As any seasoned gamer will tell you, the summer is not kind to those of us looking for brand new titles to play. While it’s a great time to get outdoors, head to the beach, or go on a hike, there’s always time for video games, too. Just because the summer brings with it a slow period of new games on store shelves and digital marketplaces doesn’t mean you’ve seen all that’s worth seeing between now and September. There have been plenty of excellent indie games this year. As the community of independent developers grows, so too does the collective gaming community’s appreciation for their off-the-beaten-path approaches to mechanics, story, and art style. Here are some recent great games from smaller studios that will help you make it to the huge AAA fall season.
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Oxenfree is the rookie debut from Night School Studio, a team comprised of ex-Telltale devs, and the gameplay definitely reveals hints of such a résumé. In the side-scrolling Oxenfree, you play as Alex, a young girl heading to an island party to carpe diem like young people are known to do. The issue that quickly rears its unnerving head, however, is that the island is a decommissioned military station with a shadowy past and probably definitely some sort of haunting going on. The story is unlike any I’ve ever experienced in games, made more exciting with an excellent It Follows-ish score, a head-scratching conclusion, and an ARG still ongoing even today, months after release. The gameplay focuses largely on dialogue and lets you role-play the protagonist, Alex, not unlike what Telltale does with their games. The manner by which the conversations unfold in Oxenfree, however, is more dynamic and fluid, lending them to a more believable group of friends who can’t decide if they want to bicker like the high schoolers they are or run for their lives while they still have them. It was billed as The Goonies meets Poltergeist, and no analogy could be more apt.
For fans of: The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Eighties nostalgia
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Just like the Telltale employees who took their expertise to create Night School, so too did ex-BioShock and Halo developers depart to create The Molasses Flood, a Boston-based indie studio whose first title is the somewhat confusingly named The Flame in the Flood. TFitF is an isometric roguelike set in a “post-societal” world where Scout along with her dog and sole companion Aesop are traveling downriver on a makeshift raft with the simple-in-concept, difficult-in-practice objective of surviving . Along the way you’ll have to fend for supplies, shelter, and sustenance, and it’s never easy. Aesop can tip you off to certain dangers, but you’ll also have to do some managing of Scout’s vital signs yourself. In classic roguelike fashion, dying in The Flame in the Flood is a permanent exit from that playthrough, so watch your step. Alive or departed, the thing that stands out more than anything is the game’s stunningly gorgeous art style. The colors are vibrant and the world is shaded in a way unseen in any game before. It’s truly one of the most visually awesome games not just this year, but in any year.
For fans of: Don’t Starve, Minecraft, Unforgiving consequences
Platforms: Xbox One, PC, PS4
The curiously named Bloober Team is responsible for the early 2016 walking sim horror title, Layers of Fear. Taking inspiration in equal parts from The Picture of Dorian Gray and P.T., Layers of Fear delivers an increasingly unsettling first person horror experience where gameplay gives way to pitch perfect atmosphere and inklings of a violent past. The player sees the game world through the eyes of a painter who is at once going mad and trying to achieve his Magnum Opus. Within the walls of a house haunted by your own inner demons (and maybe more) you’ll have to navigate through it all to complete each thick-as-blood layer of the painting. Alternate endings give the game longer lasting appeal, which should help eventually ease your nerves too. The first time through is not for the faint of heart. Layers of Fear drips story details to players in a way that allows for us to fill in the blanks with best guesses, leaving the full narrative out of reach and all that more engrossing, as any worthwhile horror is known to do. And the music! More excellence in sound, which is fortunately a common attribute of indies. A DLC story is coming in August, too, so lose your mind in the base now soon to make room for more madness in a few weeks.
For fans of: Gone Home, P.T., Creepy piano music
Platforms: Xbox One, PC, PS4
Prison Architect is exactly what it sounds like — and so much more. It’s a management game not unlike Roller Coaster Tycoon or Sim City but instead of building a town or amusement park, you’ll be building a maximum security, for-profit prison. It’s a game that has thought of everything. You’ll build prisons from the ground up, hire staff, control the population, manage their needs while preventing riots and escapes, and so much more. If you’ve seen or heard of it happening in prison, it’s in this game. Introversion Software has thought of everything in regards to the mechanics of the day-to-day lives of your inmates. You can imbue the warden with varied techniques too. Do you want to create a cozy prison where inmates have more freedoms and self improvement programs? Go ahead. Or do you want to keep them in line like you’re on the alarming side of the Stanford Prison Experiment? You can do that too, and so many other practices, too. If you’ve ever had fun with Maxis’ titles or games like Theme Hospital and the Tycoon series, Prison Architect scratches that same exact micromanagement itch, and arguably does it better than any of its inspirations. It’s also the most time-consuming game on this list as the achievements and trophies will take you dozens of hours, and if you’re really enthralled by the game its hook allows for endless replayability.
For fans of: Sim City, Theme Hospital, Abuses of power
Platforms: PS4, PC
Campo Santo is another of those games with AAA talent behind it, particularly with more Telltale stars like Sean Vanaman, most notably responsible for adventure gaming studio’s take on The Walking Dead. It’s arguably the least under-the-radar of the games on this list. After all, it was even shown at Sony’s E3 presser in 2015. Still, it’s tough for an indie to compete for the spotlight with AAA developed games, so by now if you missed the initial fanfare over Firewatch, it’s time someone reminds you of its intrigue. Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a middle aged man with a messy life at home who takes a job as a fire tower watchman to give him space and time to figure out what he’s doing with his life. On the job, over the walkie-talkie, he meets Delilah, his boss and eventual confidant. Over the course of the summer, we play out Henry’s life, from the mundanities of cleaning up after irresponsible teens to the bizarre mystery that acts as the driving force for the narrative-driven game. Where Firewatch starts and ends are on two very somber notes, and the in-between is nothing if not unique. The colors of the world remarkably manage to look both Pixaresque and adult at once, and it’s all capped off by some of the best and truly most authentic voice acting the medium has ever heard. Firewatch gives us real people, fallible, often selfish, deceitful people and never paints them as the bad guys — something few games ever bother to do.
For fans of: Dear Esther, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Experiencing a midlife crises