Winner – Celeste
Celeste is one of the most fascinating indie games in years, telling a compelling narrative through simple 16-bit graphics. But if Celeste’s beautiful portrayal of mental illness and depression isn’t enough to sell you on the game, you should know that mechanically, it’s one of the best indies of all time.
Every level in Celeste follows the design philosophy that makes the older Mario games so great. At the start, each level presents a new mechanic, like a strong wind or spring-loaded launcher. That mechanic is then explained and emphasized over the course of the stage. You might be struggling with simple gaps towards the beginning, but you’ll be soaring with grace from ledge to ledge by the end.
Of course, none of the level design would matter if the base physics and movement stunk. Great news: they don’t! The three simple commands (jump, air-dash, and climb) make for levels with an infinite combination of precise button presses and timing. You’ll jump off a ledge, grab a wall, wall-jump back and forth, leap off, air-dash, and land on the other side of a chasm with a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
Many fast-paced platformers or combat-based games like Dead Cells are hampered by their loading times. Once you die, you sit there for half a minute or so, angrily waiting to try all over again. Celeste is incredibly good at dropping you back into a level instantly. Not only that, but you only respawn at the beginning of the screen of death, instead of all the way at the beginning of the level. It may sound like a small touch, but it subtly makes death and failure a lot more palatable when the punishment for death is so minimal and so quickly resolved.
Celeste is a masterclass in level design, ramping up the difficulty, and movement-based platforming. It’s one of the most challenging yet satisfying games since the days of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. It is, without a doubt, our favorite indie of 2018.
Written By: Ethan Braun
Runner-Up – Dead Cells
Few games this year will absolutely kick your ass as much as Dead Cells. A slightly off-center game that meets somewhere between Dark Souls, Metroid, and Rogue Legacy, Dead Cells takes the best elements of both Metroidvanias and roguelikes to create an entirely unique experience. Most of the time roguelikes feel devoid of soul and personality; but Dead Cells only takes the very minimum of elements from roguelikes to create a game that’s absolutely oozing with charm and dark humor.
This is a game where you’ll feel completely unstoppable on one playthrough, and barely scraping by on the next. It’s a game about learning enemy patterns and using whatever supplies you can find to your advantage. Thankfully, you’ll be able to find permanent upgrades through the cells you collect by defeating enemies; just don’t die, or you’ll lose them all. The absolute best part about playing Dead Cells is figuring out which combination of items works best for you. For me, I quickly learned that a ranged and melee weapon combination was my best friend.
Sometimes I couldn’t find anything better than that dang bow and arrow, but I made it work, darn it! I’ve never been through so many feelings of joy and absolute despair until I played Dead Cells, and that’s why I absolutely love it. Even after beating it, I find myself drawn to it, and I’d be surprised if I can make it to the end ever again. But I’m trying. And I’ll keep on trying because that’s what Dead Cells does to you. You will totally be put through the wringer while playing this game, but half of the time all you want to do is keep on pushing, and that’s what makes it one of the best games of the year.
Written By: Aidan Simmonds
Third Place – Return of the Obra Dinn
Detective games usually fall into one of two traps. They’re either entirely vague, leaving the player to make unreasonable logical leaps and inevitably look up the answer. Or they’re too “hand-holdy,” presenting problems that are given away by the UI elements or gameplay itself. Return of The Obra Dinn is neither of those two things. Instead, it straddles the line between the two extremes, while also telling a fascinating story through a series of character deaths.
Return of The Obra Dinn is unique, in that you see exactly how each and every crew member of the ship dies or escapes. Using the power of a magical pocket watch, you go back in time and view the moment when each person dies, often in gory detail. There’s no “how did he die?” mystery here; you know exactly who was shot, stabbed, strangled, exploded, crushed, or thrown overboard. The real challenge is figuring out the victim’s identity.
Using an extensive list of the ship’s entire crew, you’re tasked with matching each passenger with their method of death and murderer (if applicable). But they aren’t exactly wearing name tags; you must be extremely attentive to every detail and character interaction. Based on how characters behave, what they wear, where they’re located, and how they speak, you’ll learn each crew member’s name and intention, and apply that information to your ever-growing understanding of the ship’s network of passengers.
As the narrative unfolds and you reveal more and more identities, it becomes apparent that there’s something more at play than a simple boat crash—but I’ll leave it there.
Return of The Obra Dinn is intricate, fascinating, and has kept me pondering the events of its multilayered plot long after I stopped playing. It fed me just enough information to lead me from one discovery to the next, while also requiring a great deal of forethought and deductive reasoning. Hands down, it’s one of 2018’s best games.