2021 Year-in-Review: Independent Studios of the Year

This might be my favorite post all year. It’s time to specifically shout out the best indie studios of 2021 and their incredible games.

“Indie” has always been a nebulous term that’s difficult to define. Where do we draw the line? Team size? Budget? Scope? Association with a major publisher? To me, it’s elements of these things. Indie teams are usually smaller, self-published or shopping projects around for financing and games are kept at a more focused strategy. However, to me it’s mostly about the team’s spirit and approach when the lines become blurred. Shoot, it might not even be a team. These days, a single individual can make a multi-million seller indie epic.

There are also indies backed, or even purchased, by major game publishers. This post isn’t meant to litigate semantics about what is or isn’t part of this space. It’s a place to talk about which studios or individuals made the best “smaller” or independent projects this past year.

In terms of sheer number, it’s the largest list for this category ever. Nine entries deep! Let’s get on with the festivities, here are the top independent game studios of 2021 in alphabetical order.

Acid Nerve

Mark Foster and David Fenn make up Acid Nerve, a team based out of Manchester that created the awesome Death’s Door, one of the year’s most striking indie games. It’s a dark, isometric adventure game with tricky combat and creative bosses, where the player collects souls in a bureaucratic version of the afterlife. Previous projects include Titan Souls and Telepaint, but 2021 was Acid Nerve’s best yet.

Daniel Mullins Games

I promise this name will come up again during my Game of the Year list. Known previously for Pony Island and The Hex, Daniel Mullins recently created the incredible Inscryption, a deck-building card game I guarantee is like none other. Daniel is mostly a solo developer known for meta narrative and genre-bending, and this formula is perfected with Inscryption which is exquisitely executed, the type of experience that lingers long after it’s done.

Greg Lobanov

Another mostly solo creator is up next in Greg Lobanov for his excellent work on Chicory: A Colorful Tale, a game about self-doubt, artistic vision and ultimate perseverance. Greg, a Philadelphian in Canada formerly known as Dumb and Fat plus maker of Coin Crypt and Wandersong, worked with a small team to make one of 2021’s most layered games about anthropomorphic animals facing real life issues, sparked by a magical visual flare as the player can color its entire environment.

Ember Lab

Pixar-quality action-adventure Kena: Bridge of Spirits was incredibly the first game for Ember Lab, a team led by brothers Mike and Josh Grier who had a history in short film and commercial animation. The team leveraged this prowess to make a gorgeous game about Kena, guide to spirits and friend to cute creatures, which won both best indie and top independent debut at this year’s The Game Awards.

Four Quarters

A team originally based out of Russia and now spread around the globe remotely, the four-person Four Quarters launched the ingenious, enigmatic Loop Hero this past year. This semi-idle game with tower defense, crafting and role-playing elements captured the stage in first quarter 2021, selling over a million units and cementing Four Quarters, previously makers of Please, Don’t Touch Anything, as celebrated indie creatives.

Hidden Fields

Haunting visuals and tense interactions define Mundaun, a psychological horror game and first full-length project from one-man Swiss studio Hidden Fields. Michel Ziegler illustrated and programmed the hand-stenciled game set in the Alps where a man travels back to its hometown to find out more about his grandfather’s passing, and it’s one of 2021’s most dramatic, bizarre and unique indie releases.

Housemarque

Technically no longer independent since its purchase by Sony in June, Housemarque released time-bending action game Returnal in April which has since garnered critical praise and commercial success. As noted in my review, Returnal was the most ambitious and impactful title from the outfit previously focused on fast-paced arcade gems like Resogun and Nex Machina, blending bullet hell elements with run-based elements in splendid harmony.

Iron Gate Studio

Headquartered in Sweden, Iron Gate Studio broke out in 2021 after launching gathering, crafting and building game Valheim which snagged the zeitgeist in February with its Norse world and fantastical setting. At one point, the procedurally-generated title was selling a million units every other week, culminating in upwards of 8 million as of August and spawning many a tale of emergent, co-op interactions and challenging enemy battles.

Modern Storyteller

The final winner is Modern Storyteller, brainchild of lawyer-turned-developer Nick Pearce and creator of the masterpiece that is The Forgotten City. As I alluded in my review back around launch in July, the first-person time loop game set in an underground Roman city began as a Skyrim mod and blossomed into a daring narrative showcase that offers player choice, political intrigue and major morality conundrums. Pearce and team define and even transcend “walking simulator” genre boundaries with The Forgotten City, a staggering storytelling feat that lands them within this group of best indie studios around.

Shout out to all the developers on this most prestigious list and every indie developer working hard during 2021, a most challenging of years that resulted in some of my favorite projects to date. Bounce over to my megapost for all other Year-in-Review categories, including the impending Game of the Year awards.

Sources: Comic Book Resources (Image Credit), Company Websites & Twitter. YoYo Games (Image Credit).

-Dom

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