Dead Cells mixes two game genres that I usually have little love for - Roguelikes and Metroidvanias. These two design styles should not work well together, or should they? After about 70 runs, I am convinced that developer Motion Twin has created the perfect harmony between them.
Dead Cells places you in the shoes of the "Prisoner". A being that is essentially immortal, cursed to relive the cycle endlessly. The concept of Dead Cells is a simple one: you always start at the very beginning when you die. This holds true throughout the game, even if you die on the final boss, you have to start from the beginning of the game. This might sound off-putting and tedious but there is a catch. While playing through the game, you gain gear and power-ups (more on this later) and although you lose most of them upon dying, there are some items you keep, even when you fall in battle (or just fall down a cliff).
Permanent upgrades like wall climbing and vine growing will be available to your character in later runs once you've unlocked them. Other permanent upgrades include your amount of health flasks, the amount of gold you can bank, and the ability to sell unwanted gear makes starting over every time more bearable. These retained upgrades play the biggest role in Dead Cells. The first time you run through the opening area of the game, it might take you 10 minutes but, with subsequent upgrades, your second run might only take you 5 minutes. This is the core gameplay loop of Dead Cells and it's a highly addictive one at that.
Of course, playing through the same area ten times in a matter of 30 minutes would still be tedious, if not for the fantastic combat. You have four main slots to equip items in, excluding one dedicated health flask slot. The gear you collect is categorized into four colors, namely - Red (Brutality), Purple (Tactics), Green (Survival), and Colourless. Swords, bows, traps, turrets - even a Spartan Sandal - can be collected and equipped into one of the slots. These items provide a wide variety of stats to cater to your specific playstyle.
On my last run, I used two bows and two turrets with no melee weapon. This build absolutely destroyed everything in my path. This, however, couldn't save me from falling down a cliff due to an ill-timed jump. On the subject of builds, other than the gear slots, you can also use (up to three) mutations to enhance your character and several power-ups to further modify your play style. The mutations range from a simple HP boost to having double ammunition for your ranged weapons. The power-ups, on the other hand, power up your gear. You can choose between Red, Purple and Green power-ups, each boosting the corresponding gear, giving them a damage boost and an HP boost to your character. It's a great system that accommodates "on the fly" build switching.
These enjoyable mechanics are complemented by a beautiful pixel art. It's almost as if each pixel pops on its own, but together, they make up the gorgeous visuals of Dead Cells. The main character, NPCs, and enemies are where the art style truly shines. The attention to details thankfully doesn't stop here - backgrounds and environmental elements receive the same treatment. Bats scatter when you jolt past them in a cave, water splashes as you run through it, and objects shatter in a satisfying explosion when whacked by your weapon.
Personally, I find a game's soundtrack just as important as the rest of the presentation. Dead Cells treats players to a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack; each track fits the environment or section it takes place in. So much so that, after a couple of runs, I jumped onto Steam's marketplace and bought the OST. Composer Yoann Laulan outdid himself and I can't wait to see what Yoann creates for the next game he works on.
I've mentioned the term "run" a couple of times throughout the review. This is basically the cycle of a game, from start to death. The game has been designed with the player dying in mind. Each run feels a bit smoother and faster. It was around my 40th run where the game clicked with me. I fell into a rhythm of slashing, dodging, and rolling that I haven't experienced since 2015's Bloodborne. Jumping into a group of enemies, unleashing my traps, dodging their attacks and sprinting headfirst into the next group felt natural and satisfying. Make no mistake, Dead Cells is a hard game. Whenever I felt like a pro, the game threw me a curveball, just to remind me that I am but a Prisoner on a damned island, destined to die a thousand times or more.
Dead Cells provides a glorious blend of Roguelike and Metroidvania gameplay that will hook players from their first death. The smooth mechanics, beautiful graphics, and addictive gameplay loop will have you returning to the game for a long time to come. If you haven't picked up Dead Cells yet, I highly recommend you get it and experience one of 2018's best games.
Kingdom Hearts devotee, From Software fanboy and aspiring Audiophile (the good kind that believes in FLAC files). Vincent enjoys writing about games almost as much as playing them.
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PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
7 August 2018
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