Review: Dead Cells

Dead Cells took me by surprise. My initial playthrough lasted no more than five minutes before I was struck down. After that, ten minutes, and my playtimes got longer the more I played. I was caught off guard by how fine-tuned the gameplay Motion Twin’s roguelike-Metroidvania title was, and how being an early access title likely made shaped the experience to what it is today.

I’ve kept the game within my sight for some time, I’ve followed it from early access, but never quite took the dive into the deep end due to the nature of Early Access. I’m glad I did this, as what I ended up playing is some of the best moments I’ve had with the genre so far, allowing me the ability to learn from my mistakes and not be penalized by my missteps. No, the final release of Dead Cells is exactly the summer fling I needed this year, and I’m so happy we got to dance.

This summer alone I’ve purchased Hollow Knight, pre-ordered Guacamelee! 2, and am playing Salt and Sanctuary for Nintendo Switch. While my backlog once again grows, I’m happy to put to extra time into Dead Cells, there’s so much to discover and the gameplay loop works here because of how well everything is fleshed out. It wasn’t until a handful of hours in that I realized my biggest mistake was holding back, you aren’t meant to overthink each encounter with the enemy but instead rush in and wipe them out before they can damage you.

Don’t go into this game expecting a sensible story, there isn’t one here; the writing is often filled with humor and features lore to learn about but there really isn’t any reason to focus on that aspect of Dead Cells. Instead of learning why our character must continually die and be reborn isn’t of note, and instead, it is told as a humorous occurrence that goes on and on. There is a ton of meta-humor here and works for the most part of the game, other times it isn’t exactly good.

With every death I faced, I learned something new, and with each subsequent run, I utilized those nuggets to get a bit further. The more you play Dead Cells, the worlds make more sense and areas and enemies become familiar. Controls are precise and easy to learn, dodging is key to surviving but so is attack as fast as you can before your enemy strikes. Starting an encounter can start out easy enough but if ending it is another story, as being overwhelmed by enemies happens the further in you get.

Of course, what helps is managing your character’s weapons, mutations, skills, and tools. My initial character was given a shield, I had issues using it at the start, eventually swapping it out for a bow, and later a secondary melee weapon. Your arsenal will save you if it has all the right pieces, and the game’s bosses won’t stand a chance against you. I had a blast learning to find a balance between my weapons, my tools, and my health potions. There was an underlying stress tugging at the back of my mind as I rushed through each stage, trying to gather gold, upgrades, and blueprints. The rush of failure was there but not at the levels I felt playing games like Hollow Knight or Binding of Issac.

Your character has four equipment slots to be filled at the start. One is for a weapon, the other is for a shield or bow, and the other two slots are for tools and traps. With over 50 weapon-types to discover and upgrade, you’ll find the upgrade combinations endless. I started my run with a broadsword and dagger for my first few runs, moving back and forth between a bow and shield later. Weapon-types swing differently, bigger swords swing slower, daggers hit faster but lack the strength of swords or even spears. Runes can be added to a weapon, which ranges from elemental attacks to having bombs drop when you swing your weapon. Frost attacks are the best choice because they freeze enemies in place depending on the rune being used and provide a brief respite against enemies. There are tons of combinations and you’ll have to explore what works best with you.

Dead Cells role-playing elements grant you access to scrolls that grant powerups for that run. Separated into three categories: Brutality, Tactics, and Survival, you come across scrolls that can raise your max HP, grant stat bonuses to attributes, make potions more potent, or gather more gold from enemies. The main currency in this game is Cells, which can be traded in for permanent upgrades including more health potions, bigger wallets, more hit points and so on. With each run, you can add cells into a category and not worry about where your lost points may have gone. Instead, you can add to totals with each run.

Permadeath has always been a sore topic for me. I don’t mind playing games with the feature, but the way the mechanic is tweaked here is why I kept coming back. The further in a run you get, you’ll find permanent upgrades that change the gameplay that allow you into new areas, or even provide you with a random powerful weapon when you start over again.

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a beautiful game. In motion, things are colorful if not a bit dreary, and character models and environments are bursting with personality. The protagonist is gorgeously animated with enough distinction in his moveset to tell actions apart, and even the darkest of dungeons feel prestigious to see. I’d say the weakest part of the entire package is the soundtrack, a soundtrack I’d forget was even playing in the background while I tried going deeper into this world. For the most part, the music felt out of place and unwelcome.

Oversaturation in the market isn’t a new subject nor is it one that’s going away anytime soon. In a sea of like-minded games, Dead Cells stands above many games thanks to its rewarding gameplay loops, fantastic controls, steady progression system, and most importantly, it’s a welcoming challenge. Don’t be discouraged by other roguelike titles, this one is exactly the stepping stone you want to get further into the genre, there isn’t a better way to learn the mechanics than Motion Twin’s Souls-inspired Metroidvania game.

[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes]