gentle hand providing direction but placing no urgent demands on how you wish to play. You’ve been tasked with taking the responsibility of ferrying the dead to the afterlife from Charon himself, and most of your adventure will involve you putting together a ship worthy of the important task of making the final journey of the souls you help as pleasant as possible. Doing that will require quite an investment in crafting, cultivation, trading, and building relationships with the people you meet. It’s interesting how many of your activities are turned into sort of mini games, helping to at least give some of your repetitive tasks a little flavor and keeping you engaged throughout. While over the course of the pretty long journey there’s a tendency to fall into quite a bit of repetition if you’ve been looking for a meaningful journey without the pressures of your typical title this is likely an ideal fit.


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.


Shady Part of Me - There’s something pretty delightful when you encounter games that you’ve never previously heard of that, once you begin playing them, grab you and demand your attention until they’re completed. Shady Part of Me is a smart puzzle adventure of sorts with a story to tell and a fantastic hand-drawn art style that absolutely fits that bill, and what’s fascinating is that rather than having only one or two elements that stand out and are compelling it delivers a high degree of quality on all fronts. The story revolves around a young girl who appears to be institutionalized and troubled, with a slow trickle of hints to her overall condition doled out the further along you get. She’s not quite alone though as you’ll also alternatively take control of a shadow version of herself who is generally projected on the wall but sometimes the floor as well. Puzzles alternate between the 2D shadow space which plays as more of a puzzle platformer, and the 3D main space where you must often manipulate objects to change the placement and scale of the shadows on the wall that are either blocking your doppelganger or helping her to either proceed or nab origami birds as bonuses along the way. All of this happens in some of the most elaborate and often surreal hand drawn art environments I’ve seen in a game, and certainly never as well integrated into the puzzles. This all comes together to create an experience that’s utterly unique on the console and one I would highly recommend. 
 

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.


Knights and Bikes - Memories from my childhood, while often involving playing games on a variety of systems or in arcades, involve a pretty heavy dose of riding my bike and trying to find ways to make exploring fun. Knights and Bikes absolutely taps into that idea, pairing the somewhat unlikely friends Demelza and Nessa on the somewhat secluded island of Penfurzy. Aside from being a bit of an odd bird you’ll find that Demelza is struggling with being raised by only her father after the death of her mother. To help cope with that the answer is a grand adventure in the spirit of the likes of The Goonies, searching for a fabled treasure while trying to thwart an ancient threat possessing the people of the island. What the game does well is blend together some novel and fun combat with a hefty dose of exploration, as well as move effectively between lighthearted silliness and more reflective emotional moments. The result is an experience that sticks with you, which with so many titles out there vying for your attention can be tough to accomplish. While it’s playable as a solo experience it really does shine in co-op, though I’ll admit a few of the puzzles can require tricky leaps of faith that can be a challenge either way. That minor gripe aside this is a game with a load of laughs, childlike wonder, and heartfelt moments that’s absolutely worth your time.


Along the Edge - On a general level interactive fiction titles haven’t been my cup of tea. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate that such an experience could be game-like, having grown up reading Choose Your Own Adventure titles I appreciate a smart branching narrative, I’ve just not found that the level of quality in the writing and total package has been enough to get me fully engaged. With its story involving the mysterious legacy of your family that you’ve never really known, inheriting a small estate in a small town in the country, Along the Edge very much breaks that mold for me and did a phenomenal job of sucking me in. With high quality writing, characters that read as being complex and nuanced in their motivations and interactions, and terrific artwork that changes almost constantly it’s very visibly a project built with love and care. Sure, perhaps the generalized storyline isn’t so unique, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective and with many decisions that feel like they carry consequences there’s plenty of motivation to go back and try things out differently once you’re done. While it won’t deliver a shot of excitement you’d find with an action-oriented game if you’re a fan of smart fiction this should be well worth spending some time with.


Horace - Horace is an odd title in that much like the title character robot of the same name it is quite unassuming and humble but there’s so much more to it. In terms of the gameplay it’s mostly a smart puzzle platformer that puts up some challenge but is never too over-the-top taxing either. What makes it special though is the story of Horace and his “family”, which evolves from him being a curious sort of family “pet” to a meaningful and important member of it. There are so many magical moments of joy and sadness that feel unusual paired with the gameplay and yet given the quality of both there’s no room for complaint. Top that all off with mini games and a wide variety of surprises and though there’s not much outwardly sexy about the game’s name or main character to pull you in, rest assured it’s a real gem of an experience if you give it a shot. 
 

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.


198X - As a child of the 70s and 80s who spent an enormous amount of time in the arcades there’s no doubt 198X was made for me. I’m just getting my bias out of the way so you can take into account how it may color my generally positive perception of the game. In essence the game is a blend of the beginnings of the story (it is meant to be the first chapter in a bigger narrative) of Kid, a teenager approaching life’s crossroads and feeling the limits of the town they’re living in. With the discovery of a local arcade, and through the exploration of 5 different retro-styled games, that perspective begins to shift, providing confidence and vision of new possibilities. While perhaps it’s a bit frustrating how briefly you’ll be able to enjoy the title’s loving recreation of multiple classics and genres there are moments I had playing through them that helped me reconnect with the wonder of the experience of the arcade, not just as a collection of games to play but as a physical place that was somehow special. I’m absolutely looking forward to what is yet to come in future chapters and I would imagine anyone with a long-standing connection and affection for games will enjoy this celebration of arcade culture.


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.


Embracelet - This, for me, is one of those titles where it’s hard to articulate why I’m so taken in by it. With its low-poly look, its somewhat sparse landscapes (though perhaps such an island would be roughly that way, granted), and its riff on traditional point-and-click adventuring on paper it could just seem nice, but perhaps not great either. However, throw in a story that I found unusual and engaging, and it works better than the sum of those parts may imply. Early on you inherit a relic from your grandfather with the power to control objects, and learn that there was an accident at his hands when he was younger using it, causing him a degree of pain and regret. Your journey ends up being to go back to the island he grew up on, learn more about him and his past, and perhaps to understand where the relic came from and what should be done with it. There are quite a number of deeply emotional adventures on the Switch already, many of which are excellent in their own right, but there’s a different tugging I found this journey to have on me with different themes and a different approach. Mix in the fact that many of the puzzles felt pretty natural and yet unusual in some cases and I enjoyed this unassuming adventure title thoroughly.


Through the Darkest of Times - While games are a great vehicle for departing from reality and enjoying an escape they’ve increasingly been used as a means to put players in sometimes uncomfortable situations in order to convey ideas and foster greater understanding. Through the Darkest of Times does just that, putting you in the position of leading a group of rebels during the rise of Nazi Germany, challenging you to handle both the minutia of everyday tasks but then also often making the tougher calls involving who you choose to trust and what courses you may choose to pursue, and they often can have grave consequences. The difficulty is that as you play you’ll learn that simply trying to avoid risk won’t tend to be sustainable as you’ll lose the morale of your team and the safety net of your supporters, this means that caution always needs to be balanced by a degree of aggression, though choosing your battles and areas of focus is always worthwhile. In particular each member of your team has their own background, strengths, and weaknesses, and as you get into tougher situations you’ll need to be mindful of who you’re sending where in order to maximize your results. Of course all of the missions are interspersed with personal stories from your team members as well as encounters you’ll have yourself that will challenge your morality and whether you may need to endure one bad outcome in the name of preserving your overall mission. It’s a very unique experience and one that will leave you to ponder life in that place in that time… and hopefully provide perspective on how things have changed as well as how some remain disturbingly the same.  
 

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.


Röki - When you’re young your imagination can truly be a powerful (and sometimes scary) thing. Being fed by your parents, the media, or your friends it can be unusual what you can not only believe but also conceive around you. In the case of Röki it just so happens that the legendary stories and creatures young Tove’s mother had told her happen to be real. After an initial encounter with a huge troll she’s forced to abandon her father in order to make an escape with her younger brother. What follows is an adventure that explores the gorgeous and distinctly-drawn Nodic landscape as well as quite a number of its mythical creatures, both good and not so much. In general the puzzles here feel sensible, requiring some experimentation at times, but never really moving into the trap of being obtuse like many adventure titles struggle with. What really drives the game though is the emotional experience, seeing it all through Tove’s eyes as she struggles with the challenges around her. It’s well worth taking the time to enjoy for anyone looking for a genuine and unique .


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.


The Complex - Having played “interactive movie” style games since way back when CD-ROMs first allowed them to exist with the likes of classics like The 7th Guest and Phantasmagoria (among others) it has been interesting to see the genre progress. While it feels like it nearly died a few years ago, with modern systems and hardware it has become quite astonishing how seamlessly they’re now able to string everything together. Having effectively removed any pauses or distortions as your choices alter the flow of the story it feels like the promise of the genre has finally been realized. That’s even more the case with a title like The Complex, effectively putting you into the middle of a sci-fi thriller, forced to make tough decisions with some significant consequences that will likely prompt you to play through again to improve the ultimate outcome you reach. Keeping in mind this is essentially a “Choose Your Own Adventure” experience the level of interactivity is limited but the quality of the production, acting, and writing in general make this about as compelling an example of the genre as you could hope for.


Afterparty - The indie scene, in general, has seemed to fully embrace the concept of a “story-driven adventure”, less focused on action and more interested in interaction. Whether this takes the form of a visual novel or something that’s at least a little more game-like in presentation varies but for people on the outside looking in the genre may have a lack of appeal. Moreso than many of its contemporaries Afterparty attempts to use an unusual plot involving two friends who’ve crossed into Hell, copious amounts of hilarious dialogue choices, and what ends up being a surprising number of potential paths to go down narratively to suck you in and even encourage further playthroughs. While those looking for a bit more action in their gaming may find the sparse mini games and focus on conversation a deterrent if you’re down for being entertained by being able to indulge your worst impulses to see where things go Afterparty can be a ton of surprising fun.


Liberated - This is a title that easily caught my eye the first time I saw footage of it, the black-and-white comic book style and cinematic qualities of its action are absolutely eye-catching. Getting time to check out only some of the gameplay at PAX East I was a bit concerned that in terms of play it could be a mixed bag. The result is somewhat consistent with that worry, the puzzling and shooting over the four issues and approximately as many hours of play are decent but wouldn’t justify a purchase on their own. Put plainly at times there are just some really funky and awkward animations as well as what feels like initial ideas like quicktime-esque early on that get abandoned as the game progresses, making the action get quite repetitive unfortunately. In theory you have the option to try to go with being stealthy but honestly it’s simply not very effective, once you’re able to aim your gun consistently at head level you’ll find that works far too well to abandon. What redeems those shortcomings and brings the experience together though is the story, which features a dystopian society in the midst of an upheaval, with you spending time in each Issue seeing things through a different set of eyes. If you’re seeking great action you’ll likely be disappointed, but if you’re willing to let a great story with some twists pull you through a reasonably good experience you should find it quite satisfying.


A Fold Apart - When looking at an eShop full of puzzlers and story-based experiences it can be difficult to separate the merely average from the exceptional. Smart puzzles are great, if they can have unique mechanics that’s always a plus, and in terms of story there’s the question of whether it is relatable and told with care. What’s great about A Fold Apart is that it not only checks all of those boxes but it does so in a way that seems pretty effortless. The base mechanics revolve around the environments your characters are in being able to be manipulated like paper, with the puzzle being how to fold, bend, flip, or mutilate the environment to allow you to either proceed or grab a star. This, in itself, is a great base as it feels original and well-implemented (though at times there can be a hitch in performance… but really, this is a puzzle game, is that a major concern?). What seals the deal, at least for me, is that on top of that is the story of a couple (in a nod to people of all persuasions you get to choose their respective genders, a nice touch) trying to manage the emotional strain of a long-distance relationship, making it all come together symbolically with a great emotional core. While it’s not a long experience I still found it to be an impactful one and it should be perfect for people looking for a touching story mixed with clever puzzling.


Monster Prom XXL - In the event your days as a teenager in high school weren’t traumatic enough, and you’re looking to recapture some of the unpredictability and excitement of that time (albeit in a monster-fied form) you may find Monster Prom to your liking. Taking control of one of the pretty archetypical leads your goal is to use what time you have wisely to boost your stats, try to make the most of every social situation, and woo one of your classmates to join you for the big event. The road to doing so will likely be far more daunting than you’d expect as, much like in life, figuring out the “best move” in a wide variety of circumstances can be quite tricky, especially since what may work to advance your agenda will often be relative. For your best odds of a positive outcome you’ll likely want to be laser-focused on the monster you’re most interested in hooking up with, not passing up any opportunity to put the pieces in place for success, especially since some missteps are quite likely along the way. I will warn that while I found the game to be quite entertainingly funny it has a willingness to “go there” with some of its humor in ways I didn’t expect at all. I’d consider that to be a pleasant surprise, but if you’re more easily offended you may want to keep looking.


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.


Journey of the Broken Circle - Who knew that an incomplete circle (who looks suspiciously like a certain gaming icon) and an oddball mix of plants and normally inanimate objects would have so much to offer in the way of philosophy? Circle, who feels incomplete, is in search of feeling whole and wants to explore the world. Along the way you’ll encounter others who may have different goals but who may be willing to join you, at least for a time, which will conveniently give you that varied abilities you’ll need to progress through what are generally pretty lenient platforming challenges. Though there are times where it gets a little more difficult I’d consider the challenge mild enough on the whole to be accessible to anyone and if you’re able to find enough hidden mushrooms along the way you’ll open further hidden levels to enjoy as well. On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the game’s sense of humor, heart, and just enough philosophy to allow for some reflection without it feeling lecturing. It’s an unusual title, and probably too mild for the hard core crowd, but the game has a spirit that makes it notable and I appreciate its presence in the eShop. 


Chicken Police: Paint it Red - While it has been a pretty long time since the genre was even remotely in style I’ve always been a fan of the hard-boiled noir detective story. The visual style, the mandatory tone of the narrator, dated terms like “dames”, and a certain verbosity to the lush description of every element of the story. Well, Chicken Police delivers precisely that world… but with all of the characters being anthropomorphized animals from all over the spectrum. Yeah, there’s something a bit silly about that, and there’s plenty of punnery in the game that is happy to help play with that fact, but the thing is the core noir experience is still there, feels authentic, and is quite entertaining for its novelty. The challenge here is often trying to figure out what to focus on in order to reveal your next lead and advance the story, you’ll need to be careful in your dialogue and pore over your notes looking for clues to help drive your line of questions in the right direction. While this won’t likely appeal to anyone looking for some action, this is still a classic adventure title at its heart, the abundance of style and personality of Chicken Police helps to distinguish it as not just another “poultry” (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) offering in the eShop. 


The Talos Principle - Among the indie titles that I’ve played and loved on the PC there aren’t too many that still haven’t made their way to Switch. With the release of The Talos Principle the list continues to get smaller. This is a first-person puzzler that features a variety of smart brain teasers that will challenge you to take some relatively simple mechanics and run with them in order to progress. Throw in a fair amount of philosophy, reflections on humanity, and well-hidden secrets and it’s a very approachable game just about anyone should be able to enjoy. Just be prepared for some bouts of frustration along the way as the expectation is you’ll ponder and work through new situations by working things out, there doesn’t tend to be much hand holding to get you up to speed.


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.


This list will continue to grow and be maintained 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!