Shane has earned a bit of a well deserved reputation for finding really unique, awesome, and unusual independent video games on Steam. This leads to an incredibly eclectic collection of games and not even the remotest pattern during streaming. On the plus side, and one of the reasons that Shane is such a fan of the Steam platform, is the sheer number of very different and very unique games out there to experience.
Undertale, Stardew Valley, The Stanley Parable, and Sunless Sea are examples of some really remarkable independent games that are available on Steam – but chances are you have most if not all of these in your game library already! There are so many genres of video games out there, and platforms like Steam have allowed independent developers to try things that would never have gotten a studio stamp of approval before – even during the Wild West days of the early NES system.
Still, gamers gotta game, and it’s a shame when some of the absolute best independent games out there on Steam remain completely unknown by many people. There are few experiences as enjoyable as discovering that quirky, unique, gem of a game so for those of you looking for something new, different, and above all else fun & awesome, then you’ve come to the right place!
The following are Shane’s picks for the 11 best underrated video games on Steam made by independent studios, teams, or even solo designers!
TL;DR Shortlist Best Hidden Gem Video Games on Steam
- West of Loathing
- Return of the Obra Dinn
- Cultist Simulator
- Kindergarten & Kindergarten 2
- Curious Expedition
- Guild of Dungeoneering
- Death & Taxes
- World of Horror
- Death in Vinland
West of Loathing
Can a game made of stick figures with no color graphics somehow have a good graphics grade while embracing this strip down style? Turns out that, somehow, the answer is yes, yes it can. Featuring a cowboy or cowgirl, player’s choice, you embark into a very weird stick figure version of the Wild Wild West featuring demonic cattle, strange robotic creatures attacking all humans, possessed dolls, creepy clowns, and plenty of good ol’ fashion Western style fighting. Stick figure style.
An enormously entertaining game that encourages you to embrace the silliness, there are few games that I remember my “story” contribution to as clearly as West of Loathing. But in fairness, who could forget the adventures of Cow Puncher Sally McWhisky, sidekick Doc Alice, and Not-Quite-Right horse William Dafoe?
This game is a riot from the beginning. The art does what it needs to do and is surprisingly detailed for a game starting with stick figures. It does what good game art should do: contributes to the aesthetic and feel the game is going for. Simple, based around simple art and almost comically childish sketching, the detail work is surprisingly good. In some places it’s downright pretty with a lot of attention to detail.
The music is great, hitting the Old West theme perfectly and switching up as appropriate from one strange location to another. Most importantly, the game is fun. The controls are easy to learn, there’s plenty of challenge while exploring this ultra strange version of the Wild West, and the fun is off the charts. Some games are just enjoyable. Part RPG, part open world, there’s a lot of exploring as you move the plot along.
The game really embraces the childish hilarity and the writing is actually surprisingly clever and funny in many places (as you start by falling off the back of a turnip cart). The breaking the 4th wall jokes are amazing as the narrator tries to talk you out of searching the spit pontoons multiple times (always search the spit pontoons). These jokes continue into the game structure as certain controls in the option window aren’t unlocked until you get certain books or upgrades hidden throughout the game itself.
Remember as kids where you thought how great it would be to be an adult and eat cake whenever you wanted? Then you became responsible and never ate cake for dinner as an adult? This is a game that takes those whimsical and funny thoughts and just runs with them. Changing the rules, breaking the rules, just doing their own thing, this is a very unique game that lives up to the unique art and style.
I’ve found it easy to pour dozens upon dozens of hours into this game exploring every corner of the map. This game makes itself incredibly easy to enjoy and that is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. I smile, I laugh, there are times I was just cracking up. It’s very hard to play this game without a giant goofy grin pasted onto your face.
Definitely one of the best independently developed video games on Steam. They even won multiple awards for the best comedy game of 2017.
This is a game all about the fun that offers a seriously good RPG experience, as well.
Also: I’m never turning off “Stupid Walking” mode again. So awesomely hilarious.
You’ll Love This Game If: You love good comedy, smart writing, and unique graphics that paint an unusual world that sticks out. Also RPG fans who love an RPG that delivers an unconventional gaming experience.
You Should Skip This Game If: You demand top-notch graphics of every game and want serious plot-driven games or don’t really like RPGs.
Return of the Obra Dinn
Oh man, I can’t say enough about how beyond stunning & incredible this game is. This is also very unusual in that it tends to be a game a person owns and loves, or they never even heard of it with very little middle ground in between. Return of the Obra Dinn was developed by Lucas Pope, who was the creator of Papers, Please! Another great indie title that actually received (deservedly) a lot of press after its release in 2013.
Obra Dinn is rated on Steam as overwhelmingly positive, a level that very few games manage to pull off. In fact, this is how I learned about this game. The fact a game with an oddly Gaelic sounding name with the rare and stunning overwhelmingly positive rating on Steam was recommended to me as one I might like. So I put it on the Wishlist and forgot about it. A year later it was on sale, I made the purchase, and it was one of the best buys I ever made.
Return of the Obra Dinn is one of the best mystery games to come out in years. Extremely atmospheric using truly old school graphics, an immersive early game that teaches you the controls while keeping you in mystery, and creating that perfect feeling of mystery, discovery, and excitement, this game is unlike any other that I’ve ever played.
You’re not a superhero or a mythical figure, but an insurance adjuster called out to a mysterious ship, the Obra Dinn, that disappeared without a trace…and then showed up in harbor with nary a living soul. You’re to find out what happened with one special tool: a stopwatch that lets you see the last moments of how a person died.
The entire game is filling in your blank 100+ page book with the details of the mystery, piecing together what happened to everyone bit by bit. This journey creates a special excitement & intrigue that very few games have ever matched.
Did all the crew die? Did any survive? What happened? Why?
The very first experience with the magic stopwatch leads from one mystery and plunges you into several more. At that point the game already has its claws into you…and you won’t rest until you uncover every detail of this mystery!
One thing to note is that this is a heavy story-based game and because of how much is tied in the process of discovery and advancement, the replay value is low. It’s like a fantastic book. You may come back to it every few years to remember, but that first playthrough is where the real magic is. Even so, I’d still give this game a 10/10.
The Return of the Obra Dinn is just that good.
You’ll Love This Game If: Chances are you will love this game, period. If you need your hand held through the entire game or demand replayability then maybe it’s not your game, otherwise it’s a true diamond.
You Should Skip This Game If: You hate unique story based games? If you really love just conventional genres like shooters and nothing else then maybe it’s not for you, otherwise if you have a broad taste in games you’ll want to pick this one up.
One of the strangest and most uniquely designed games on this list (and boy is that saying something), Cultist Simulator is going to create a lot of love and a lot of hate. This is a story told through cards. Living in a world where dark magic is real, but comes at a price, you are an individual with some knowledge of the occult.
What type of knowledge or how this journey starts depends on what scenario you are playing. You could be a dancer chasing eternal youth, the police officer tired of chasing dark powers and wanting to master them and make them your own, or an aspirant fired from a dead end job who has had enough and is willing to risk it all to learn more about the dark side.
In Cultist Simulator you are working to make connections, build & maintain stats, explore great mysteries while avoiding the ever-looking eyes of authorities. Sometimes this is easy as you’re too low level to notice, sometimes a competing dark mage to be is throwing hunters in your direction to try to eliminate you from the board.
And many times hubris on a good run makes you reach too far…and find yourself slipping into the hangman’s noose as a result.
In my case this game was extremely addictive, and it’s hard to even explain why. Part of it is the mystery. They will give you clues as to what pieces you pick up can do, what you need to prepare for, and how to advance the game – but they won’t hold your hand. These are the mysteries of the dark arts, after all, and the game style does a really good job of creating that feeling of slowly gaining knowledge of this new world that tries to keep itself and its secrets hidden from you.
This also results in sometimes overstepping your boundaries, not seeing the dangers ahead, but also creates some fascinating stories and subplots as you do the best you can with what you have and what you know to advance your knowledge and power. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
This is a game that demands investment. It took me about 15 hours before I really understood all the systems, and the magic upgrades can still be a bit hazy for me at times, but the feeling of accomplishment from learning the ins and outs of this game mimics your character as you learn the dark world of the occult.
And of course use that power to build your cult.
The entire gameplay is on the table with the cards like above. The squares are where you can move cards to deal with a situation, power yourself up, work for money, or fight off the seemingly endless parade of potential catastrophes. It’s a fascinating setup and interesting game mechanic that works out surprisingly well.
Exactly the type of originality you would expect from designers who came up with Sunless Sea.
If you’re not sure if you would like this game or not I’d strongly recommend taking a look at this early playthrough and review by Splattercat on YouTube as it is an excellent half hour video showing a game from scratch as well as reviewing more advanced aspects once you get the hang of it:
You’ll Love This Game If: You love card games and games that give you a strong sense of accomplishment from slowly learning & figuring out the mystery in front of you.
You Should Skip This Game If: You hate games that toss you into the deep end and expect you to swim, or you don’t like 100% card game focused video games.
Kindergarten (and Kindergarten 2)
Yes, this counts as a two-fer. Few games combine soothing music, cute pixelated graphics, and over the top bloodshed, violence, and hilariously dark (psychotic) comedy the way that these games do. If you love really dark humor then chances are that Kindergarten and it’s appropriately named sequel Kindergarten 2 are going to be for you.
You play the part of a young sociopathic boy starting his first day of Kindergarten. Only to find you are in a school full of conspiracies, murderers, lunatics, and even more sociopathic 5 year olds. Most of that description is not actually tongue in cheek, despite the tone.
If you have a dark sense of humor this game is a lot of fun. Every single day is a Monday, until you beat the game and move onto the sequel at which point every single day is a Tuesday. Missions require a very specific sequence of actions and just being one off could mean needing to try again the next Monday/Tuesday if you’re lucky. If not, you probably got shot in the head. Or beaten to death with a ruler. Or beaten to death with a mop.
There are many, many creative ways to die in this game at which point you have a little bit more knowledge on what not to do. There are hidden bonus endings on both games dependent on finding all the Monstermon cards that add additional twists to already pretty crazy narrative stories. The writing is absolutely on point and spectacular.
The humor is dark. It is sarcastic. It sees the line it sometimes crosses in the rear view mirror, but just keeps going forward anyway. There’s a reason these two games have become cult classics.
These games are deceptively cute. I mean, well, they have deceptively cute design before all the pixelated bloodshed that you will experience en masse. Cute as a fat bully headbutting you to death over $3 maybe? Or, well the description of the next picture says it all.
The cute pixelated art making it look like a relaxing happy game just makes the really dark humor that much more effective. The game is really cute. And brutally violent. And so darkly funny. All at the same time, which makes it work.
And yes, that is Nugget with one arm playing with a Fidget Spinner. Great stuff.
You’ll Love This Game If: Your sense of humor has been described as “dark, twisted, psychotic, or very dark.” If you appreciate sharp writing and very dark humor without care for boundaries, you’ll very much enjoy these games.
You Should Skip This Game If: A bunch of truly sociopathic 5 years old murdering each other, being murdered by adults, or murdering adults in very darkly funny ways still just sounds awful. The humor isn’t going to be for everyone.
If you really like the old school games designed around the early to mid 90’s Mac/PC era of gaming, then Curious Expedition will definitely scratch that itch. Choosing among an array of explorers, with many famous explorers, scientists, and travelers of the past unlocked based on various accomplishments through the game, you lead your pixelated team of
thieving colonial exploiters exploring archaeologists setting out for queen, country, and glory as you make discoveries and steal claim treasures to increase your own fame.
I mean, for the advancement of history and science. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
While this description is a bit tongue in cheek, one thing that Curious Expedition does particularly well is acknowledge the questionable actions and attitudes of the past, the lack of sensitivity in some of the earliest explorer games, and makes fun of all of it while unabashedly providing a great game where you still play that same historical role.
Bonuses vary based on who you choose to use, as do what you can collect for both fame and gold. You need to balance both through your travels if you are going to end up the top explorer in the guild. This gives a ton of replay value to the game. Not only can you choose different territories to explore (with randomly generated maps) but playing Rasputin will be a far different experience than playing Tesla, Darwin, or Harriet Tubman.
If far back retro gaming a part survival, part adventure game really piques your interest, then you will want to give this one a shot. Bit of expert advice: don’t underestimate the power of a good cook.
You’ll Love This Game If: You appreciate the challenge of the really old school explorer-based PC games and enjoy the satire commentary on Colonial exploitation as you “discover” treasures and try not to get your face murdered in the process. For retro gamers who love independent throw back games, this one will create plenty of happy new memories.
You Should Skip This Game If: You hate dying, because you will die a lot, or just aren’t a fan of the old school pixel graphics or gameplay. Even for me the first dozen hours were actually way more frustrating than enjoyable, but there was a lot here to learn and I did come around and end up thoroughly enjoying the game. It’s definitely not for everyone.
Guild of Dungeoneering
Guild of Dungeoneering is a very entertaining game that takes the traditional dungeon crawling of Dungeons & Dragons and puts a bit of a comedic twist. You are kicked out of the snooty Ivory tower of guilds: The Guild of Adventuring. Since those jerks didn’t appreciate you, you decide to…re-appropriate some funds and take off running before anyone found out.
You know chumps who go into the dungeon tend to die. So you make yourself the head of your own new guild in the bad part of town recruiting any suckers you can find to do the adventuring for you…and then you just take the treasure they manage to find. Build your guild one room at a time, get more class options as you grow, and use your funds to get bigger and approach something akin to respectable.
This is a deck building game where the class you use, the enemies you defeat in the dungeon, and the special items you’ve unlocked at the guild determine what kind of a deck you have and what cards are available. There are some interesting combinations, and you will send many novice adventurers to their deaths as you learn about the various enemies, their strengths and weaknesses, and adjust your adventuring goals accordingly.
So you get to be the boss as you send new chumps and chumpettes to their death before taking their treasure. Quiet literally. Your first adventurer literally comes from the class “chump.”
In the beginning you’re too small fry for classic classes like ranger or barbarian or mage so you’ll have chumps, cat burglars, and mimes instead. Work your way up to a guild that you be proud of.
Try not to make the cemetery too large along the way.
What really sticks out: the music. The music for this game is excellent and brings something very new to the table.
The instruments are basically Medieval or Renaissance Fair. Lutes, pipes, the types of instruments you associate with bards. The bard who narrates throughout the game does original music and rhymes, creating a wonderfully unique and organic experience as he celebrates your victories and especially your failures and miseries with rhyme and humor.
So feel free to walk around and check out my guild, friend Chump (or Chumpette). I’m sure once you check out the rooms and what we have to offer you’ll gladly sign up for the Corrupt Overlord’s Guild – No wait, not that room!
You’ll Love This Game If: You enjoy Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons, or other Tabletop RPGs and appreciate a decent play off of commonly used tropes in these games. Originality and music are the strongpoints of this game.
You Should Skip This Game If: You hate the level up grind, you don’t care about RPGs, or you mute all music to listen to something else while playing. Balance, tightness, and polish matter most to you. While this game offers a lot, there are some legitimate complaints about the sometimes arbitrary nature of how battles or levels play out.
Death & Taxes
An interesting game that caught my attention immediately. An interesting premise, a preview that hinted at some goofy humor, and the ability to determine life and death via an office job – Death & Taxes seemed to have it all! Fate creates a new Grim Reaper (You) who gets a small amount of on the job training before being set off to determine life and death with minimal guidance.
You get a certain number of potential victims each day, some general guidelines you’re supposed to follow, and then you decide who lives and who dies. You get paid if you follow instructions (or if you get close enough) and that pay can be used to buy random useful items from the storytelling pirate skeleton in the basement – my favorite character in the game thus far.
While this is essentially a glorified point and click choose your own adventure game with some legitimate flaws (the story can feel like a railroad once you’ve played a few times and realize how often scenes don’t adjust based on your actions), there is some very nice character development, a few odd little mysteries, and a surprising amount of fun when it comes to reading the profiles and deciding who lives, who dies, when you follow the rules, when you break them, and then seeing what the consequences of those actions are.
The developers talked about wanting to make an entertaining “death positive” game and they do a nice job of exactly that. The end credits setup is one of the best I’ve ever seen for a video game and although there are only a few good playthroughs to be had, I found each of them very satisfying.
This won’t be a game you come back to over and over again, but it is a great storyline that gives you a couple of very satisfying playthroughs as you enjoy lording the power of life and death over potential victims in your afterlife cubicle.
Fun pro tip: Check the phone each morning at your desk to see what effects your choices from the day before had. Did that artist’s life bring joy to millions? Or did you accidentally release a super viral form of TB by killing the mad scientist?
Save humanity or destroy it? Utopia or Post-Apocalyptic wasteland? The choice is up to you.
You’ll Love This Game If: You like choose your own adventure stories, a good story, and the mystery of trying to figure out all the moving pieces trying to make you act a certain way.
You Should Skip This Game If: You hate games without replay value – there are a few different story endings but once you play through those 3-4 then you’ve seen what it has to offer. If you need more action than story. This is a heavy story-based game.
World of Horror
There are few games that have excited me as much as World of Horror when it was first announced. A game that has received a fair amount of attention, but deserves even more, the story behind the creation of this game is just as amazing as the game itself. Created by a Polish dentist in his spare time using MS Paint, World of Horror is a love letter to old school 1-bit & 2-bit games from the 80’s and 90’s as well as the incredible horror work of individuals like Junji Ito and H.P. Lovecraft.
This game didn’t disappoint. Featuring a faux 80’s feel with an incredible aesthetic on both 1-bit or 2-bit graphics, you sense the creepiness, feel the repulsiveness, and get the intense sense of dread this game shoots for. The Old Gods awake, the feeling of doom continues to creep upwards, and you find yourself challenged as you solve mystery after mystery to get one step closer to that final confrontation.
Most mysteries have multiple endings, there are five playable characters to choose from, and the atmosphere on this game is just incredible. One of the most unique video games to be released in years, and it lives up to all the hype and more.
Genuinely creepy with moments of legitimate jump scares, it’s hard to ignore the increasing unease World of Horror does a great job of building. The music fits the old school game vibe, and it’s frankly incredible how far this game can take MS Paint graphics. Some games hide behind a unique aesthetic or theme to cover up shortcomings.
World of Horror is not one of those games – this is the real deal.
New mysteries are being added every few months, adding even more incredible content to a game that already features many challenges, many potential solutions, and many interactions. This game is one of the few I paid full price for, and it was worth every penny and then some. Also, I’ll never be able to look at Ramen the same way again.
World of Horror is something rare: a very unique game that clearly is a work of passion. Developing a new story and game experience while still paying homage to the past. If not for Return of the Obra Dinn, you could easily make the argument this is the most unique of all the independent games on Steam.
You’ll Love This Game If: You love old school games, horror, Cthulhu mythos, Lovecraft or Ito, or truly remarkable & unique independent games.
You Should Skip This Game If: You don’t care for horror or retro games at all.
There are some great horror games on this list, some very dark games, so let’s change it up for a bit. Littlewood is on the far other end of the spectrum compared to games like World of Horror and Return of the Obra Dinn – and it’s delightful.
Ironically this is made by Sean Young, who was also instrumental in creating Kindergarten & Kindergarten 2. Littlewood is about as far away from those games in content as you can get. You are the hero who saved the world – but your memory was completely erased in the process. Found by your (apparently) dear friend, you find yourself building a simple house close to hers to begin your town.
Meet old friends who return on news of your survival, meet new ones, explore this new world you helped create, and make your mark once again by building an awesome town that suits you, your tastes, and your personality.
LIttlewood has a great system that is based on energy/tasks. While you may not be able to get everything done in a day (much like Stardew Valley), but unlike many similar games, since time doesn’t move until you do a certain number of tasks you’re not under pressure to rush things. You can fly to multiple locations, talk to everyone, mosey around, or let yourself wander through an array of tasks.
There’s still more content being developed and rolled out, but there’s already enough here to pour in a couple hundred hours without a problem, and it brings a level of relaxation that I really appreciate for when you want a calm, fun, light-hearted game to wind down for the night. Or spend an entire day relaxing.
You’ll Love This Game If: You love calming relaxing games like Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, My Time at Portia, or any of those style of games. There’s an amazing amount of content here and Littlewood offers a nice twist in the genre that I really appreciate – arguably the most relaxed of any of these games.
You Should Skip This Game If: You’re not a big fan of town & world builders, or you aren’t keen on waiting for updates. There’s more than enough here for hundreds of hours of gameplay already, but as of this review there is clearly more to come, as well.
Dead in Vinland
Whelp we’re going from super light-hearted and relaxing to the polar opposite. I absolutely love Dead in Vinland, but this can be a very rough and unforgiving game. It’s also a storyline heavy on survival and with a constant struggle against dying from despair. If you are super sensitive to depressive themes that can include despair, death, and suicide – be warned you may want to skip this one.
For those who are okay with these topics and perfectly fine with handling some very dark potential storylines, then Dead in Vinland has a lot to offer. The opening scene paints a strong picture, the combat is simple but enjoyable, survival is challenging, and you will almost certainly die your first couple of runs.
There are many different characters on the island who lead to many potential storylines and very different interactions between not only your family but the other characters on the island you may invite in as allies. Mainly a survival game with exploration, there are combat mechanics and a moving storyline as your eventual goal isn’t just to make a sustainable community, but to become powerful enough to fight the warlord threatening you and your family.
For people happy to dive into a potentially heart-wrenching video game if the story is great and you have the chance to make things right, then Dead in Vinland has a lot to offer. But you’ll need the true heart of a viking to make it.
This game is incredibly challenging and can go dark quickly. However, if you’ve been looking for a really rough survival game that captures the genuine struggle of survival combined with great writing and some combat – this is the game that gives you the perfect combination of features to embrace the challenge and pour in the hours of playtime.
You’ll Love This Game If: You love very challenging survival games, great story telling, and particularly challenging management games.
You Should Skip This Game If: You don’t care about story (there’s a lot of text here), hate having any degree of luck in gameplay, or don’t like really dark topics like starvation, violence, or suicide – all of which can be part of the storyline of this game.
Wayward is a very busy game, as the screenshot below shows, and there’s no denying there is a learning curve there. Don’t let the relatively simple retro graphics fool you: this is a quality crafting and survival game. Learning the tools you can craft, creating a safe camp, and figuring out what you can use as a weapon in combat versus not (this isn’t as intuitive as you might think) takes some time, but it is extremely rewarding when it really starts coming together in your head.
There’s so much to keep track of, so much exploring to be done, and the random generation of islands means games can play very differently. Some will start you on an island with virtually everything you need while others will have you desperately swimming around sharks to find an island with drinking water on it.
There isn’t much hand holding or guidance with Wayward. You’re on your own to learn, but with the inventory and crafting tables open to the side you will be able to try a lot of things quickly and learn just what it is you need to look for. The learning curve is a bit steep but if you are willing to put in the up front investment you’ll find Wayward to be a surprisingly in-depth survival game that really does pay off the time you invest with loads of fun as you catch on to what you need to do.
Don’t let the retro design fool you: there’s some serious strategy and thought put into the design of this one!
You’ll Love This Game If: You love retro pixelated games and you love survival games. This is a combination of both and has a surprising depth to it for a survival game that makes it very playable for long periods of time.
You Should Skip This Game If: You don’t like heavily pixelated art or survival gangs that don’t give you much guidance. This is a “figure it out yourself” style of game. No hand holding here!
Plenty Here to Play Away!
There’s virtually no chance that your Steam library has all of these titles. If it does, and you’ve played through them all…well hat’s off to you. That is a mighty fine eye for outstanding independent games on Steam. There are certainly worse ways to spend dozens or even hundreds of hours than the games on this list.
There are many more great independent games out there on Steam. There are those widely known and famous ones like those mentioned in the beginning, but also cult classics like The Banner Saga series and This War of Mine. Tharsis, Inmost, and Waste Walkers are other examples of great independent games that have a very small devoted following or offer great gameplay without much fanfare.
There are always many good games that get plenty of attention on Steam, and yet still some true gems that go under most people’s radar. Keeping track of all the great independent games out there is going to be a challenge. Hopefully this post has given you a list of games to add to your next gaming marathon!
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Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years. You can find his other work in publications like Level Skip or Hobby Lark.