My hero stands at the bottom of a huge crypt, a little humped, barely holding to his life. All his health potion charges are spent, the gods already brought him from the dead once and there will not be a second time. The gods are cruel after all. Above him a giant eye hovers: The Watcher. A great battle has been raging for what seems an eternity. Both The Watcher and The Prisoner are nearly beaten… however I feel that the beast has the advantage. Still, maybe, if I can execute the moves just right this time… The Watcher launches his(her, its?) attack: a bulletstorm of green projectiles seemingly filling the whole screen. At this moment a though runs through my head: “There’s no way I can dodge them all”. Still I try, The Prisoner rolls past one, then another, but by dodging one missle, he rolls right into another one and it hits him. Then another one hits him. Then he crushes dead on the ground. I throw the controller on the table, frustrated about how impossible this sequence was. A few minutes later I pick it up again and start a new game.
The above intro pretty much sums up my feelings about Dead Cells: a game filled with great moments and battles, occasionally sprinkled with some “not fair!” moments. Before going further I should mentioned: I have about 25 hours in the game. I haven’t beaten it yet, and believe I haven’t advanced that much. Which says something, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Dead cells is a very curious mix of ideas and genres. As the developers themselves describe it: “a rogue-lite, Castlevania-inspired action-platformer, allowing you to explore a sprawling, ever-changing castle”. Throw in some Dark Souls elements for good measure and you will have an idea of what the game is about. To start off, it is a game about dying(if the title didn’t tipped you off, there you go). It is composed of short playthroughs of about 30-40 minutes, though depending on your style and your upgrades, it can be much longer too. Everytime you start off from the very beginning, a strange blob entering the body of a deceased, nameless prisoner(how does this sound, eh?). Then it is up to you, controlling said prisoner to advance through the levels as far as you can. Die, and you start anew, loosing all your your weapons and upgrades. Still, there is progress carried over to new games. During your adventures you will find blueprints for weapons and abilities. Carry them to the creepy guy found between levels and you can invest points in unlocking and later upgrading them. Once you unlock said weapons and skills, they will start randomly appearing in your following playthroughs. And how do you unlock them, you ask? By collecting souls, ugh, I mean cells that are dropped from killed enemies. As mentioned you need to get to The Collector by passing the level in order to cash in any blueprints and to be able to spend cells. Die before you do that and all is lost forever. Every run will make your equipment a bit better, which in turn will help you progress further. Good equipment is not the only thing that matters though. This is not some clicker that relies purely on stats. The combat is arcadic in the vein of Castlevania or Hollow Knight. It heavily relies precision and timing. You will need to learn when to strike and when to dodge, learn the different play styles each weapon comes with as well. This one thing I particularly enjoy about the game: each weapon differs not only by stats. Some have faster attack speed, some deal more damage if the enemy is close to a wall and so on. Each feels differently and prompts different strategies. Add to that the random stats that come with each one and things get really deep. You have two weapon slots, one for close combat weapon and one for ranged(though no one stops you from picking two ranged weapons, for example). Additionally, you have two grenade/ability slots. Mixing and matching these can give you a big edge in battle and overall feels very satisfying. An easy example is using Frost Blast to freeze your enemies then hit them with a melee weapon that deals more damage to frozen enemies. Since every game is random, different tools will be available each time so you will need to adjust your style which makes the game very diverse. Sometimes you can draw the short straw and you will find subpar weapons or such than are not exactly to your liking, but I personally never minded this, it only added to the challenge.
As mentioned, good gear will only get you so far. Each enemy has a distinct pattern of attacks and learning them is key to progressing. Each hit takes quite a lot of your health bar so simple button mashing won’t do. You will need to dodge(hello again Dark Souls) and learn patterns. Unfortunately, since the game is quite punishing the first few encounters will inevitably lead to you taking some beats and maybe even dying. I remember crawling through a new level relying only on traps and keeping distance, afraid of what the new enemies can do if they reach me and unfamiliar with the way to beat them. You eventually learn, but still, better gear definitely helps.
However, this brings one of the gripes I have with the game. On one hand playing mechanically well matters. On other, stats DO matter as well. During a longer playthrough you will most certainly reach to a point where you will struggle to progress. No matter how good you dodge or time your blocks one hit will be enough to almost kill you. And given that the battles will be longer as well, since you won’t have upgraded your weapons as much, you will be prone to make a mistake eventually. This pattern brought up a strange feeling I haven’t experienced in a game before. I almost felt discouraged upon reaching a new level. I knew I would die no matter what. I wouldn’t exactly call the feeling of helplessness something you want in your game, but on other hand it is something connected to the rogue-like genre. There are other moments too, when you don’t feel completely in control. The encounter with The Watcher from the intro, for example. I was killed the boss after many tries, but the bulletstorm section, I still feel is purely luck. Another moment from the same battle: usually during the battle the camera is pulled away, allowing you to see the whole arena. During one phase however, you fight tentacles on the ground. Then the camera is much closer and the aforementioned tentacles have charging attack that starts off screen, reducing the time to react. Fair? I think not! There are some enemies, especially elites that attack way too fast, making it almost impossible to dodge and hit without being punished. Such bosses I beat either by cheesing them or in later playthroughs when I have better weapons. Then I am able to react fast enough, not giving them time to launch their attacks. At the end, no matter how good I become, there is always the feeling that it’s is because I grinded out better gear.
Such feelings however are usually numbed a bit by the levels themselves. Each one has a distinct theme and though some of the enemies reappear in different levels there are always new ones to make you sweat. The zones are not as big, one usually taking around 10-ish minutes to beat(even less if you know what you are doing). One aspect that adore about this game is the how the levels are connected. Usually there is more than one exit leading out of a zone which in turn brings you on a completely different path. I find such design quite inventive and it greatly adds to the replayability.
Accessing the different levels requires acquiring specific skills(hence the Castlevania tag). Early on you lear how to grow vines from the ground(by tickling them, of course). Before that you can only exit the starter zone from one point: The Promenade. When you get the skill though you will be able to get to The Toxic Sewers which leads to a different set of levels altogether. These skills can also be used in the levels in order to access hidden chambers(and sweet loot).
Something I would like to see in the level generation in future releases is a bit more diversity in the, let’s call them events that can appear. Currently there is only a handful of them: cursed chests, challenge zones and some elite enemy here and there. A few more situation will go a long way in making each run more enjoyable.
Another wish I have which is tied to an irritation of mine is enemy diversity. See, Dead Cells has one of the more annoying RPG mechanics: the same enemies become stronger in later levels. It really sucks when you crushed the zombies with two hits in one level, only to have them take double that amount in the next.
Let’s talk presentation. I will start by saying I really dislike pixel art. For me it usually takes away more than it gives, it makes the graphics muddy and hard to discern. That said, Dead Cells’ style is what initially caught my attention. I truly believe the game looks gorgeous! The colours are bright and vibrant, textures though pixelated are easy to readout. There are alot of details poured into the game.Water crystallizes when you cast a freeze spell in it, blood drips from the shafts, there are many small things to find out. There is a lot of charm and humor too. Your character show middle fingers on every opportunity, enemies scream “YOLO” if they happen to fall off a ledge, even the achievements carry names such as “Who needs an Italian plumber?” and “YOLO! Or not?”. In that regard, do not expect much of a story. 25 hours in… I am yet to encounter any, so bear that in mind.
It is great that even without a narrative, the game is able to create a sense of place, solely relying on graphics. Still, there is an issue I personally have, which is tied in to the pixel art style. There are cases, especially when there are more enemies around my character, when it gets too hard to see all attack animations and skills that are being thrown at you. It gets really annoying when you are fighting elite mobs that summon minions and have faster attack speed. This is something you won’t see in Hollow Knight, for example, where the style is much sharper.
To finish off the presentation: the music, it’s just great. It heavily relies on acoustic guitars, which I can only admire. It is calm between levels, it is aggressive when you are slaying your enemies. Overall, even with so many hours spent, I do not see myself switching the tunes to ones from my collection anytime soon. I only wish it didn’t stop when the track ends, leaving you in silence…
If you have come so far in this article you have probably noticed a pattern. For every praise for the game there was a “but”. Sometimes it was a big “but”, sometimes a small “but”, but “but” none the less. Dead Cells is not a perfect game and it is definitely not a game for every taste. As it is still in Early Access most issues(like the one with the music) will be ironed out. Other, however, such as the whole play-die-repeat mechanic are mostly a matter of personal taste. As such, it is up to you to decide if you are ok such mechanics.
If you are, the game has much to offer, even in its work in progress state. There is plenty of content, the gameplay is fast and enjoyable. So if you like the idea of “a rogue-lite, Castlevania-inspired action-platformer” you definitely won’t go wrong with Dead Cells.