Odds are if you’ve heard of Dead Cells, you’ve heard the buzzwords used to describe it. Roguelike. Souls-like combat. Metroidvania action-platformer. For some, those descriptors are reason enough to give it a shot, but from me, they warranted some side-eye. As a platformer junkie, I’ve been promised those same traits in other titles many times—but I’ve just been burned too often in recent years to not feel slightly dead to another promise of a challenging and fulfilling Metroidvania-style platformer. Fortunately, I’m happy to admit I was wrong about this one. Without a doubt, Dead Cells provided me with one of the most memorable and addicting platforming experiences I’ve ever had.
I’ll say right off the bat that the traits that have been used to describe the game are completely accurate. Anyone who’s played and enjoyed a Metroidvania game will feel right at home in Motion Twin’s take on the subgenre. The plot is simple: a bundle of cells trapped in a mysterious island prison has entered the body of a fallen soldier and must use it to escape. That’s really it. You navigate various 2D locations by jumping from platform to platform, collecting upgrades, and defeating enemies that increase in difficulty as your journey progresses. As for Dead Cells‘ roguelike elements, when your zombie soldier dies, the bundle of cells escapes and inhabits another corpse back in the prison where the game first starts. In turn, you’re essentially thrown back to square one with all weapons, money, and upgrades you earned gone. Then, you’ll notice the halls of the prison don’t look quite the same on your next run. That’s because the rooms are procedurally generated, making every refresh feel different from the last. And the enemies do have the same format as ones seen in the Dark Souls series. They’re tricky to take down, but follow a consistent pattern that you can memorize and master.
So, yes, Dead Cells is indeed a roguelike Metroidvania platformer with Souls-like combat, but the real sizzle comes from how it uses those inspirations. The permadeath mechanic was never something I enjoyed in other roguelike games because I don’t like the feeling that I’ve wasted all of my time. Here, I found that the developers crafted a much more manageable version of it. The farther you get into a run, the more chances you’ll have to find permanent upgrades that can help you get to new areas faster or give you access to more powerful weapons from the start. These helpful upgrades don’t feel like cheats, though, as acquiring them usually involves defeating a rather difficult miniboss or collecting an insane amount of money. They also don’t make new runs easier as much as they make them faster. Once I learned the overall structure of the island and which areas generally connect with one another, I tried to move quickly through the early biomes to make it to the first boss. Some of the game’s more meaningful weapons and upgrades are earned by defeating it, so using the permanent upgrade to climb walls or teleport with totems was extremely helpful in reaching the Black Bridge’s main baddie quickly.
The weapons are also one of my favorite things about Dead Cells. Your soldier has four weapon slots to use in a run, with two acting as primary attacks attached to the square and triangle buttons (I played on PlayStation 4) and the other pair on the left and right triggers. There are a whopping 50 different weapon types that can be upgraded and customized throughout a run, which opens a lot of possibilities when it comes to choosing a loadout. On the primary side, the soldier can use bows, shields, swords, spears, knives, and even magical blasts. Some of the melee weapons, such as the Claymore, are swung slowly but inflict massive damage on enemies, while the Balanced Blade offers quick successive slashes. I loved using the Claymore with the Frost Blast attack to freeze enemies in their place and then obliterate them with one swing. Another tactic that works well is using a shield to block incoming attacks, dodge roll behind the enemy, and then unleashing a wave of speedy slashes with a sword. And those two examples only scratch the surface.
Once you bring in the trigger attacks, also called skills and grenades, you can start dealing ongoing damage to large pools of enemies. For example, the Sinew Slicer leaves a turret out for a limited time to continually shoot nearby foes, giving you more time to roll around and slash at them with your primary gear. Some of the grenades can freeze, burn, or even poison enemies, so you can stack up damage fast if you plan out your weapons well enough. The soldier can also drop a weapon at any time to pick up something new, which helps if you ever feel uncomfortable with a weapon or combination you picked.
While the goodies you can use to defeat enemies are a blast, Motion Twin didn’t overlook the most important aspect of a proper platformer: movement. The soldier character runs left and right fluidly, and with the dodge roll, he can zip around areas easily. The jumping arc is consistently short and tight, giving you the power to eyeball a gap and know if you’ll land the jump. More than that, though, moving is just fun. There were times that I would start a new run and would speed my way through the opening areas without using an attack once. If you can time your dodges and jumps correctly, enemies can’t stop you. I love when I can move quickly in a game because it not only makes me feel I have skill outside of brute force, but it also makes repetition seem less… repetitive. That’s usually why roguelike permadeath mechanics turn me off. I don’t like the constant grind through the familiar, but if I can move fast and remind myself that I’m better than I was when I first started, then that’s a plus.
By the way, you’re going to die a lot in Dead Cells. Even with the amazing controls and predictable enemy movements, mastering everything takes time. Plus, some of the later bosses and stages are extremely difficult and will likely take several attempts to overcome. What’s great is that if you ever get overwhelmed in the harder areas, the game’s exploration and risk/reward opportunities are great side quests of sorts.
On top of the weapons and permanent movement upgrades, your soldier can find cursed chests and time-locked doors that offer rewards—but with a twist. When coming across a cursed chest, you can earn a fully upgraded weapon, stat booster, and a bag of money. The problem is that taking the bounty will throw a curse on you that will bring immediate death if hit once by an enemy. You can lift it by defeating 10 foes, but it’s easier said than done. That’s the beauty of the cursed chests, though. They’re perfect for players that want to progress quickly and have mastered the controls. Instead of having to grind through waves of enemies for new weapons or upgrades, you can take the risk of the chest’s curse, use your movement skills, and then get equipped with items powerful enough to defeat the bosses. The same goes for the timed doors. Each area has a door that locks at a certain time of a run. If you can speed through certain areas fast enough, you can get a great deal of money and stat boosts quickly. Similar to the cursed chests, most players won’t start hunting for these doors until they master movement. Again, it’s another welcome way to break up the repetitive nature of a standard roguelike experience.
If you don’t care at all about movement or challenge, then there are also a few role-playing elements to make your soldier more powerful. There are scrolls hidden throughout the island that can raise one of three stats: Brutality, Tactics, or Survival. The first two correspond with your two primary weapons’ strengths, while the third is for your overall health. Every scroll lets you pick which of the three areas you want to upgrade, but just like your weapons and money, once you die the stats go back to their base levels. Apart from money, you can also find Cells from defeated enemies that can be used as a currency with The Collector, a character you encounter occasionally on the island. The Cells can be used to buy upgraded weapons for a run, permanent upgrades, or Mutations. With a Mutation, a player can apply a stat buff that lasts through an entire run, from 30 percent extra health to an increase in your weapons’ damage per second after every kill. I found the Cell shop and scrolls to be nice additions to the overall experience for their helpful boosts to each run. Granted, I didn’t rely on them as much as I think other players might, but I appreciate that Motion Twin realized that there would be a sect of players that were more comfortable using stat boosts and items than the risk versus reward features that I liked to use to progress faster.
So, what about the bad news? I haven’t slammed Dead Cells for anything yet, and that’s honestly because the positives greatly outweighed the negatives. However, there are a few areas that could have been improved. While the consistent enemy patterns is a strength here, there needs to be more variety in the enemy types. Each area only offers three to five different kinds of baddies to bash or avoid, and I wish there were more to keep players on their toes. The same goes for the bosses. The four main ones are different enough from another to offer a fresh challenge, with the last two being radically different than all the other enemies in the game. However, it’s almost impossible to defeat them during your first encounter due to having to learn their patterns. If there were lesser enemies that were even somewhat similar to them sprinkled throughout the game, then players would have a better chance to recognize what they would be going up against. The story also leaves something to be desired, but that’s more of a nitpick than a genuine problem.
As I started this review saying, I love platformers and have played hundreds of them. Some I didn’t complete because I knew the mechanics wouldn’t work for my tastes, while most I found to be mediocre and fun for a one-time playthrough. Then there are the standouts, like Super Meat Boy, Mega Man X4, Cuphead, and more. Those titles stood out to me when I played them because of how they reapproached the platformer genre. Dead Cells is right in there with my top picks for the same reason. Its excellent melding of roguelike mechanics with tight platforming controls in an odd and quirky world is just what I love. I’ll be playing this game for years, and I can’t see it missing the mark with other fans of the genre once they get to play it.
At first glance, Dead Cells might seem like another overhyped Metroidvania-style platformer trying to break into the stuffed platformer genre, but it’s actually worthy of all its praise. Motion Twin’s impeccable implementation of roguelike elements into a classic 2D exploration game is the key ingredient that makes it all work, and the impressive controls don’t hurt either. The enemy variety and story might not be groundbreaking, but the positives eclipse any of the game’s small negative aspects. Dead Cells is a standout in the genre.
T – Teen
|Dead Cells is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Motion Twin for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|