Over the next few days, we will reveal what we believe are the ten best games of 2018, organized by release date. Then, on December 19, we will reveal which of the nominees gets to take home the coveted title of GameSpot’s Game of the Year. So be sure to come back then for the big announcement, and in the meantime, follow along with all of our other end-of-the-year coverage collected in our Best of 2018 hub.
On paper, Dead Cells is an amalgamation of familiar ideas, some of which have been recycled to the point of overexposure; the exploration, discovery, and gradual empowerment of Castlevania and Metroid, the trial-and-error runs of Spelunky, and the oblique world of Dark Souls. But what truly distinguishes Dead Cells is the harmony it achieves between these individual elements. Developer Motion Twin successfully captures the essence of each of the games it is inspired by and uses them to give life to an experience that is refined and refreshing.
Crucially, each of the ideas supporting Dead Cells is dynamic, ensuring that while aspects of its design may be familiar, the challenges they present are unpredictable. Whether it’s the shifting layout of the diverse environments you navigate, the weapons you wield to hack and slash enemies, or the abilities that support you, each one ensures that Dead Cells remains surprising in every single play session. Its variables are cards in a shuffled deck; you’re dealt a hand and you’ve got to figure out how to play it.
But this doesn’t come at the cost of a sense of progression and, most importantly, the feeling of growth and mastery. Dead Cells’ masterstroke is giving you the ability to influence these variables just enough to inspire the belief that things could go your way. At first, this is most evident in the route you progress through the game, which starts as a defined linear path but, over time, opens up, inviting you to chart your progress based on the confidence you have in your skills.
Death is unavoidable, but where games like Dark Souls, Metroid, and Castlevania reset your progress and ask you to run the same assault course again, using the knowledge of what awaits to inch forward until the next inevitable death, Dead Cells’ cycle of life and death is all in aid of bolstering your fundamental competencies. You gather the items, resources, and abilities that will eventually lead to that successful run, so each journey out into its decrepit world is in service of collecting cells to acquire weapons or abilities that flesh out your skillset.
While aspects of Dead Cells’ design may be familiar, the challenges they present are unpredictable … Its variables are cards in a shuffled deck; you’re dealt a hand and you’ve got to figure out how to play it
The weapons that are so crucial to success, however, are still subject to the luck of the draw, and buying them just ever so slightly increases the chance they’ll drop. You can never grow too attached to one loadout, as it almost certainly won’t be the same when your decayed body is given life once again. This is character development in the truest sense of the phrase. Dead Cells, by its very design, forces you to embrace experimentation, to reach for the unfamiliar and form an understanding of it.
That inability to truly know where you’re going and the way it constantly shoves you out of your comfort zone makes you earn that mastery you so crave. On paper, Dead Cells may seem like Metroid meets Castlevania with some Spelunky and a dash of Dark Souls, but in many ways its design is antithetical to the fundamentals of those games. Dead Cells, then, is an experience that stands on its own; distinct, thrilling, and constantly rewarding.