I Live, I Die, I Live Again - Dead Cells (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
When following gaming news, especially the indie circuit, terms like “Metroidvania” or “Rogue-like” get tossed around fairly frequently. It seems there's always a new 2D side-scroller hitting the marketplace offering some melding of old meets new; but in the case of Motion Twin's Dead Cells, it feels like there's something special here that melds two things that normally don't go together.
Dead Cells melds the concepts of a Metroidvania with elements of a Rogue-like; it's funny because one of the core gameplay elements of a Metroidvania, collecting more powerful weapons, contradicts with the core concept of a traditional Rogue-like, losing everything when you die. Playing more like a “Rogue-lite-vania,” Dead Cells ends up being both things while sticking to the concepts that make both genres so engaging.
You are a mass of squishy flesh, squeezing your self in to a headless corpse before you brave the dangers of the prison before you. Basically you have to get as far as you can before you die and lose your shit. Killing enemies drops gold, blueprints, weapons, health, and most importantly cells. Cells are the main currency used to power-up your character and unlock blueprints which achieve a myriad of results from unlocking new weapons to allowing you to heal yourself mid run. Where the game's Rogue-like elements come in is in the urgency to make it to the next level, only after clearing a level can you spend cells. Basically, if you die before making it to the end of a level, you could throw away all the hard work you spent collecting cells and blueprints, something that can be frustrating.
Further complicating each run is the randomly generated maps. While some elements of the map may be familiar across runs, the enemy placement and overall structure of the map constantly changes. Some runs I can get lucky and speed through the first level while other runs leave me lost, but allow me to explore more of the map. This can seem intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it the experience opens up incredibly.
To help you along the way, Dead Cells features tight and well-tuned gameplay. Jumping, attacking, and dodging are all at the tip of a button and when you make a mistake it's never because the game is being cheap or unfair. Missing a dodge roll and getting your ass handed to you is clearly your fault. Challenging but fair, Dead Cells finds a balance that works to both keep you entertained despite dying... and coming back after each death. When you unlock new weapons and abilities, the game seems to encourage you to act liberally with your more powerful attacks. My personal favorite is the freeze blast, an ability that freezes your enemies with a condensed blast of cold. Coupled with a weapon that grants a bonus when attacking frozen enemies, this combo feels downright OP at times. While other games hinder ability use by shackling it to long refresh timers or a limited mana system, Dead Cells gives you the freedom to be as bad ass as you want, just know that the game will still be tough despite how bad ass you feel.
In order to keep the fight coming, you can power yourself up while on a run by unlocking scrolls that improve one of three stats; brutality (red), tactical (purple), and survival (green). Leveling up each stat grants an HP buff and a buff to the attack power of corresponding items. If you're using a weapon with a red outline, improving brutality will also buff the attack of that weapon. Not only do you have to find these scrolls, you have to decide whether it's worth it to stay balanced or plug all your points into one or two stats. Taking into account the random nature of the game, in many cases you don't have a choice.
One of the best ways I can explain what dying in Dead Cells is like is “learning your lesson” and doing better next time. Facing new enemies and dying hopefully teaches you how to better handle the enemy. In the quest to progress further, you have a few options in how to handle levels which can benefit both Metroidvania and Rouge-like fans. If exploring is your jam, you can freely explore the levels to your hearts content, if Rouge-like speed-running is more your speed... the game rewards you with unlocking timed doors for the speed demons. Powerful runes also permanently boost your character, granting abilities like breaking through floors or conjuring climbable vines. As you explore the world of Dead Cells, unlocking new weapons and spending cells to unlock blueprints will permanently affect your game going forward. New weapons can be found by getting lucky and picking them up, buying them from shops, or unlocking blueprints and spending cells to make that weapon available.
Dead Cells has a surprisingly satisfying gameplay loop, you start the level with level 1 weapons and brave the horrors of the level to make it to the end. Reaching the end grants you a slight reprieve before heading to the next danger filled map; here you spend cells, improve weapons, select mutations, and heal up/refill your health flask before moving on. Speaking of mutations, the game's mutation system allows you to unlock buffs that fit into the three previous stat categories of brutality, tactical, and survival. You can only unlock one mutation per stat, but if you have the gold you have the ability to reset your mutations in-between runs. New mutations can be unlocked via blueprints and spending cells, and thus continuing the gameplay loop. A simple premise that still manages to keep me engaged from my first to my fiftieth run.
Dead Cells hits that perfect sweet spot between an engaging Metroidvania and a challenging Rogue-like. Playing off on what makes these genres so unique while forging its own path forward. No matter how many times I die, I find myself coming back again and again... hoping to progress further each time. The challenging but fair gameplay never felt too easy or too hard, it's as if Thanos himself designed this game, the balance is almost poetic. Dead Cells is an absolute must buy, a game everyone should experience.
5 out of 5
Perfectly balanced, headless fun