Heralded by many as one of the best games of 2018, I wasn’t quite ready at the time to take on Dead Cells at the time. Spooked by the game’s Roguelike/Roguelite elements, it’s taken me a long time to warm up to the idea of playing a game where the goal was to beat it in one go or lose everything. Games like Into the Breach, 20XX, and Moonlighter have shown me how fun the format can be and how the concept has evolved to be somewhat less punishing.
I have lost count of how many times I’ve died trying to complete the story of Dead Cells. Even so, that hasn’t stopped me from being absolutely addicted to it.
Developed by Motion Twin, Dead Cells takes elements of the Roguelite format and mashes them together with the Metroidvania genre (we as a community should really come up with a better name for this style of game). You play as a green blob who is only referred to as “The Prisoner”. At the start of each run, it possesses a soldier in an attempt to escape the island. It won’t be easy, as the landscape is constantly changing and teeming with skilled enemies that can (and will) shred your corpse to bits. Luckily for you, your blob has some smooth moves under its belt.
Even though its story is loose and the worlds are randomly-generated with each run, the game still finds ways of injecting narrative flavour throughout. Every now and then, you’ll have the ability to examine elements in the environment, from unfinished letters, to human remains, to other prisoners still behind bars that want to talk to you. As vague as these interactions might be, they do add context to the messed up world you’re fighting through.
Controlling your character is an absolute blast. They move around the world with a fluidity that harkens back to the days of Aladdin on the SNES. Every motion is silky smooth while still being snappy when you need it to be. From double jumps, to ground pounds, to tactical rolls, the connection you have with the character feels incredibly strong.
Better yet, your character is a warrior that’s skilled with virtually every weapon. This is incredibly useful, as you’ll never know which types of weapons will drop from run-to-run. From swords that let you float in midair while attacking, to electric whips, to bows that shoot forwards and backwards, to frying pans that also drop bombs, your potential arsenal is seemingly endless. Though it’s best to adapt with whatever weapons are available, you’re oftentimes free to specialize as an in-your-face brute, ranged sniper, or trickster who relies on traps.
Best of all, your character can cancel the animation of almost every maneuver into a different attack or maneuver. For example, you can swing your sword to hit an enemy from the front, then immediately roll behind them to dodge an incoming attack and continue the assault from a more advantageous position. Once you get comfortable with the weapons you have and how your character moves, you’ll feel like an absolute badass stringing everything together.
While it’s certainly possible to beat the game in one go, odds are you’re going to die many times over before completing your first run. As amazing as your character can be, your opposition will put up a great fight. Every enemy has predictable patterns, but the moment-to-moment action can vary wildly based on the environment and what weapons you have. Mashing your way through won’t get you far, but mastering the game’s intricacies will reward players with forward momentum and a great time.
When you inevitably die, you’re going to have to start from the very beginning. That said, not all is lost. Over the course of each run, you’ll collect cells, which you’ll spend between areas on permanent upgrades, such as better starting weapons, the ability to heal more than once, and new abilities among many others. Between the gradual evolution of the character and the ever-changing maps, every run felt fresh.
Even after you beating it for the first time, the game itself evolves. Cashing in Boss Stem Cells unlocks new levels of difficulty, new weapons, and new enemy types just to name a few. That initial campaign can be defeated in a few hours, but you’ll pour in much more if you choose to fight for everything the game has to offer.
Dead Cells is a wonderful action game that excels in everything it sets out to do. Its moment-to-moment action is makes you feel like a capable warrior who can make seemingly any set of weapons work. Exploring each randomly-generated area constantly gives you reason to explore the world and test your skills against above an above average rogue gallery. Even the sting of dying is soothed with the permanent upgrades you unlock along the way. It simply becomes a bump in a longer road that will eventually lead to the game’s satisfying conclusion. My only regret is not having played this sooner.
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