August is a strange month for games. Falling just before the annual Fall release deluge while still being part of the Summer drought, Game of the Year favorites can emerge at this time one year while the next can be a barren wasteland. This August featured a variety of titles including HD remasters of classics Okami and Shenmue, this year’s entry in the juggernaut sports franchise Madden NFL, a new World of Warcraft expansion, and a number of notable indie titles like Guacamelee 2, We Happy Few, and Death’s Gambit. Our pick for this month’s award falls in the latter category. One of Steam Early Access’ few shining achievements, a genre-bending and kinetic experience with a splash of controversy just to tip the scales, our August Game of the Month is independent studio Motion Twin’s roguevania Dead Cells.
There has not been a game released this year that is as frenetic as Dead Cells. Developing a collected strategy and moving cautiously through the game’s dangerous environments may often be the best course of action, but you’ll very rarely want to play the game like that. This game is at its best when you’re flying off ledges, hacking through bosses, and dodging past enemies to slash at their ankles. It’s practically egging you on to move faster and faster, with frequent speed buffs and timed doors that reward you handsomely for playing like some cracked out Jason Bourne on fire. Dead Cells’ gameplay is addictingly good to say the least and losing all your hard work just to restart at the beginning whenever you die only fuels the fire to push forward again.
All this over the top carnage takes place within the game’s unconventional structure. Combining the metroidvania and roguelike genres shouldn’t work. A roguelike’s use of randomly generated maps, enemies, and gear should undermine the metroidvania emphasis on becoming intimately familiar with a map through exploration. Yet Dead Cells manages to do the impossible, providing a system that integrates randomized weapons and enemy spawns into a world filled with branching paths and persistent player growth. It’s an impressive design feat, especially considering the game had been in Steam Early Access for over a year. It’s rare for games to launch out of this service to widespread acclaim and Motion Twin’s recent release is certainly a major endorsement of the service’s benefits. Hopefully, the future of Early Access will bear more polished fruit like Dead Cells rather than Ark: Survival Evolved.
Of course, there’s still one elephant in the room: IGN’s review plagiarism scandal. The controversy surrounds YouTube reviewer BoomStick Gaming’s accusations that IGN editor Filip Miucin plagiarized his review. A black stain on the side of IGN, the dramatic event swallowed up a good chunk of the media related to Dead Cells. Something like this has never happened before, at least not on so big a scale and involving a source with so much repute. This single moment is certain to have ripple effects within the industry for years to come, affecting how people consume and talk about games, especially in reference to video game journalism. As bad as the situation became, however, it couldn’t completely outshine the public’s warm reception of the game. That’s a testament to Motion Twin’s significant achievement. For genre-bending in the best possible ways, being ground zero for the industry’s most dramatic and controversial events of the year, and most of all for standing as a true success in video game design, Dead Cells earns our August Game of the Month.