Dead Cells has quietly become one of the most complete, exciting and enjoyable Roguevania experiences on the market as it prepares to leave Early Access this week.
In Dead Cells, you play a red-caped prisoner who has been captured in a procedurally generated castle and to escape you must defeat the guardians keeping you there.
The task won’t be easy, though, as you’ll face tough bosses, an ever-changing landscape and the prospect of dying again and again.
Basically, if you were looking for a 2.5D side-scrolling Dark Souls that took much of its inspiration from Castlevania and Rogue Legacy, then Dead Cells should have you salivating.
Die, Learn, Sleep, Repeat
That’ll probably become a familiar mantra when playing Dead Cells. Because you’re going to die a lot. Enemy patterns need to be learned, you’ll switch your weapons up quite regularly, and you might even find yourself in a new area to throw off a solid run.
When you do die, your accomplishments are tracked by an ‘Achievement Hunter’. From him you can learn how many types of enemies you’ve killed, who beat you, what weapons you tend to favour, and the sort of progress you’ve made. In theory though, every time you do die, you’ll learn something different about the way you play and the game as a whole.
I can’t say enough positive things about that. There’s no standard tutorial showing you the ropes or hand-holding to make sure you’re eased in, players are basically chucked in at the deep end and told to swim. There’s not even any real explanation for how you got in prison, or why you keep re-incarnating, but as you explore the castle and unlock secret rooms, you’ll stumble across various clues that tell more of a story.
So Dead Cells is a game about discovery, but it’s also a game where you need to continuously evolve and adapt your tactics in order to stay ahead of the curve. This involves buying new weapons from random vendors, switching it up with others you find on the battlefield, but also with mutators which change some of your core abilities. Like regenerating health whenever you kill an enemy or adding to your overall DPS output.
Equally, there’s no one way to go out and fight your enemies. You’ll always start with a sword, but you’re immediately given the choice of whether you want your offhand to use a bow (highly recommended) or a shield. But as you progress you can grab items like bombs and traps which help give you an edge in combat.
And weapons can also be changed, like swapping out your bow for throwing daggers that cause enemies to hemorrhage or a boot which sends enemies sailing backwards. This also works on the doors to create a really cool, satisfying aesthetic.
Another important thing to note is that when you kill enemies they drop a ‘dead cell’ which can later be converted into permanent upgrades for you and your weapons. However, if you die at any point, you’ll lose all the cells ala Dark Souls. But unlike Dark Souls, there’s no way to get them back because the castle is procedurally generated and constantly changing. Eek!
You have to reach the forge area where you can then spend the cells. Any upgrades you make there are permanent, so, for instance, you could upgrade the capacity of your coin purse or start with a random weapon for each run. New features are added all the time, so you’ll always find something to suit your playthrough.
But despite the frustrating death and destruction, somehow, Dead Cells manages to keep you playing. You could have been running for a full 45 minutes only to die, but rather than crunch the pad up with your bare hands, you’ll actually feel more inclined to play again and try to better yourself.
True, there’s no checkpoints in Dead Cells so each move must be made carefully and obviously when you die all the weapons are lost. You will learn quickly which weapons work best against which enemy and also when to roll and dodge / stay and fight. Memorising tactics is essential to your overall progress and in that regard, Motion Twin have perfected the formula masterfully.
And beating bosses also provides you with new abilities which can be used to further your progress, like a vine-creating mutator which enables you to climb to previously unreachable platforms. Then there are timed doors which can only be bypassed before you reach a certain time on the clock. These often give you hidden treasures and better weapons, so are well worth seeking out.
Call it a Rogue-Like, Souls-Lite, Roguevania, whatever you deem appropriate, but Dead Cells so often shows it has its own unique identity. The environments are varied and stunning, the narrative direction is haunting and intriguing, the combat is satisfying and dynamic, and it all comes together to create something truly special.
There are some frame-rate issues in the build we played on PS4, most noticeably when you’re fighting swooping bats on the ramparts and in some heavy action sequences. In a twitchy game like Dead Cells, that can be crucial as every second and button press is important to your overall survival. It was never gamebreaking or serious, but enough that it became noticeable and caused us a few small problems.
I’m absolutely hooked on Dead Cells, I often think about what strategies I want to try, which combination of weapons will give me the best chance of survival, and how to get from point A to point B.
Without doubt, Dead Cells is one of the best games in its genre but also one of the best this year. But it’s also a game Motion Twin have committed to supporting indefinitely with a massive post-launch update already being teased. It’s one we’re going to keep going back to whether we’re playing it for review or dabbling to make a bit of extra progress.
Considering it just released on every major format, there’s absolutely no reason not to pick it up. Dead Cells is essential.
+ Smart, well tuned combat that always seems fair and balanced
+ A constantly shifting environment which ensures each playthrough stays fresh
+ Customise a build that works for you while learning what works in the game
+ Stunning aesthetic
+ It’s always good for ‘One More Go’
– Frame Rate stuttery on PS4 version
– Difficulty curve won’t be for everyone
9.5 out of 10
Tested on PS4
Code provided by the publisher