EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Llewelyn Griffiths
previewed on PC
AN EVOLUTION OF THE ROGUELITE
When it comes to the Roguelike genre I tend to be a bit of a traditionalist. Roguelikes are focused almost entirely on mechanics and the random nature of the level design forces the player to be flexible. Without the opportunity to memorise the layout of a level, the reward comes from pure mechanical mastery. Now one could argue the same about any game, the difference with traditional Roguelikes; there is no form of artificial progression. You are in the same shoes from your first run to your hundredth, your progress and knowledge of the game is utterly internal and this makes for a very unique sense of growth. Roguelites, such as Dead Cells aim to blur the line between artificial progression and the perma-death nature of Roguelikes. Providing a tangible sense of progression between playthroughs, that many “traditionalists” might dismiss as dumbing down the genre. Thankfully, Dead Cells grabs the definition by the collar and shows us how it’s done, meshing Metroidvania with Roguelikes and ultimately, evolving the genre.
Moment to moment interaction is a clear focus of Dead Cells, movement is fluid, weapons are precise and enemy attacks are clearly projected. With the exception of elite monsters and bosses none of the enemies I encountered had too many hitpoints, with a few swings of your sword they collapse into a sprinkle of gold. With this, the same applies to yourself, but with each chunk of damage you take there is an opportunity to get your health back through continuous landed attacks. This encouragement to keep fighting, even when you take damage, also lends itself to the snappy controls. There is no stamina bar either, allowing you to jump and roll to your heart’s content. The movement isn’t perfect though, some ledges are climbed automatically making it rather frustrating when you’re trying to go downwards. Crouching doesn’t pan the camera downwards either, resulting in a few blind falls that might land you on some spikes.
STAB, SLASH, AND ZAP
The weapons also match the reactionary combat, providing a selection of electric whips, short-swords, rapiers, and daggers, without any heavy weaponry such as axes or war hammers to be seen. While this lack of variety could be seen as bad thing, a slower style of combat would be contradictory to how the movement works. As a result, shields often feel underwhelming, especially when you can swap them out for another source of damage.
Most areas will take you about 3-5 minutes to complete, however it isn’t necessary to track down every monster for experience points. You cannot level up from simply grinding enemies, your three attributes, Health, Strength and Skill are acquired through obtaining scrolls throughout the levels. Some scrolls will give you a choice of which attribute to upgrade, while others don’t. It’s a system that gives you the opportunity to back off if you find yourself in deep water, considering the lack of traditional experience points you don’t feel compelled to grind your way to victory. Between the frenetic combat, you’ll be deciding which skills, weapons and amulets to equip. Comparing stats is effortlessly shown, clearly showing which weapon, or skill does the most damage. That doesn’t mean the decisions are easy to make however; sometimes a weapon, or even an experience scroll will be locked behind a door that costs gold to open. If you’re feeling especially confident you can break down the door without paying a fee, getting a curse in return. It’s these kinds of decisions which make Dead Cells very compelling, even in the early, easier parts of the game.
Many Roguelites prior to Dead Cells have added persistent elements with each playthrough, allowing you to permanently upgrade your character making it easier for your future attempts. Dead Cells does this through acquiring blueprints and spending Cells. Between each level you can spend any Cells you’ve collected from dead enemies on permanently upgrading weapons, skills and starting items. But what really separates Dead Cells from the crowd are the Metroidvania aspects of the design. Progressing through the game you will also earn permanent abilities that give you access to completely different areas.
Initially the first area will only have one critical path, but after getting an ability that lets you grow vines, other areas will become available, branching out from the first. These new areas are much harder, but provide more powerful loot. The difficulty of these areas are highly dependent on your weapons and skills too. If you find an amulet that negates poison, it might be wiser to through The Old Sewers rather than the Ramparts. On the flip-side, if you have long range weapons the open space of the Ramparts is probably a better choice. This makes for some interesting decisions that separates each playthrough from the last. Some sections of the map are also locked behind timed doors, only allowing you through if you reach it by a certain minute mark.
As an early access title Dead Cells certainly isn’t complete. As it stands there are only two major bosses, and there are a few minor kinks with some especially powerful item builds. Overall however, the loop of killing, buying items, upgrading, leveling up and dying horribly is nearly flawless. With over 10 hours of play, I still don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface. With an estimated time of 8 – 12 months before Dead Cells is officially released, it’s exciting to think what additions will be made in future updates.
There are no guarantees - but we'd bet our own money on this one. If you're going to take a chance with yours, odds are good this one will deliver.