As the video game market ages, developers are constantly coming up with new ideas to keep the population invested in coming back for more. If an idea becomes popular enough, it will be copied and molded to fit other games until at some point it can even become its own genre. Thus we end up with descriptive terms like “Metroidvania” and “Battle Royale”, or in Dead Cells‘ case, “Roguelike”. Now, before we decided to take this game on for review I gave some serious thought as to whether or not I should be the one to write it. In the past I haven’t had the best track record of enjoying Roguelikes – games that usually feature perma-death with constant restarts and hard-as-nails difficulty. I like to have a sense of progression and don’t want all of my hard work wiped out every single time I die. That’s usually just not fun for me. But, the more videos I watched of Dead Cells, the more I really wanted to give it a fair shake. After all, the developers refer to it as a “Roguelite” and a “RogueVania”, so maybe this one would click! Perhaps its my undying love for Castlevania, or the impeccable gameplay, or the countless mysteries that slowly unveil themselves – but I’ll be damned if they didn’t somehow win me over!
The premise of Dead Cells is that you are trying to escape a treacherous island filled with all sorts of mad scientist abominations that will attempt to stop you every chance they get. When you begin your adventure you have nothing but a rusty blade, but you’ll soon acquire new weapons to help you kill as many adversaries as possible. At first you’ll only have access to the most basic of secondary weapons, like a beginner’s bow or a wooden shield. As you take down enemies and find secret treasure stashes you’ll acquire more powerful gear. You’ll even come across some blueprints that will allow you to research new and more exotic weapons and items that can really turn the tides in your favor. The problem is, as soon as you die you lose everything and must start from scratch! Luckily you are able to move the scales ever-so-slightly in your favor if you unlock permanent perks that at least randomize your first weapons so you at least have a chance of beginning your quest in style.
As you begin to explore the procedurally generated levels you’ll come across plenty of mutated monsters to destroy. While you can try and progress as quickly as possible (of which there might be a reward for doing so), I like to explore every nook and cranny. There are power-ups and weapons to be found along the way and even huge treasure chests that usually offer up a choice of powerful items. The weapon variety is quite large and one of my favorite special weapons is the gun turret that takes out all nearby enemies. It’s powered by your character, which means you have to stay relatively close for it to continue to fire. The special weapons (mapped to ZL and ZR) have cool down timers so you can’t just spam them, but I never felt it was too long of a wait before I could use them again.
After you complete the randomized zone you’ll come across a shadowy figure called The Collector that will gladly take any Cells you have collected up to that point. You can (and should) bank them into a permanent upgrade. That way if (and when) you die, you’ll have made some progress toward unlocking a perk. These range from special weapons to helpful items like the Health Flask, which will allow you to heal yourself once per stage (or more if you unlock more of them). As I mentioned earlier, you can even unlock the ability to give a randomized starter bow or shield so you don’t always start out with the crappy weapons each run you take. However, the first thing I went for was the Gold Reserves upgrade, which allows me to bank my gold up to a certain amount so that I’m not penniless every time I start over. This was essential so I could purchase more powerful weapons on a regular basis.
Also between levels is a small green snail character named Guillain who will gift you a mutation. These allow you to augment your character for this single run. For example, you can make it so that you deal more damage immediately after killing one enemy. Another recovers a set amount of HP after every kill, keeping your health (hopefully) in the green. You can even give yourself 30% more HP or save yourself from dying once in the event of a premature death. These mutations are great and depending on how you’re doing you’ll want to choose the best one for you at that moment in time. None of these are permanent, so each time you play you’ll have to earn them back again. Finally, you’ll also be able to regenerate your health and if you have a flask you can refill it as well before moving onto the next stage.
The team at Motion Twin really nailed the controls for Dead Cells. Your character moves exactly how you want him to. He’s nimble and can double jump, grab ledges, and run around very quickly on the screen. Weapons are mapped to individual buttons, making it a cinch to change tactics on the fly. I found it immensely satisfying to take a few swipes at an enemy with a sword, then roll back out of the way and shoot him in the face with a few arrows from afar. I didn’t realize it at first, but dodging is key to some boss fights and is just plain fun to do with regular enemies. You can even drop down from above and do a ground smash to decimate some of the smaller enemies in the game, which results in an extremely satisfying thud and blood splatter.
Part of what makes Dead Cells so entertaining is that it changes up the game with almost every attempt. I’m not simply talking about shifting around level layouts, although that does happen, but actual progression can change as well. Early on after I died a few times, the very beginning of the level transformed to show off some glass bottles hanging above with the items I had discovered on previous plays. A door with a clock spinning also appeared, although I couldn’t gain access (yet).
After making it a little further into the game I received a permanent power-up that allowed me to create vines in certain places so I could climb to new areas. Of course I died, but I came across some vine access points in the very first area and I soon discovered I could take an entirely different path, this time through the sewers! It’s here that I found an imprisoned monster that wanted me to get a Rune for him to help him escape. Of course I died before retrieving it to see the outcome of this scenario, but these somewhat random events make the game even more enjoyable each time. This is on top of the already dense level designs where I often came across hidden passages and secret rooms – something I live for in games. I never quite knew what to expect every time I started over, and that’s one of the game’s greatest strengths. Normally I hate procedurally generated stages, but it’s obvious the developers took great care to make sure each shuffling made sense and felt like a cohesive level. I also love that warp gates are placed strategically around the levels so I can easily backtrack in an instant if I want to explore more of the map.
Graphically the game is very impressive. It features incredibly detailed sprites that are amazingly animated. Just standing still your character’s shoulders and head bob up and down with his breathing. There are all sorts of little graphical flourishes in the backgrounds that make each dreadful environment a sight to behold. Running through the maze-like sewers is even great looking with green waterfalls of sewage water in the foreground, rats darting about along the ground, toxic clouds fuming from beneath your feet, drops of acid rain falling from above, and specs of dust hitting the light just right to add to the eerie atmosphere. Every single character is hand-drawn and all of them look unique and fascinating. No shortcuts were taken here and it shows.
The music is also notable, but not in a Castlevania “this tune is going to get stuck in your head” kind of way. No, it takes more of a Metroid approach with a more ambient score that’s foreboding and creepy. All of the sound effects have a weighty feel to them, making your character and the enemies feel strong and not to be trifled with. Meticulous attention to detail permeates the game and you’ll notice that the sound effects add a lot to the environments – from unique running sounds depending on the type of ground you’re traversing to little background interactions like cages hanging that make a rattling noise as you rush by. Needless to say, the audio is superb throughout and helps to create a perfectly dreadful atmosphere that’s impossible to escape.
There’s no getting around it, Dead Cells is difficult. You will die over and over again and this might turn some gamers off. However, the controls are so spot-on and the gameplay is so fun that I highly suggest giving this one a chance. I came away very surprised at how much I actually enjoyed playing this game and I think others like me who normally skip titles like this will likely feel the same way. Don’t let the daunting challenge keep you away from enjoying one of the best Switch games to come out this year!
Dead Cells was reviewed using a final retail Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher.