Over the last few weeks the App Store has been taken over by indie games – these are the ones you should be playing
In March, Apple surprisingly, and almost surreptitiously unveiled an indie games showcase on its App Store. Perhaps the reason the unveiling came without prior fanfare is because Apple plans to continue its support of independent games long-term – an indie games section now takes permanent residence on the App Store home section.
So, why is Apple so sweet on games from small developers? We’d point to quality control. Because major developers – like established console developers on one end of the spectrum, to App Store successes that have since become big like Rovio (Angry Birds) – are often so eager to cash in on questionable ports of existing properties, or go too far down the freemium rabbit hole at the expensive of truly great gameplay.
Apple has praised indie games individually before through its annual awards. Recent titles you might remember that came from indie studios include point-and-click game The Silent Age, design-focused puzzler Monument Valley, or hand-drawn animated adventure Lumino City.
They may not have the millions of users freemium titles have thanks to f2p titles’ lower barrier for entry and addictive return-play dynamics, the reason indie games are so celebrated is because they actually required some hard graft to get made. They’re also ‘proper’ games too. With storylines, characters, twists, turns and mechanics that make innovative use of iOS devices touch screens – whether the game’s a puzzler, sports title, or an adventure game.
During the showcase, the number of titles that hit the App Store was huge. But fear not, because we played them all, and these are our picks – the eight games from Apple’s recent indie showcase that you should play.
Death Road to Canada
$7.99 / £7.99
Probably the most ridiculous, yet most fun entry on this list. The premise is it’s the zombie apocalypse. Every major (and minor) power has disintegrated but one: Canada. Your task, with a band of fellow survivors, is to make the journey from the US to the land of the maple leaf. Along the way you’ll pick up new people, and you’ll lose people to the hordes. Your only goal is to keep going – find fuel, food, weapons – and bash those pixelated zombies back to where they came from.
When it comes to DRtC the tongue is firmly in cheek. The art style is top down, and heavy on the pixels. It reminded us a little bit of Zelda… if all the characters were undead and trying to eat Link. It’s an inspiration we had confirmed later when a character called ‘Lank’ shows up dressed all in green and waving a wooden sword.
DRtC is perfect for mobile. You can play for as long as you want in one sitting, but the game will also save from whenever you close it so you can pick up the run later. There’s also a whole bunch of characters; from little old ladies to stacked muscle-men, and weapons; from simple hatchets, to rifles, to planks of wood to help you fight your way through sieges and supply runs as you try and survive the journey. There’s a lot going on here; more than you’d think, and it gets super-intense. But the game never gets dull.
Sure, it’s pricey, but the replay value is huge. It’s incredibly difficult to make it to Canada – you’ll find the difficulty ramps up around day 7 or 8, but because each journey is completely different, embodying a range of characters with their own lines and personalities, each run is a joy.
Euclidean Lands – aptly named after the Greek grandfather of three-dimensional geometry, Euclid – is a tactile board game of sorts that plays out across rotating cubes. Created by an architecture student and first-time game maker, it’s a turn-based puzzler set atop a glorified Rubik’s cube. It’s clever, and it might also make your head hurt.
Each level is a carefully crafted little world, with each face of a giant floating cube covered with various obstacles, enemies and architectural flourishes. Though you can only move to adjacent squares, rotating the different faces of the cube can change things up to give you space to maneuver. You’ll need to dispatch all the enemies in each level to progress, but they can’t be tackled head-on – so you’ll need to get clever with rotational sequences in order to sneak up for a silent takedown.
Just as you think the idea might be getting stale, you reach levels in which cubes burst open to reveal larger, more dangerous ones with auto-rotating sections and big baddies who can attack in multiple directions. The controls are pretty tight and the level designs will certainly keep you on your toes.
The game plays like Hitman GO with some of the stylistic finish of Monument Valley, but the addition of 3D rotation mixes things up enough that it doesn’t feel like its retreading old ground too much. Even on a new iPhone 7 Plus, it did suffer from occasional crashes, though not enough to detract from the game.
Though it doesn’t quite live up to the quality of its influences, this is a decent game in its own right and we look forward to the next title from this rookie developer.
For those that liked: World of Goo
Mushroom 11 is a game that often requires an incredible amount of patience. And that’s where much of the challenge lies. In the game, you control an amorphous green fungal-blob. You use multi-touch gestures to push the blob along a post-apocalyptic-style landscape, populated by mutated bugs, plants, and rotten machinery. The blob absorbs as it goes, enveloping and melding around structures to help it climb to out-of-reach heights, or cross pools of lava. Your job is to push, prod, slice, and dice the blob to get to the end of each level.
The gameplay is unique – and though sometimes you have to figure out what you’re supposed to mold onto to progress, this isn’t a puzzle game – it’s very much a physics-based platform title. It’s slower than most others in the genre, and you might find you sit there for minutes at a time, steadily using your finger to shave off parts of the blob to increase its height in order to reach a high platform. Swipe too much, or slip and chop it in half, and it’ll fall to the ground before reassembling.
Though some parts are harder than others, it generally keeps a reserved and equal level of difficulty throughout, making it a pleasant title to work through. Interesting dynamics get thrown in later, and often you have to slice your blob in half, leaving one piece behind to block some cogs, or hold back part of the landscape, so a smaller portion can push forward. Once you leave a segment of blob behind, or it falls into a hole, it’ll regenerate on the remaining segment of the blob. It’s all very embryonic and fluid. One thing’s for sure, Mushroom 11 is like nothing else you’ve played before. And it’s hugely rewarding.
For those that liked: Spelltower, Crosswords
This is the latest word puzzler from Zach Gage, the man behind a slew of great iOS hits including SpellTower, Ridiculous Fishing, and Really Bad Chess. He’s one of the most interesting solo developers on the platform and it’s always worth checking out his work.
In TypeShift, letters are arranged into dials which can be rotated to form words across the central row, like cracking a combination lock. When viable words are spelled the letters satisfyingly click and change color, and your goal is to use every letter at least once by making more and more words. The opening stages are painfully simple but once longer sets of letters are introduced you’ll need your thinking cap on.
There’s no competitive element here, with no high score boards or stars rankings, and no move limit. It’s a peaceful, contemplative challenge that feels like solving a crossword puzzle. Speaking of which, a secondary “clue” mode takes the gameplay further in that direction: only specific answers will register on the grid, as denoted by a series of cryptic and general knowledge clues.
The base game is free, with a decent number of levels to get you started, and beyond that extra content packs are available as in-app purchases. There are occasional adverts, but making even a single extra purchase removes them for life. Seems fair, though the cost soon racks up if you want to unlock everything.
Typeshift is one of those word games with a concept so simple and beautifully executed that you have to wonder how nobody has done it before. It’s not the most memorable Zach Gage title, but for wordy folk it’s a well-polished and compelling brain exerciser.
$4.99 / £4.99
For those that liked: The Silent Age, Sword & Sworcery EP
This point-and-click style adventure is billed as the Stranger Things of the video game world. In reality, all it really has in common is a group of sharp, wise-cracking kids (though much older than the gang from the hit Netflix show.) In fact, we’d say it resembles more the kind of mysterious and supernatural approach found in a show like Lost.
The story is this: a gang of friends visit an abandoned military island for an overnight party, before unwittingly opening a weird rift to a ghostly world. You’re in charge of Alex, a rebellious teen who arrives on the island with her stepbrother Jonas. As you lose track of the others characters, exploring the island to track them down, you begin to learn more about the island’s cryptic past as you deal with time-loops, ominous creatures, and peer-group politics.
Some of the most interesting elements of Oxenfree come from the game’s extensive dialogue. There’s huge value for money here, with a really unique story being told – and it’s told with a great voice cast. As you explore the island, your friends will continue to talk to you, even if you don’t respond – it almost feels like there’s a sophisticated dialogue AI engine powering their conversation. It adds an extra, enriching personality layer to the game.
Oxenfree was first released across desktop PCs, OS X, and consoles like the Xbox One and Playstation 4 back in January 2016 – so you know this is a massive game with incredible production values. On its release, it received positive reviews, praising the interesting story-driven adventure. Oxenfree isn’t packed full of challenging puzzles, or quick-wins; rather it’s a slow-burning exploration of both the game’s world, and the characters within it.
For those that liked: Card Crawl, Solitairica
Card Thief is the follow up to 2015’s excellent Card Crawl, a game that adapts solitaire into a compelling strategy game of dungeon combat. This sort-of-sequel abstracts the “deck of cards” theme even further into a stealthy challenge in which you’ll be pinching treasures from well-guarded castles.
Cards are laid out in a 3×3 grid, representing everything from eagle-eyed guards to sparkling piles of gold. You’re in control of a wily thief card, and each turn must chart a path through the adjacent cards, collecting treasures and dispatching guards without expending all of your stealth points.
Every step you take has an effect on the surrounding cards, and there’s a lot to think about: there are torches to extinguish, guards to pickpocket, barrels to hide in, and chests to steal. Choosing a difficult path multiplies the value of the cards, which is good for picking up gold but bad for facing off against guards. Special equipment like cloaks and arrows can help your cause, though you’ll have to earn them from the game’s “guild master.”
If you can route a path through all nine cards in one go, you’ll be rewarded with a refilled stealth gauge. Little touches like these add a lot of depth to the strategy, but they’re also overlooked by the tutorials and so you’ll have to work out many of the rules by yourself. This is a potential issue for casual gamers – there’s a pretty steep learning curve at the beginning.
Though a little less accessible than its predecessor, the reward for perseverance is a deeply satisfying experience. When you “get it,” you’ll be hooked. Oh, and did we mention the incredible artwork?
For those that liked: VVVVVV, Super Stickman Golf
Here’s a game that nobody knew they wanted: it’s a platformer, but with, like, golf, yeah? Players run and jump around the levels, dodging obstacles and crushing enemies on their way to the flag. When the time is right, you can pop off a volley of golf balls in the direction of the hole and hope one of them sinks.
The hook of the game is that taking a swing slows down time, and you can shoot from anywhere. Meaning it’s possible – and often necessary – to sink a mid-air bullet-time chip on your way through a series of deadly obstacles. Pretty cool. Every level has a flag to aim for, but also a floating red balloon which will need to be popped if you want to start racking up gold rankings.
You can jump off walls and bounce on springs or enemies for extra height, while boulders and circular saws give new meaning to “golfing hazards”. The graphics are basic but level designs precise. For the competitive among us there’s a tough-as-nails speed run mode in which you compete with the best times posted online.
The game is free, supported by fairly annoying video ads which pop up between every few fails. Because the game is hard, you’ll be retrying a lot – so we’d recommend you give the free version a bash and spring for the ad-removal IAP if you enjoy the first few levels.
Golf Zero epitomizes the weird and wonderful mashups that could only come out of the indie gaming scene. We have to admit that the humble sport has never felt more exciting than when you’re scoring a hole-in-one in mid-air while leaping over a bed of spikes.
Pavilion: Touch Edition
For those that liked: Samorost 3
A bizarre take on the M. C. Escher-inspired puzzle template, this game has a fourth-person approach. In the center of it all, is a man. You have to guide this man through doors, archways and stairways as he runs towards an unexplained goal.
You’re dropped straight into the game without instructions, leaving it up to you to figure out what’s going on. First, try ringing bells to get the man’s attention. He’ll then start running in the direction of the sound. You can also turn lamps on and off to prevent him from following a certain path.
It’s quite an odd experience. You’re basically a ghost that can only communicate with the character via sounds and light. The environments are the biggest draw here, though, and their gothic shadows and other-worldly designs keeps the mystery flowing throughout the game.