by Sean Martin
reviewed on PC
There isn’t much initial exposition in Motion Twin’s long-time coming rogue-lite/metroidvania, Dead Cells. If the intro implies anything, you are a corpse reanimated by some kind of fungus/corpse essence? But it is a game that is both very relaxed and genre-aware. There are lots of jokes based around absurd morbidity and plenty of fourth wall breaking jokes about the typical no-identity game protagonist. You begin in a prison (the first kind of cell) and a few NPC conversations later, you are off exploring the island. There are no central objectives as such, but combat, gathering of upgrade currency, ‘cells’ (the second kind of cell) and exploring, are what you will fill your time with.
Oh, and dying, lots of dying. Dead Cells may describe itself as souls-lite in many aspects, but in Dark Souls, you don’t actually have to die, if as the kids say, you ‘git gud’. But in Dead Cells, it feels like more of a necessity. If you don’t die, the map doesn’t change and your experience of the game is limited. Also multiple runs and deaths allows you to gather more ‘cells’ which allow you to choose upgrades, making each successive death and playthrough easier. The only quite annoying part of this, is no chance of item recovery and that you have to run through all the previous areas if you die. Though when you defeat elite enemies, you will get ‘runes’ which will unlock access points to new areas.
But the combat is pretty satisfying, the swords and daggers are a real pleasure to hack and slack with. Also with two button-linked weapon slots, you can create combos, as well as using special items in your other two slots, such as grenades, wolf traps, or turrets. The way I beat the first boss was a combo of this; a rare turret I found linked with repeated ice grenading. Dead Cells has described its combat as souls-lite, and while there is definitely variation, the fact that when you die, you lose all of your skill upgrades and weapons, means it isn’t quite. In Souls you make a character, upgrade weapons, ‘a build’ so to speak. But in every playthrough in Dead Cells, the sheer randomness of what weapons you actually find and the new allotment of skills means you never end up quite the same. Some people would love this, but for me personally, I began to grow somewhat tired/lose investment in the idea of this protagonist being ‘my character’.
On the plus side, Dead Cells has made a fantastic design choice in that enemies don’t hurt you when you touch them. When I played metroidvania Sundered last year, my main complaint was how enemies hurting you on touch, in a 2D platformer, with limited jump and dodge through enemies, makes the game almost unplayable. It works in games like Hollow Knight, where you have a huge jump distance and a mid air dodge. But in Dead Cells you have a small jump height and a dodge through enemies. However, it works because they made that key design decision.
There isn’t much to say on this front; you are on an island and the only real reason I can see the game is called Dead Cells is you gather ‘cells’ and prisons have cells, plus the procedurally generated spaces are also ‘cells’ in a sense. I met a few NPCs but kept having the problem that when I died, they seemed to disappear permanently, as the level reformed around them. The other NPCs are just vendors, who offer little, apart from as in metroidvania/souls tradition, being absolute weirdos.
I did enjoy moving through the areas however, each feels distinctive and flavorful. Plus Dead Cells has what every rogue-lite should: momentum. The movement, the combat, the platforming; all need to fit together into perfect sequence, allowing a player to quickly navigate areas and not break rhythm. In games where you’re required to play similar levels, over and over, this improvisational quality is so necessary, and clumsy platforming or bad level design just ruin the game. Just look at Hollow Knight, it’s so smooth, you barely notice yourself moving and I am sure that is a significant part of that games success. Another refreshing aspect of Dead Cells is the world; it doesn’t feel gothic or dreary, but by comparison, is actually really vibrant and full of color and life. The pixelated art-style, which seems to have become a staple of some metroidvania, plays a big part in that vibrancy.
Dead Cells is a great rogue-lite/metroidvania, a wonderful art-style creating a world which you can hack and slash your way through with mechanical ease. There is plenty of combat variation, and while somewhat light on story, it makes up for it by instilling the game with a fairly casual tone. It didn’t feel like there was some grand destiny to be fulfilled; I just felt like a strange, happy-go-lucky, fungus re-animated corpse, killing my way for the sake of it. The pet-peeves I do have relate more to genre than anything else. The fact that dying takes skills and stats from you, really made it hard for me to get invested, or feel like I was making the character my own.
Also while the ever changing aspect of the levels, was probably one of the best times I’ve seen it done, running through the levels over and over, did grow a little tiresome. Especially when there aren’t more NPCs, or things to find (other than chests). But on the whole, if you like rogue-lite (or metroidvania), there is a hell of a lot to enjoy.
Great platforming momentum, combat variation, vibrant art-style
Couldn’t see much story, less investment from character ‘build’