I did some research into recent indie titles, not so much for visual style but for the sorts of animation they use.
Dust: An Elysian Tail
“2D is more than an aesthetic—there’s an immediacy to 2D controls. There’s something indescribably satisfying with a good 2D platformer that you rarely get in 3D.”
Dust brings a life and sense of depth to characters usually only found in high-budget 2D animated films.
For Pid, another acclaimed indie title, I find the character has less emotion and personality (3D but in a 2D platformer style.) However, some of the background character animations have more personality and depth (skip to 0:22), so I definitely think it is possible in this style.
Dustforce employs a slick graphical style but also gives the character more personality through its silhouette and movement. The characters have simple designs, but this works far better for the characters’ sizes on screen and the speed of the gameplay involved.
Mark of the Ninja also employs similar cloth and particle effects (dust) in a 2D environment.
Journey relies on the cloak movement for the main character’s animation. Its animation is closely tied to the environment around it and the mythos of the environment, making the animation itself stronger because it is in context.
They Bleed Pixels is a highly lauded game from the last year, but I feel the animation lets down its quality. Where it could have brought engaging animation full of personality, it is instead bland without follow-through. Why are her arms static? Why does she not use them when kicking or double jumping?
Fez is a better example of pixel art animation that retains personality and interesting movement.
Castle Crashers uses 2D sprites, but as they move on 3D planes the form and depth rendered must be exact. This is executed well, while being helped along by the simple but recognizable character silhouettes.
Don’t Starve is another recent title from Klei (Mark of the Ninja.) I stumbled across one of their developers taking about the animation process (here http://gamedev.stackexchange.com/questions/44319/what-animation-technique-is-used-in-dont-starve) It looks very similar to After Effects animation, but is in fact done in Flash with custom scripts. It’s a very stylised form of animation but it works for the illustrated style of the game.
Bit Trip Runner was one of my favourite games of the last few years, as is Runner 2. Updating the graphics to 2.5 D from the arguably overdone ‘retro pixel art’ style let the animation move forward immensely. Even in the first few moment of this video, where you see the Runner’s visor, you know who the character is and how he runs, before he is revealed. That is good animation to me.
A game that uses personality in a animation to great effect is Guacamelee. When the character is listening to people, or not running and fighting, he takes on a bored body posture and look. The style is highly graphic but very slick, and like Journey fits the world and story nicely.
Everyone mentions Limbo, so I’ll mention it now. Through silhouette and movement alone you now it is a young, scared child. Everything he does in animation links back to gameplay and how it affects the game world.
Through this research I’ve decided I want to focus my animation on:
exaggerated movement, slickness, personality, fast movement, big movements, dust/movement effects, cloth animation, and sense of depth.