Dead Cells is an action-platformer from Motion Twin, an independent studio whose wealth of experience really shines through in this highly polished gem. Set in an ominously barren castle, populated only by a smattering of otherworldly foes, Dead Cells is an adventure which distorts the Castlevania / Metroid formula, whilst essentially being a love letter to it. The game embraces rogue-lite staples such as permadeath, randomly-generated environments and engaging combat, but employs them in refreshingly nuanced ways.
Each game begins with the unnamed protagonist congealing out of a mass of biological matter, and arming themselves in preparation for battles to come; the unknown soul’s mission being to hack-and-slash their way through an ever-changing realm, full of senselessly aggressive enemies, with no particular rhyme or reason. Importantly, if the player character dies in the attempt, they’ll wind up right back at the very beginning, and will have to soldier on through the rigmarole all over again; there are no checkpoints here, and no objectives as such – other than to make it further through the world than you did in your last playthrough.
In addition to Dead Cell’s array of enemies, the game’s dynamic environments present a challenge in themselves. Unlike games like Dark Souls – in which progression becomes an exercise in memorising the map, and the placement of enemies – Dead Cells’ world changes on every playthrough, meaning that each run is unique; the world follows a pattern, in the sense that there are named areas which always appear in the same order (each with a recognisable theme and set of enemies), but the structure (the map) within those areas differs each time.
As characters progress, they’ll accumulate cells – primarily by killing enemies, but also through exploration – which can be used to purchase weapons and spells from ‘the Collector’, or to augment characters’ abilities… provided they stay alive long enough to spend them. Players will drop their cells whenever they die, and – once this happens – they’re gone forever; frustratingly enough, you won’t find them neatly piled up on the spot you died at, you’ll simply have to earn them all over again.
Each new area of Dead Cells’ world is preceded by a strange little lobby in which you can ‘bank’ your cells: spending them on new equipment, or more permanent (and therefore more expensive) upgrades. Periodically, ‘mutations’ are also made available; these are essentially Dead Cells’ answer to perks, and they generally amplify the player-character’s abilities – whether that be by increasing damage dealt, or reducing the cooldown on abilities – though some mutations have single-use effects: such as ‘Ygdar Orus Li Ox’, which gives players a chance to cheat death on a one-time-only basis.
The upgrade system has its merits, but the major downside is that it can feel a little aimless. In the main, you’ll be using your accumulated cells to buy weapon unlocks; you will collect blueprints for various pointy / explodey things across your many playthroughs, and these items can then be crafted once you’ve got enough cells – but there’s a pretty big catch. Once you die, having crafted said weapon, you’ll not only lose that weapon, but you won’t be able to craft it again on your next playthrough. Instead, the Collector’s little ledger will helpfully record that you’ve bought it, and it will be added to the pool of items you might encounter in the world thereafter.
The result of this is that it often doesn’t feel as though you’re really working toward anything; in fact, buying/unlocking weapons can actually be a bad idea in the long run, since by buying a bunch of weapons, and increasing the pool of available weapons, you’re actually decreasing the chances of coming across any given item. There’s no doubt that the game has an extensive catalogue of weapons – all of which are extremely fun to play around with – but these fit very different playstyles, and the randomisation aspect doesn’t allow for much player control in this respect.
Motion Twins’ website refers to Dead Cells as a ‘souls-lite’ experience, owing to the formulaic nature of the encounters with bosses and minions; however, whilst it’s certainly true that all fights follow a pattern which you’d be well advised to learn, by and large the combat is actually far more fluid here than in anything we’ve seen FromSoftware. Particularly on timed runs, you’ll find yourself furiously side-scrolling, cutting down crowds of enemies opportunistically, in a flurry of blood and pixels.
There’s also a far greater emphasis on the stat bonuses provided by weapons and abilities, and the interactions between them; for example, in one play-through, you might find a sword which deals +100% damage to burning enemies, and therefore rely more heavily on Flame Brand (an ability which sets enemies on fire); whilst, in another, your weapons might deal damage based upon whether your enemy is bleeding, in which case you will want to use traps which excel at drawing blood. These interactions can be very important to bear in mind against bosses and elite enemies, as not only can they deal massive damage, they can soak it up too.
Dead Cells’ boss fights, which involve your traditional, pattern-based, arcade-style slog, are the culmination of its brutally rewarding combat. The development team clearly understood that there are few experiences in life that can surpass the feeling of satisfaction when you land a killing blow on a boss, having fought tooth and nail, with barely a sliver of your own health bar remaining. As it stands, there are just four bosses in the game (although, it seems the team at Motion Twin is committed to developing additional content over time), but don’t expect an easy ride – each one is gruelling, and the lack of checkpoints means you’ll be fighting these bosses time and time again, until you finally manage to make it through to the bitter end.
With its beautifully twisted take on the Metroidvania formula, Dead Cells is at once one of the most frustrating and most satisfying games I’ve ever played. At times, the game is nothing short of brutal, and you’ll feel like someone, somewhere, has a vendetta against you; stick with it, though, because when the stars align, and everything goes your way, the pay-off is absolutely incredible. Given that such rewarding gameplay is coupled here with some of the most aesthetically pleasing pixelscapes going, there is very little to fault in Dead Cells; we feel it is only right, however, that we deduct a few points for the repetitive strain injury suffered, and – of course – for the controllers which sadly perished along the way.
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