The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 24th


The last door awaits. Before you enter, what will you take with you? Your choice could change everything…

It’s Dead Cells!

Matt: I didn’t expect to spend 35 hours and counting in Dead Cells, but they snuck up on me. At the start, every new area (apart from maybe the first) is an awful, terrifying gauntlet that you have to slowly crawl your way through. Normal enemies seem relentless and tough, and the elite versions of them almost impossible to get past without chugging through an entire stock of health potions.

But over a few hours, with each repeated encounter feeling fresh thanks to the magic of procedural generation, that changes. You go from being afraid of the world to on top of it, sliding and slashing your way across platforms without pausing for breath.

Once I’m comfortable in an area I’m constantly in motion, dispatching an enemy every other second as I combat roll through screen after screen. The game plays to its strengths, rewarding you with a speed and damage boost for each enemy you kill in quick succession. Rewarding skill with power might be a questionable design choice in a multiplayer game, but here it adds to the feeling that you’re a slick, unstoppable ninja.

There’s more to praise than the movement. A smart unlock system means the currency you collect from every slain enemy feels genuinely meaningful. The upgrades dovetail with your growing skills to allow you to push deeper into the game, expanding your arsenal as you do. I get far more excited about finding a rare blueprint in Dead Cells than I do a new gun in Destiny. Plus, it’s got the most gorgeous pixel art since Duelyst. I’ve only spent an hour or so with the latest update, and who knows how much more time I’ll have put into it by the time it’s actually finished.

Brendan: Dead Cells deserves its place atop this throne of bones. When I first received a press release about this fast-paced monster slasher, the developers called it a “roguevania” and my lips contracted into a thin, contemptuous grimace, like a couple of dying earthworms. But it also looked fiesty in GIF form. So I took the headless hero of the game for a spin and discovered polished, pixel-perfect combat. I tasted the blood of its throwing knives, licked the frost off its ice grenades, and savoured death at the hands of a big-armed fire-flinging menace. I carried on, perfected its roll, its double-jump and its shield parry (well, almost). Reader, I killed that firey apeman and I came away with my earthworm lips curled up like I was the Grinch. “Roguevania”? The creators of this game can call it whatever they want.

Alec: I was a Johnny come lately to Dead Cells, not able to fit it in back when half my colleagues were joyfully ranting about it, and truth be told, I put it off because I figured it’d be too hardcore. Not in terms of being too difficult, but in terms of feeling playing it successfully would need to be a second career.

Well, I broke the seal and now all I can think about is Dead Cells, so I was halfway right. Up until a few days ago, it had been The Binding Of Isaac that occupied my every spare-time thought, but Cells has neatly and completely supplanted it. Much has been made of Cells’ tapping into Dark Souls and Metroidvania bloodlines, but, coming straight to it from Isaac, I can see just how strong that lineage is too. I.e. the combination of never know what you’re gonna get with slowly increasing the total pool of available goodies, and finding that sweet spot that, though death is gutting, you’re always highly motivated to try again immediately.

And that’s the secret sauce here – you never feel that you’ve wasted your time, and the slow growth of both your own ability and the toys you can call on to survive your voyage through this eerie underworld means there is real conviction that next time, this time, you’re going all the way.

This is one of those games that fits my lifestyle with almost creepy precision. The sense of accomplishment within a lunchbreak; the sense of going somewhere else; the sense of a story told only through implication around the edges; the sense that I will always pull a little more from it; the sense that it doesn’t put a foot wrong in terms of controls and interface, so every failure can be pinned on me and me alone. A jigsaw piece that fits perfectly right now. Dead Cells is going to live in my head for a long, long time to come.

Graham: Watched in videos, Dead Cells seems like total chaos. There are mobs of enemies leaping and dive-bombing, thorns are sprouting across the architecture, explosions are popping constantly, and magic effects are whooshing this way and that. Yet it’s surprising how quickly it becomes readable when you’re actually playing it, even for an amateur like me. From my first few minutes with it I could see an enemy’s pounce attack being clearly telegraphed, which meant I could time my dodge roll and attack it from behind. It felt methodical, satisfying – a feeling driven home by the sound and animation.

Then I’d advance and get overwhelmed. Too many enemies made for total chaos again. But I’d keep trying, and bit by bit those harder fights would come under my control. Drop a turret here; roll over there; spam grenades everywhere. Enemies would pop with a delightful squish, points would scatter across the gutstained floor, and I’d hoover it up gladly while rushing onwards. I love all the systems Alec and Matt outline above, but when it comes down to it, I’m playing Dead Cells for how good it feels to hit things. They mention Dark Souls, Metroid, Isaac, and I agree and would add Diablo to the mix.

It’s also worth recognising something else: this is an early access game. Its systems have improved over the course of the past year, and the satisfaction of hitting things has been present from the first release. This isn’t the first time we’ve awarded an early access game in the advent calendar – Kentucky Route Zero was our top pick, notably, with only three episodes released – but it remains a rare instance of an early access game that’s worth playing immediately rather than holding out till it’s finished.

Katharine: Dead Cells isn’t normally my type of game. I bounced off The Binding of Isaac after about 20 minutes – not because of the gore but because I very much like games to have a beginning, middle and end that doesn’t require me to start again every time I die – and I’ve more or less steered clear of the genre ever since. Dead Cells, however, has won me back.

It still sends you back to the beginning each time you shuffle off your mortal coil, but the way it banks and carries over unlocked items is a stroke of genius. It makes the whole game feel like more of a journey, and even if you do end up spending the vast majority of your time dying over and over again in the first three main areas (did I mention I’m also rubbish at these sorts of games too?), the progress you make and the cells you collect still feels like time well spent. The controls and combat are also super satisfying despite the fact it’s still in Early Access, and its pixel art is just gorgeous. It’s made me want to give rogue-likes another chance, and that’s a rare thing indeed.

Adam: There were three games I’d gladly have put at the top spot this year: What Remains of Edith Finch, Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Dead Cells. Three games that’d be contenders in any year and all so very different to one another. There’s the short-form narrative invention of Finch, the enormity and sheer mechanical density of Divinity, and the endlessly replayable combat perfection of Dead Cells.

My learned colleagues have already described its brilliance – the precision of the controls, the beautiful ugliness of its setting, the challenge, the unlock system – so I’d prefer to take a moment to recognise how rich and diverse a year it has been. Dead Cells is, even in its early access form, at the bleeding edge of a certain kind of design, but even though it’s at the head of our 2017 table of honourables, it’s keeping company with cousins many times removed. There were so many games to admire in 2017 and I expect we’ll cast our net even wider in 2018.

Here’s to all of them, with an extra special round of applause for Dead Cells, which takes the crown this year.

Head back to the calendar to open the door to another of 2017’s best games.


Top comments

  1. lancelot says:

    In keeping with a tradition existing ever since 2016, I'll express my disappointment that the more traditional adventures didn't make the cut.

    It's true that while there were plenty of interactive stories, puzzles, puzzle-platformers and some curious hybrids, the more traditional adventures haven't flourished as much in 2017, compared to 2016.

    Almost all of the highlights were small casual adventures: Agatha Knife, HIVESWAP, Bear With Me, Sally Face, Midnight at the Celestial Palace (this one slightly less casual), Little Kite -- four of them episodic.

    Pixel art adventures are still going pretty strong, trying some interesting things: Chronicle of Innsmouth, Milkmaid of the Milky Way, The Darkside Detective -- also all on the casual side.

    There were some good ones that can count as a traditional rather than a casual adventure: Sandra and Woo, Darkestville Castle, The Inner World 2. Not many of those though (of good ones, that is).
  1. fish99 says:

    The links on the calendar for the days 20-23 seem to be broken for me.

  2. daphne says:

    Congratulations to Dead Cells, which has earned a purchase from me as of this endorsement. Looking forward to try it out.

    And a bit of a letdown for poor Cuphead, which surely should have had its place at least among the earlier days of the calendar, most of which are occupied by games no one will remember in a few months.

    Also Re: Graham’s comments, it’s worth noting that RPS had the vision to award KRZ with GOTY back when it only had two episodes released, not three (not sarcasm — it’s one of my favourite games ever).

    • mmandthetat says:

      Maybe you’re new to RPS. They pick their favorite games for their lists and can’t be bothered to make obligatory nods to titles based on cultural significance or popularity. This is why their lists are interesting and not just a ranking of the same games everyone’s already played and talked about ad nauseum before the list was published.

      • daphne says:

        There’s no need to even imply I’m new to RPS when I openly laud their 2013 GOTY pick as a thing of vision (check the actual entry in 2013 and see my comment there, if you’d like). Cuphead deserves to be on the list on two merits I can immediately think of: It has a recommended RPS wot-I-think, and the fact that it even exists is a feat unlikely to be replicated any time soon due to the realities of its production methods. You may consider its inclusion a nod to popularity but it’s really more of a matter of showing it some respect.

        But obviously I won’t lose sleep over it – duh!

        • GeoX says:

          Pretty sure a lot of games with the “recommended” label didn’t make the list.

  3. lancelot says:

    In keeping with a tradition existing ever since 2016, I’ll express my disappointment that the more traditional adventures didn’t make the cut.

    It’s true that while there were plenty of interactive stories, puzzles, puzzle-platformers and some curious hybrids, the more traditional adventures haven’t flourished as much in 2017, compared to 2016.

    Almost all of the highlights were small casual adventures: Agatha Knife, HIVESWAP, Bear With Me, Sally Face, Midnight at the Celestial Palace (this one slightly less casual), Little Kite — four of them episodic.

    Pixel art adventures are still going pretty strong, trying some interesting things: Chronicle of Innsmouth, Milkmaid of the Milky Way, The Darkside Detective — also all on the casual side.

    There were some good ones that can count as a traditional rather than a casual adventure: Sandra and Woo, Darkestville Castle, The Inner World 2. Not many of those though (of good ones, that is).

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      Aerothorn says:

      Thank you for the recommendations – I’ve struggled to find traditional adventures that I find truly great rather than merely pleasant, so I’ll look into these. Though I feel compelled to read Homestuck before playing Hiveswap…

      • emertonom says:

        That is…quite an undertaking. I took a swing at it a few years back when it was in development, and man, it is byzantine. I saw a reviewer compare it to Ulysses, simply on the grounds of its density.

        My understanding is that the game is actually a fairly accessible entry into the universe. I would not necessarily say the same of the comic, unless you have tremendous amounts of time.

        • April March says:

          I read Homestuck as it developed and I don’t think it feels anywhere as byzantine as it eventually becomes if one reads in a manageable pace. The ramp-up is quite smooth most of the time, and if the character development isn’t enough to make you care and understand the increasinly dense plot, then you simply don’t like Homestuck and that’s fine.

        • BooleanBob says:

          I tried reading in real time as it started. I lasted several months and then became un(home)stuck. Weirdly for a webcomic I found the pace of the updates was too fast to keep up with – every time I fell off the wagon for a couple of weeks I would find a small mountain waiting for me when I came back.

          Another entry point to find out whether Homestuck is for you might be the story Andrew Hussie wrote prior to it, Problem Sleuth. At about one sixth of the size of Homestuck, it gives a good sense of Hussie’s sense of humour and style of structure without being quite such an intimidating undertaking.

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      subdog says:

      To say nothing of Thimbleweed and Samorost 3.

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      zapatapon says:

      The Inner world 2 is out? Thank you for pointing this out to me! The Inner World was an absolutely delightful game, brought to my attention by John’s enthusiastic review. This makes me all the more surprised that there hasn’t been any mention of the second episode on RPS (beyond a post about the game announce more than one year ago).

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        Also glad to hear there’s an Inner World 2. The first was charming.

    • Marclev says:

      Best I can tell, The Inner World 2’s been given a completely cold shoulder by RPS, not even a mention of its release. I only found out about it through complete accident.

      Really strange, seeing as the original indeed got a good review, and was a fab point and clicker, but the only article on here is from last year announcing that the sequel was in development.

      Never heard of Sandra and Woo, Darkestville Castle, but I’ve been clamouring for some traditional adventure gaming, so thank you for the name drops, I will check them out!

    • Superelastic says:

      I’ve never seen a list article that hasn’t been immediately slagged off for not exactly matching the rest of humanity’s personal favorite games. But it does give a shed load of genre similar choices for people.

      More annoyed that I find RPS has logged me out every time I comment and then I have to spend 5 minutes sorting it out. Actually that’s probably saved everyone a lot of the inane bollocks I tend to spout.

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      alison says:

      Cheers for the recommendations. Not all my cup of tea, but i picked up three of them already.

      I’ve spent most of this year on the road so didn’t play many games and don’t have any great recommendations. I enjoyed what little i have played from 21 Days (refugee simulator vaguely reminiscent of Always Sometimes Monsters). I haven’t played the new Space Pilgrim yet, but i thought the first games did the RPG Maker walking sim/conversation-em-up thing really well, so this one should be a decent spin too. I picked it up in a pack with another sci-fi game by the same devs so i’m looking forward to a playthrough while Star Trek, The Orville etc are on break.

      One thing that i noticed on your list is the number of games using the little girl in pain trope. I generally don’t enjoy games with child protagonists to start with, but it feels particularly exploitative to me to constantly throw them into dark/horrific environments. I’m not sure why it seems to be such a popular theme in indie adventure games.

      • lancelot says:

        Thank you for the Space Pilgrim Academy pointer. I swear, those guys just don’t want anyone to discover their games.

    • ogopogo says:

      thanks for the all the additions I just made to my wishlist you jerk

    • alms says:

      No love for Yorkshire Gubbins?

      • lancelot says:

        Gotta say, Verb School is probably the best game tutorial ever.

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    Aerothorn says:

    Minor correction: Kentucky Route Zero had had only two episodes released when it got GOTY in 2013 (episode 3 came out May 2014).

    And of course it’s worth noting that Minecraft had only just hit beta when it snagged the award in 2010.

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    wellpapp says:

    What did Hollow Knight ever do to you?

    • Crafter says:


      Came to say this.

      The RPS reviewer did not like it at all which is entirely fair. The reasons given though ? They were entirely strange.

  6. Malkara says:

    Have you all considered using the steam curator list function to provide a full list of the advent calendar?

  7. Turkey says:

    Great pick. I love how versatile it is with letting you pick your own fighting style, and they’re all pretty viable for the most part. I was having the hardest time with it until I switched to standing my ground with a shield instead of rolling around and getting into trouble.

    I’d say this and Monolith were the highlights for me this year in terms of roguelites.

  8. Catterbatter says:

    I’ll enjoy this heaping portion of crow. I was so sure about Alwa’s Awakening. I would have picked maybe three of the titles that made the list. 2017 was a good year (for games)!

  9. Vasily R says:

    I have to say, I wasn’t expecting this to take the top spot. But then again, I haven’t played it yet lol.

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      particlese says:

      I’ve played it and am well pleased with it being highlighted anywhere in this list, let alone at the “top”, but yeah, I didn’t expect to see it here, either.

      [not so much a reply as additional comment] I like that RPS reviews by personal feel and don’t see the need to rank things all the time. (Only occasionally, and then sprinkled with grains of salt.) There are a great many good games I’d not have tried otherwise.

  10. Godwhacker says:

    Played it, quite liked it for a bit, then stopped. But that’s ok! Happy for the devs that they’re getting some recognition. I would have picked Caveblazers over this in the 2D roguesques, despite the pointless and hugely unfair challenge that is unlocking the true ending, but Dead Cells is arguably a more complete experience.

    Assuming they’ve finished it now?

    Prey remains my GotY, followed by Getting Over It, Evil Within 2 and Plunkbat in no particular order.

  11. Marclev says:

    Am I the only one fed up with rogue-likes? I guess at least this one’s trying to do something original, and I in fairness haven’t played it, but the perma-death mechanic just seems grindy to me nowadays.

    People will complain at length about some games having badly spaced checkpoints, but one that sends you back to the start every time you die is apparently ok…

    p.s. As someone who makes a point of buying finished games, having been stung by more than one early access title, I find it somewhat disappointing that an early-access game is the number 1 game of the year.

    • Sin Vega says:

      You’re not alone. It’s a fad that’s completely ruined several games I’d otherwise enjoy a lot.

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      alison says:

      Never liked them, i don’t get the appeal at all. I hadn’t even heard of this game before clicking on this Christmas door because i tend to scroll past the articles that talk about genres i don’t care about. Last year’s pick was a roguelike too, though, so i guess the RPS staff really dig the mechanic ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • mmandthetat says:

      I totally get why someone wouldn’t be into it, but it’s been a classic PC genre, one of THE most classic, since games were just blobs of text and symbols. It’s had a resurgence of popularity lately which (like extreme difficulty) makes some otherwise fine games more of a pain in the ass than they deserve to be, sure. But it’s not just some random fad.

      Also, there is NOTHING like the intensity of being in a sticky situation deep into a roguelike. No game with saves will ever feel like that.

      • KenTWOu says:

        No game with saves will ever feel like that.

        Almost any game with saves could feel like that, just don’t use them.

    • mmandthetat says:

      Also, if an Early Access game is better than a full release game, it’s a better game. Don’t see why they should be ineligible. PUBG was the biggest game of the year hands down.

      • Sin Vega says:

        Unfinished games can get worse as well as better.

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          Aerothorn says:

          Sure, but in the modern age most “released” games are unfinished, in the sense that they will get further patches and modifications that you can’t opt out of. Random examples include Dragon Age: Inquisition and everything released by Paradox.

  12. Darth Gangrel says:

    I see that Alec was a “Johnny come lately”, but what a bout John Walker? Was he a “Johnny come lately”? Has he even tried it at all?

    • Viral Frog says:

      I couldn’t see John as the type to enjoy any aspect of Dead Cells.

      • Unclepauly says:

        He will like it for the simple fact you think he won’t. :D

  13. Mi-24 says:

    Merry Christmas all

  14. and its man says:

    Posterity just called and it’s not happy with you not picking Everything.

    Merry Christmas you all!

  15. draglikepull says:

    I’m not nearly as big a fan of roguelikes as a lot of people seem to be (I’ve tried to get into Spelunky a bunch of times but whatever it is that other people love about that game, it just never clicks for me), but I’ve had a ton of fun playing Dead Cells so far. It’s kind of hard to describe exactly *why* Dead Cells is so good except to say that it has really well-tuned, satisfying combat. The roguelike structure lends it a bit of replayability, but even if it was a more traditional Metroidvania with a pre-defined set of levels, Dead Cells would still be a great game because the mechanics are just so much fun. I wouldn’t say it’s quite my Game of the Year (that’s Breath of the Wild), but it’s definitely up there for me.

  16. Cederic says:

    RPS truly excels in picking Games of the Year that leave me shaking my head sadly and shrugging in bewilderment.

    But at least you’re consistent in this, stay true to the games you like and write entertainingly about them. Thank you.

  17. Jerkzilla says:

    I just came here to say merry Christmas!

  18. bill says:

    I have tried and failed to get along with most of the recent wave of roguelike(likes).

    The core aspect of having to start from scratch when you die is just something that I find incredibly frustrating. (Unless it’s something like Devil Daggers, where you’re losing about 30 seconds of progress).

    The pixel art with colored lighting of this does look lovely though… it’s the one I’m most tempted to try.

    I think it’s funny that after a decade-or-two long trend of games improving quicksaving and auto saving to reduce frustrating loss of progress, and of every review / comments section complaining about things like bad checkpointing, we’ve now swung way back the other way to zero checkpointing and the way things were when I first got into gaming.

    Pop culture has pretty much always been defined by reacting against what came just before, leading to these cyclical trends.. but I wasn’t expecting it in terms of game saving.