Dead CellsAugust 7th, 2018
PlatformNintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Procedurally generated sidescrollers and roguelike adventures are very much in vogue over the past couple of years. We’ve seen numerous studios tackle them each in their own way but each game has a little something that makes them so unique. The team at Motion Twin have been working on Dead Cells for a couple of years with the Steam Early Access program and the day of release is finally upon us. Soon, players can see for themselves what that special sauce that Dead Cells is cooking up and what separates it from the other roguelikes that have come before it.
While the crux of Dead Cells is in its procedurally generated corridors, players can expect to see a narrative throughline that guides them through levels in a specific order. Until players unlock new transportation runes that add permanent traversal options to their disposal (wall climbing and teleporting from specific monuments, for example), expect to travel through the same biomes each time. As more level options open up, the paths will branch out for the player to tackle levels in different orders, often times leading to new secrets and blueprint upgrades.
Players will have to find a delicate balance between scouring each level for stat increases or treasure chests that may/may not prove to offer an edge in combat versus that of speedrunning to the next area. If players are fast enough, they can reach timed gates that hide valuable upgrade cells, cash, and a scroll to level up one’s stats for that run. Even for runs that I found myself undergeared and underleveled, I’d still make an effort to rush through the first few sets of levels, aiming to beat the first boss in under fifteen minutes to earn at least four of these such timed caches.
It’s not just the local wildlife and undead soldiers that players will have to defend themselves against in Dead Cells. Each biome and procedurally generated region is filled with a variety of traps and obstacles that only exist to siphon away what little HP the player has. In some areas, spikes and other stationary hazards cover the four walls; in others, pitfalls and pools of toxic waste exist just enough out of view that players have to decide if that blind leap of faith is truly worth the potential reward. Just as hazards are plentiful in each area, so too are the rewards. Hidden away behind walls that a swift dodge roll can pass through or obscured by environmental cues are one-time rewards that can unlock new blueprints and additions to the loot tables. If you happen to spot a conspicuous little flower in The Promenade of the Condemned, give it a couple stomps and see what pops up.
Dead Cells is perhaps one of my favorite games that I know I’m never going to be skilled enough to earn the platinum trophy. The first two bosses in each run are tricky enough, but to take them out without getting hit? That’s a herculean task in and of itself. On the Black Bridge, facing off against The Incomplete One is a challenge that can serve as the first skill wall that prevent players from finishing their quest. While he may only have three attacks that plenty of time to read and react, his defensive shield can quickly hit an unsuspecting player (and if you get stuck in a corner, say goodbye to your health bar).
There’s a special balance that players will need to follow if they plan on surviving in Dead Cells. Rather than gaining traditional levels or experience points from enemies, some enemies can drop scrolls of power (as well as some stationary pickups scattered throughout the levels). These scrolls can then be used to enhance one of three core stats for both extra HP and damage potential. With your gear matching red, purple or green stats (Brutality, Tactics, and Survival), damage can quickly ramp up if you invest all of your points into one, maybe two, stats. The downside to such a tactic is diminishing returns on HP gains but that shouldn’t be much of an issue if you never get hit!
The headless protagonist of Dead Cells features a wide range of mobility options that would make any Hollow weep in jealousy. Not only can the player controlling them freely dodge roll out of a combo or execute a well-timed shield block into an offensive parry (enemies have an incredibly obvious tell when they're about to attack but it isn't always so simple to just stop attacking and dodge. You'll need to be careful not to roll right into another enemy's swing) but the freedom to do so also extends into aerial combat as well. For the more nimble and flying variants of prey, being able to launch into an all-out assault mid-jump feels like something out of a Chinese Wuxia film and helps Dead Cells stand out against the other contenders in the sidescroller genre.
Second only to the fluidity of Dead Cells’ combat is the animation that the tiny studio at Motion Twin has devised. Despite being constrained with so many pixels to work with at a time, the animation designers on Dead Cells have come up with some insane witchcraft to make the game look as good as it does. For a setting that’s rife with gore and disgusting experiments, there’s an almost cartoony feel to the movement that offsets the grim setting. When I think of pixel art, the words ‘clunky’ and ‘deliberate’ often come to mind; during my hours exploring Dead Cells, neither of those ever came up. The player character takes full advantage of Dead Cells’ sixty frames-per-second action to predict, evade, and counter enemies all with the help of agility that I’ve never seen before from an animated set of pixels. Motion Twin has set a high bar for pixel animation that will tough to beat for years to come.
Now that Dead Cells has wrapped up its many months of incremental updates and patches during the Steam Early Access, its debut on consoles is marked with a collection of content that players can jump right in and explore on their console of choice. Not only has Dead Cells quickly grown into one of my favorite Metroidvania games, but it has also become one of my favorite games that I’m just not skilled enough to finish. With every run through the fallen castle, I know I’ll get a little bit farther and another piece of gear and maybe one day I’ll earn every boss cell and see this quest through to its end.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. You can purchase the game on Amazon.
Dead Cells sets a high bar for what can be accomplished within the framework of a Metroidvania. Each randomly generated encounter feels like it was handcrafted for the player and are as challenging as they are rewarding.
- Insanely smooth animation and combat
- Combat rewards staying close the the opponent and dodging rather than playing a more passive role
- Nearly every piece of gear is viable as you level up
- Secrets and hidden upgrades that incentivize exploration
- Death comes in only a few hits
- Upgrade cells aren't automatically banked, so if you die before reaching a checkpoint, those upgrades are lost
- An almost impenetrable level of challenge if you don't master every encounter and permutation as you work your way to the top