I was asked how Dead Cells plays by a work colleague who recently ordered the Switch version. After chewing their ear off for 15 minutes straight, I stopped (you know, to actually do some work), then realised that I hadn’t even scratched the surface in terms of expressing how much I’ve enjoyed my time with it. French developer, Motion Twin, used Dead Cell’s long period in Early Access to fine-tune the gameplay and balance the stats. The resulting final release feels extremely polished, especially so for the efforts of a small development team.
So let’s set the tone. From the off, your faceless protagonist is unceremoniously dumped on the floor in the form of, what looks like a ball of bubbling sludge (they’re your remains, naturally). If it wasn’t clear at this point, they have no body. Fortunately, some helpful folk, whose motives are entirely unclear, set you up with a new body, inform you that you cannot die, and provide a set of gear for you to begin your first foray into the Castlevania-inspired dungeons. These locales are perhaps half procedurally generated and half pre-built, with a number of set sections in each level, but it never feels obtuse or cheap. Among other influences (must… not… mention… Souls), the Castlevania leaning is perhaps the most prevalent from, not only the visual style, but the enemy designs. There’s a decent amount of variety on display here in both the enemy types and through the sublime animation. It’s not only skin-deep, as enemy combat patterns and weapons promote interesting dynamics in deciding how you’ll choose to jump, dodge, block and attack.
Shock / Horror
The horror overtones are offset with fun dialogue containing a pleasant amount of dry wit, though always with a hint of something sinister behind them. More clues surrounding these beats can be found through exploring the environments and are essentially what drive the game’s overarching narrative. If you’re after a straight-up story-driven game though, look elsewhere. No, Dead Cells is about dying. Lots.
On death, you’ll re-emerge in a hub area, much as you do at the start of the game, in which you’ll be assigned a random set of weapons. However, by defeating enemies or finding tucked away areas, you will amass cells. Cells are effectively currency, which is used to purchase permanent upgrades and weapons/items, which are then brought into the random mix, increasing your chance at starting out with a better arsenal. This hub section acts as a safe-space between levels, allowing you to heal, buy upgrades and eventually re-roll weapon modifiers. As with many rogue-lites, the upgrade system means that through your many, many, playthroughs, you’ll always have something to show for it.
I’ll also get this aspect out of the way: Dead Cells is a tough game. There, I said it. Thing is, you won’t care. Why? The sheer versatility in character builds – and this is where the game really shines. The game throws so many possibilities at you that it makes choosing weaponry and buffs an absolute joy. While initially your options are limited to items such a basic sword and shield, you’ll quickly discover the nuances hidden within. Why combine a fire grenade to cause burning damage to your enemies, with your high DPS Twin Daggers, which cause enemies to bleed, when you could take the freeze grenade, which adds additional damage to bleeding foes after they thaw out. How about a bow with poison damage combined with a spartan-like kick, which causes additional damage to enemies if they as pushed into a wall? Want to set traps on the floor which cause burning damage, something that perfectly complements your fire sword? Or is that a bad idea, as you’d need to drop your double crossb-o-matic (turret), which will help you keep the pressure on that first boss fight? Point is, there’s a lot to play with here.
Once you’ve got the controls down and found your rhythm, you can experience the satisfaction of the parkour-feel platforming. Movement is smooth and, while the platforming elements aren’t the focus, and certainly aren’t where the challenge lies, there’s a great fluidity to going from A to B. Getting the jump on enemies by rolling and smashing straight-through doors, stunning them before slapping them with a short combo and grenade never gets old. Combat is mostly close quarters, with a satisfying dodge mechanic, shield parries and enemy patterns to master along with the aforementioned vast array of weaponry. While quick reactions are necessary, a lot of the difficulty can be circumvented through careful planning. Knowing your opponent’s moveset and range gives you the means to select your kill order prior to initiating a battle, giving yourself this kind of tactical advantage yet again speaks to the flexibility of Dead Cell’s systems. Or you can speed-run the hell out of it. Whatevs, it’s not picky.
Graphically Dead Cells does, somewhat predictably, adopt a pixel-art style, however the detail is dense and the animation fluid. Though I can’t speak for the console versions, the game runs at a buttery smooth framerate with no frame drops. It’s not particularly graphics-intensive (it’s more about the fantastic art direction) and shouldn’t have issues running on the majority of builds. In terms of overall presentation, you couldn’t really ask for more, the soundtrack providing a fitting backdrop for steady atmosphere and the colour palette used to great effect, with the luminescent-looking parts often reminding me of Steamworld Dig, and combat and movement sound effects giving real weight and satisfaction to hits.
There are also daily challenges with leaderboards to participate in containing a scoring system based on your overall performance in a single level, adding a nice warm-up before you begin your next run.
Graphic & Presentation: 4.5
Overall Score: 4.5/5
Dead Cells has been regularly in my schedule since its full launch and I can’t see that changing any time soon. I haven’t had this much fun with the genre since Rogue Legacy. It’s great to pick up and play but it’s also perfect for the long-game, should you fancy an all-nighter. If ever I tire of a playthrough, I just try experimenting with play-styles, meaning it always manages to stay fresh. Definitely one to spend your hard-earned cells on, folks, even if it will kill you.
Formats: PC – Steam (Reviewed), Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PS4
PC Rig used for Review: i5-8400, GTX1070ti, 16GB RAM, Win10
Price: £21.99 (Steam)
Publisher: Motion Twin
Developer: Motion Twin
Release Date: 06/08/2018 (Steam)
Retail Steam version used for review