What happens if you take the brutal difficulty of Dark Souls, rogue-lite elements of Spelunky and the metroidvania exploration of Castlevania and combine them into one package? You will get Dead Cells, a game that is incredibly fun and varied no matter how many times you decide to replay it. The randomly generated levels of Dead Cells are in fact its biggest strength. They work so well because the gameplay is carefully designed around this mechanic and complements it instead of just offering randomness to add more replay value.
There was a lot of talk about ‘procedural generated’ elements this generation with the biggest one being about No Man’s Sky with its procedural generation methods to create billions of planets. Although there is an obvious advantage in how this helps a game get more longevity, it also has a drawback with the lack of properly crafted levels that have a tight design. Nintendo is popular for their game design that manages to get the best out of each of their product. because they stick to a particular specification. Dead Cells might be a rogue-lite that offers randomly generated levels but somehow they feel more concise and no matter how many times you replay them, there will always be a surprise in store for you.
Dead Cells begins with a decaying corpse getting reborn after merging with living cells that are a result of a failed alchemic experiment. This will set the precedent for the rest of the game since every time your character gets killed, another body is reborn again to take its place and the gameplay loop kickstart from the beginning. There is not much story or narrative being developed here aside from a select few NPC that you can find in between levels, or written notes and interactions that give you a hint about the story elements. The focus here is on engaging the players with a gameplay loop and needless to say, it is a success on all fronts.
Dead Cells plays out like a side-scrolling platformer that offers flashy action and gorgeous visuals. Your character moves rather fast and can use many deadly weapons to kill enemies along the way. However, these weapons are hidden or locked behind a blueprint and you have to find them first before they get unlocked. Each time you start the gameplay loop, you begin with a default rusty sword and get the choice of either a regular bow or normal shield. Later in the game, it is possible to get upgrades that will randomly drop a better gear for you to pick from the starting pair, so it is all not that bad.
This is often a game of luck and skill instead of a linear path that you can keep taking again to progress in the story. It is possible to stumble on incredibly rare weapons and health upgrades right in the first level, or you will be struggling to get anything meaningful as you make your way from one level to the next, trying to cope with the increasingly difficult enemies since each time you make it to the next level, the difficulty increases with the enemies getting more aggressive.
Dead Cells operates on a permadeath mechanic so you only have one chance to complete the game before you get killed and spawn again. You will die many times due to the unpredictable nature of the level design so there is no reason feel discouraged, although there will be a lot of frustrating moments like it happened for me when during one of my runs with an incredibly powerful character, I become a victim of a dumb mistake, but this is also part of the charm for the game and why it feels so good to play it again despite the same loop being repeated again.
The metroidvania aspect relates to the skills that you will unlock once you progress through certain points of the story. Usually, it is a boss fight or discovering a rune, that will unlock new abilities for your character. However, once you get them, they will be permanently enabled which means that it will be possible to find new paths that were inaccessible before and get powerful weapons early that are usually hidden there. It is surprising to see how different the first level starts to become once you keep unlocking new abilities gaining access to different parts of the level. It is also possible to find branching paths that you can take to a different level which never seemed to appear in your earlier runs.
The upgrade system relies on collecting cells and gold coins. Your character doesn’t get any upgrades for stats since there are no experience points, but you can collect weapon blueprints in the game unlock by spending cells on them. You get cells randomly by killing enemies. It is possible to get this unlocked gear in the start once you get more permanent skills like the ability to change the starting gear. One of the reasons why the game feels difficult is that your health recovery requires potions and you start with just one. You can upgrade to carry more potions but it never feels enough so your best bet is to keep a good defense and a powerful offense.
The boss fights in Dead Cells are often incredibly brutal if you are not ready for them. There is no certain way to find out the weakness of a boss with the first encounter so chances are you will get killed easily. There are usually two types of boss fights, one is the main boss fight that will give you a new ability or skill that helps you unlock further progression, or you can encounter mini-bosses that are also incredibly difficult but can get your some decent reward if you manage to kill them. Don’t be afraid to run away from a fight if you don’t feel ready for them.
Dead Cells is a game that will demand a lot of patience. Often times, you will think that you are making good progress and suddenly stumble into something that will kill your character. The trick is to learn from your mistakes, recognize the attack pattern and weakness of the new enemies and exploit the dodge roll’s invisibility frames to get ahead of them. Another thing to remember here is to avoid the optional challenges unless you are sure it is possible to clear them since they can range from brutal platforming segments to difficult fights.
Lastly, speaking of the Nintendo Switch version, it has a couple of drawbacks that can spoil the experience. The first is the load times that occur once you travel to a different level. They are rather random in nature so there is no exact way to find out how long it will take for them. The second and perhaps the most annoying issue for me was about the performance. Dead Cells, unfortunately, faces mild stutters that start to get more frequent as you progress further in the story. This usually happens when the screen fills with effects or enemies and gets annoying quickly since you will lose track of your character in the middle of combat.
Dead Cells Review (Switch)
Game Reviewed on: Switch
Game description: Dead Cells is a rogue-lite, metroidvania inspired, action-platformer. You'll explore a sprawling, ever-changing castle... assuming you’re able to fight your way past its keepers in 2D souls-lite combat. No checkpoints. Kill, die, learn, repeat.
Dead Cells is a brutal game that demands your constant attention. It is easy to get lost in the gameplay loop where each subsequent death somehow ends up feeling more rewarding than the last as you keep discovering new gear, unlocking abilities and finding more of the hidden secrets.