Dead Cells is a few different things at once. It’s a Metroidvania, with an ever opening up 2D world. It’s a roguelike, brutally difficult with punishing permadeath. It’s sort of a Soulslike/Salt and Sanctuarylike with weapon variety, attack variety and rolling with i-frames. It’s really hard to pin it down to one specific genre. What I can say though, is that even in Early Access on PC, it’s one hell of a fun game. For all its challenges and all my failures I couldn’t seem to stay away. Why do I think so highly of Dead Cells? Let’s find out.
Developed by: Motion Twin
Published by: Motion Twin
Release date: May 10th, 2017
Price at time of review: 16.99 USD
Dead Cells Features
- RogueVania: Intense 2D action with the adrenaline pumping threat of permadeath in a castle full of cuddly creatures.
- Souls-like combat: Pattern-based bosses and minions, weapons and spells with unique gameplay. Roll roll roll your boat gently down the stream…
- Nonlinear progression: Unlock new levels with every death, take a new path. Tired of the stinking sewers? Why not take the ramparts?
- Exploration: Secret rooms, hidden passages, charming landscapes. A fine place for a holiday.
Story and Setting
There really is none. I mean, there is something there but the basic premise is you are a collection of cells with the ability to inhabit the bodies of dead soldiers. You don’t get a whole lot of exposition along the way other than you’re on a mission to reclaim cells for your amorphous mass. Whenever you die you come back to the starting prison, where you slither your way over to your next body and absorb a few insults from your cellmate. There’s definitely room for players to let their imaginations run wild and create their own stories. But if you’re looking for a sweeping tale of adventure, head elsewhere, as Dead Cells’ story makes Dark Souls look like Lord of the Rings.
The setting is diverse, as you begin your first of many numerous lives in a dank prison and proceed to make your way out and through the game’s different locations of which there are several. The NPCs you meet along the way are charming and their brief bits of dialogue are often quite humorous. There is an irreverance towards your character that is a refreshing change. You’re no hero of the land, nobody cares about your plight and the most cordial of them will tell you to cease wasting their time. There’s a bit of Castle Crashers indifference here that is smirk inducing and given my own personal sardonic nature, I was right at home while taking my lumps.
The gameplay is where Dead Cells shines as it succeeds in its wonderful mashup of genres. The one thing all of its aforementioned inspirations has in common is a brutal but fair difficulty. I died a lot. A lot a lot. And to be honest, I never really became discouraged. That’s because so many of the game’s elements were so well done, starting with the combat.
The combat in the game is not quite Soulslike as some have mentioned but it does have some elements, most specifically a rolling option that gives you invincibility frames and a regain mechanic that lets you regen health if you land some revenge attacks quickly. This is crucial given the game’s difficulty and for me became a constant go to, almost to the point of spamming. Eh, I’ll own it. I spammed it. You have to if you want to not only survive but move fast enough to exploit enemy openings. The rest of the control scheme is pretty straightforward, you have a main hand weapon, and can carry an off hand item like a shield or ranged option, which lets you make on the fly playstyle choices. You attack with combos, use learned skills, raise your shield to block (it will only stay up for a split second making you really time your blocks) and can jump and roll to your heart’s content. Speed is the name of the game with combat because to survive, often you will have to be doing a combination of many of your available actions almost simultaneously. It was common for me to block, roll, jump, attack, roll, skill, block in a the space of second and after a bit started to feel like an addicting 2D fighting game.
The weapon variety and their functions is outstanding and I found myself constantly trying new things, while gravitating towards old reliable options as I progressed. Each is unique and has advantages and tradeoffs, but none felt overpowered or underwhelming. You have your archetype classes represented: swords, daggers, whips, bows, grenades, etc and each is designed to suit a certain playstyle, while having wonderful variety within them. Their movesets are fun but pretty straightforward, not something you are going to be micro analyzing combos with like the Souls series but they all are very gratifying to use, especially once you start finding ones with unique qualities like poison or increased crit damage when your health is low. These unique abilities encourage you to play in different ways and really combine your options to create new powerful effects. The only trick here is lasting long enough to really taste that variety.
There is a silver lining to be had when faced with losing your gear upon death. The game features a permanent upgrade system that allows you to spend the cells and blueprints you’ve accumulated at a checkpoint like vendor in the world. What you unlock here stays permanent and gives you perks like extra health vials, permanent boosts to certain weapon types, better random options when starting a new life and more. Getting to this vendor and banking these cells is a real rewarding treat and feels similar to making it back to the Nexus in Demon’s Souls. This progression is the key to your survival as the only way you’re going to make micro progress is by gradually unlocking more and more upgrades that let you take advantage of opportunity when you land that great random drop.
The enemies that will send you to your repeated graves are another great design in Dead Cells. They conjure up memories of old school sidescroll gaming that gave each enemy a specific threat, whether it was an ability to jump at you, or toss something. Today, so many modern games just have Mr. Oatmeal enemy, who is a vague threat but mostly there for you to beat over the head while they vainly thrash about with a weapon of some sort. Dead Cells has enemies who excel at one thing, and have a definite weakness somewhere else. It’s up to you to defend against their strengths and then exploit their weakness. Making things more diabolical is when they are paired together with different foes who in some ways cover those weaknesses. This is where patience, studying and learning comes into play. After some hours of play, once you see an enemy, you know exactly how you should proceed flawlessly. Because that’s the key, you can’t just trade blows and heal up. You’ve got to kill and kill cleanly if you have any hope of progressing.
As I mentioned before, no matter how well you are prepared for your enemies, you will die a lot. When those deaths are permanent and force you to return to the beginning it hurts, and the progress you make will be measured in inches. But I kept coming back time after time even though there were periods where I made no progress. Like a kid jumping into a ball pit over and over again, it was the leap and the wonderful impact that kept me coming back. Sure I’d get tired of repeating the same area over and over but all of Dead Cells’ mechanics are so well done and so well tuned, that it wasn’t long before I was ready to jump back in. There are nice touches when you die and return back to the first cell. In addition to the snarky insults you will see the things you’ve unlocked along the way, and they serve as a nice pat on the back and reminder that yes, you do suck, but you don’t suck that bad. And when you manage to proceed through a large swathe of new content? You feel like a boss.
The levels themselves change procedurally (slightly) as you die, and although they are interesting to explore its nooks and crannies for treasure, every now and again there are dead ends and hiccups that cut a little of the reward of seeking out. For the most part though, they are very well designed and you look forward to progressing to that next biome, if for nothing else, confirmation that you are actually playing the game well.
There are still some portions of the game yet to be finished, as there are only presently several levels and a handful of bosses, but if that sounds like you’ll be finished fast, guess again. It will take you time to get through that seemingly small amount of content and even as you improve, you’ll continue to stay challenged. For the most part, the game is feature complete, with all of the major elements represented, for now it’s missing some more peripheral features like a record.
Audio & Visual
Dead Cells is gloriously vivid and colorful and features a wonderful blend of old school pixel graphics and modern colorization and lighting. It’s a primary color extravaganza with a wonderful art style that is approachable due to color, but has just the right amount of badass attitude. It’s never dreary, but it also is never saccharine. It’s design is top notch and the game leads with it, so much so that it become the best marketing for new players. Not normally a huge fan of permadeath rogues myself, I found the art style enough to draw me in and give the game a chance. I’m glad I did so.
The music is similarly great, with a soundtrack that hits all the right notes. It’s exultant, celebratory and highly motivating. The sound effects, especially when you connect with a weapon are cutting and rewarding. Combined, the audio and visual get you going. They are a sensory treat and together form a big reason why it’s hard to get discouraged, even after the 20th consecutive death.