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Dead Cells Review

Motion Twin’s Dead Cells is a staggeringly good roguelike metroidvania that pulls pages from the best chapters of the best books and proffers a novel experience that’s complemented by a superbly atmospheric soundtrack and unexpected touches of wry, macabre humor. It graced Steam as an Early Access title starting in May of 2017, and launched as a full entry on August 2 of 2018. Its end product? A wildly engaging roguevania platformer that is as innovative as it is polished.

You Died

You come to your senses as a headless gentleman in the Prisoners’ Quarters, a level that you’ll quickly become all-too familiar with. You start out with a sword, the choice between a shield or a bow, and a dialogue with a lady knight that implies you’re dead and nobody really cares. Swing into immediate action as you’re launched into the first stage with no further hand-holding, forced to take desperate slashes at glowing zombie enemies and engaging the panic roll far sooner than you expected to need to.

You will die. Unless you’re the metroidvania deity descended from on high, expect to perish almost instantly, like the rest of us mere mortals. It is indeed possible to conquer the entire castle in one run, but chances are you won’t, and you’ll be locked into the delightfully addicting grind that is the real treasure in Dead Cell’s trove. This is no standard metroidvania. This is a roguevania — and a grippingly challenging one, at that.

Collect, Spend, Die, Repeat

As you massacre your way through manifold so-called demons, you collect gold, cells, equipment, and, if your real-life luck is maxed out, a blueprint or a permanent rune ability. Why desire something permanent in Dead Cells so greedily? Because you drop everything — everything — when you do die. Each level of the castle is bracketed by a safe hub where you can spend your cells on permanent upgrades, but everything else vanishes into the great beyond once you make your inevitable amateur play and suffer the dire consequences.

Rune abilities unlock new ways to travel through the different stages. If you find yourself running into a dead-end with a strangely ticklish plant, for instance, you’ve likely found an area that will be accessible once you acquire that particular ability. These are incredibly rare, and highly desirable — especially if you have a particular level you’d care to substitute with another. Also permanent are blueprints and the cell upgrades, which radically improve your chances of finally making it through in one run. These give you access to much more impressive weapons and goodies at the start, and offer other enhancements like being able to keep gold when you die, or being able to use a health potion.

A New Adventure, Every Time

The order of levels is the same every time, as are the boss levels (because, of course, how could you not have terrifying bosses in an indie like this?), but each level itself is randomly generated each time you die. New equipment will be available at new areas, and you’ll have the chance to customize your run with different mutations, scroll upgrades, chest drops, and merchant purchases. Sometimes there’ll be someone groaning behind a random background door who’ll offer you an item. Sometimes there’ll be a cursed chest that you’ll sincerely regret opening. There’s a lot. And that depth of newness is what gives each run a fresh taste that never spoils.

As you do runs over and over again (trust me, you will), you’ll find you have certain preferences in how you go about tackling the challenges each stage thrusts at you. You may prefer the Brutality line of improvements, where might is right, or perhaps you enjoy utilizing the Tactics strain, which will buff your weapons like turrets and bows. Each level you conquer provides a plethora of upgrades and both primary and secondary equipment for you to choose from, ensuring that, while you might not have the skill to proceed, you at least can’t blame your character stats for your failure.

Own Your Mistakes

In this, Dead Cells is a masterpiece. Every enemy is completely conquerable, provided that you spend the time to learn its attack patterns and its weaknesses and adjust accordingly. The combat is extremely simple: smash a button to perform an attack with your main weapon, smash another for your secondary, and smash a few more for your miscellaneous others, like grenades. You have a double-jump, a roll, and a downwards-stomp that’s viable for almost every situation. When you die, it’s not Dead Cells’ fault. It’s your fault. And you’ll know it.

Dead Cells is brutally challenging, but there’s no lack of satisfaction for you around every corner. You’re constantly learning new enemies, collecting cells, upgrading equipment, and goading yourself into doing every level faster and faster. There are even timed gates that you can open, given that you made it through the previous level fast enough, which encourage you to try harder for greater rewards. Furthermore, the permanent items you have unlocked are visually celebrated at the beginning of each run in a collection of suspended bottles. Seeing these fill up, even if you’ve still only made it to Stilt Village, will keep you playing obsessively.

Atmospheric, If Not Groundbreakingly Beautiful

Dead Cells never strays from the atmosphere its wonderful pixel art and its delightfully excellent soundtrack summons, which is perhaps the only weak point of the title as a whole. Consistency is key, but variety is a stimulant, and having more visually-striking backdrops and enemies would’ve pushed this title to the top of the elite playlist of timeless must-have indies. There’s no storyline to be spoken of, either, but you’ll be too busy flying through stages and zealously gathering and spending cells to care even a little. Regardless, Dead Cells undeniably earns itself a spot in every indie-enthusiasts’ collection, metroidvania fan or not.

9

The Verdict: Evolutionary

When indie ingenuity of the highest order is supported by execution that’s as polished as the Queen of England’s English, you get something a little like Dead Cells. Dead Cells borrows the best qualities of several genres, forges them into a new weapon entirely, and then hands that legendary work off to players to swing at their leisure and pleasure. It’s a voracious roguelike metroidvania platformer that threatens to consume all the extra hours of your life — and then a few more, for good measure.

Taryn Ziegler
Written by
August 09, 2018
Published in Action

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Taryn is a digital content strategist with an avid appetite for literature and gaming. She graduated from the University of Washington Bothell with a degree in Culture, Literature, and the Arts, and since then has been engaged in copywriting for businesses from AutoNation to DirtFish Rally School. While she'll happily play most games set in front of her, Taryn heartily prefers a good ol' turn-based strategy RPG, such as Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia and Divinity: Original Sin.

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