**Review copy provided by the publisher**
Rogue-lites can be a tough sell. Many gamers—and I am sometimes one of them—are put off by the idea of losing all their progress on death and starting from the beginning. It’s not everyone’s idea of a good time and understandably so. Perhaps that’s why developer Motion Twin touts Dead Cells as a “roguevania,” hoping that a reference to the popular “metroidvania” genre will be enough to win people over. Dead Cells isn’t much of a metroidvania. If that’s what you’re after, I recommend you look elsewhere. While there are permanent unlocks that let you take new routes, they unlock slowly and don’t make a huge difference to how you play.
Dead Cells is a rogue-lite through and through. It’s also phenomenal. If you find the idea of rogue-lites offputting then I highly encourage you to give this one a try. Yes, you do have to start from the beginning when you die, however your efforts are rarely in vain, and I don’t just mean “you learn something from every death.” Who wants to learn by dying? Not me. Dead Cells lets you make tangible progress on each run to make future runs both easier and more interesting.
Enemies randomly drop cells, which you can spend at the end of each level to unlock new abilities such as extra health flasks or to get a new weapon added to the list of potential spawns. You probably won’t unlock anything in one go, but any cells you spend are carried over to the next run so you’ll be that much closer to a shiny new toy. You also find blueprints which give you more things to spend your cells on. The result is that even on your worst runs—when you know death is coming sooner rather than later—you’ll still be motivated to make it to the end of a level to bank your cells and blueprints.
There’s not much of a story or pretense to the sword-swinging shenanigans. After a sentient blob of green goo takes over the body of a faceless prisoner (don’t worry, just roll with it), you are presented with three items: a sword, a bow, and a shield. Early on in the game, you’ll unlock random starter weapons based on other weapons you’ve found. Whatever you’re presented with, you can only take two of the three starter weapons with you. The shield is obviously useful for blocking projectiles and parrying, however I prefer to play aggressively and nearly always take the melee and ranged weapons.
Even without a shield, you have an effective defensive maneuver in the dodge roll, which provides plenty of invincibility frames to dodge around the attacks. An exclamation point pops up over enemies’ heads before they attack (you can turn this off), so it’s easy to time perfect dodges through enemies, get a few slashes in, roll through an incoming arrow and take out the offending archer.
The dodge roll quickly becomes your defacto defensive move, but the ground pound is the true hidden gem. By slamming down on enemies, you do huge damage and usually stun the enemy for good measure. The ground pound is also great for moving around levels quickly. Basically, Dead Cells makes you look like a better player than you are.
Regardless of what weapons you start with, you quickly find new ones from a vast selection that includes the standard gear such as heavy broadswords and quick assassins daggers, as well as more atypical stuff, such as a Darth Sidious inspired electricity power and a pair of sandals that do extra damage when you kick enemies against walls. In addition to your two main weapons, you also have special abilities on short cooldown timers. These take the form of various grenades (e.g. explosive, ice, fire) and cool traps like turrets and explosive decoys.
Every weapon is keyed to one of the three categories of brutality, tactics, or survival. Dotted around the levels are upgrades that boost your health and your damage output, however you’ll have to make some difficult choices when deciding which of the three categories to boost. Do you want 15% extra damage on your sword with 40% extra health or would you prefer no extra damage and 60% extra health?
All of the weapons have levels, so even if you like the level one broadsword you started with, you might want to swap it out for a set of level four daggers. Finally, the weapons also have special attributes such as dealing toxic damage to enemies, leaving behind bugs when enemies die which then attack other enemies, and even boosting both your damage output and damage received by the same percentage.
The sheer amount of different weapons and attributes means Dead Cells easily manages that special “every run feels different” feature that rogue-lites strive for. It’s impossible to overstate the differences between runs and the awesome ways you can make your weapons complement each other. On one run, I had a frost blast and frost grenade to freeze enemies and a sword and turret that did bonus damage to frozen enemies. Oh, and the sword threw out grenades in front of it as well. Likewise, you can combine weapons that deal toxic damage with those that deal extra damage to poisoned enemies. This can make you feel near-invincible and all-powerful, but don’t worry, you’ll eventually be killed and brought down to Earth as you start the next run with level one sandals.
Even level order varies between runs. When you first play Dead Cells, you’ll start off in the Prisoners’ Quarters, move onto the Promenade of the Condemned, and then the Ramparts. After acquiring the ability to grow towers from toxic weeds, you can choose between moving from the Prisoners’ Quarters to the Toxic Sewers or the Promenade. This happens in other areas as well, so your runs won’t necessarily have the same levels in them. The levels could probably be mixed up a little more as there’s not a particularly smooth difficulty curve between them as it stands. For example, whatever level you play second feels harder than the Ramparts which you would play third.
Given the rogue-lite nature of Dead Cells, you’ll play the early levels a hell of a lot more than the later ones. It’s a shame, therefore, that the first couple of levels are also the most tedious. They aren’t exactly linear—there is plenty of exploration to do if you want—but this is where the procedurally generated nature of the levels is most obvious, with too many random dead ends being a common annoyance. Compare this to later levels like The Stilt Village and Clock Tower that require you to find keys to progress and take far longer to explore. Still, there is plenty of variety on offer, so long as you stay alive long enough to see it.
While the levels are varied, the enemies are not. Each level introduces a couple of new enemy types, but there’s an over-reliance on the base enemies such as archers and toxic zombies that leap at you. These enemies don’t change their appearance at all, but they do start dealing more damage, making your health upgrades feel a little pointless. One minor complaint is that the enemies have slightly larger hitboxes than you might expect, however it’s at least consistent.
In keeping with the feeling of runs being completely different, Dead Cells rewards you for speeding through levels which helps minimize the frustration of dying after a long run. For example, sometimes I would play slowly and cautiously, looking for all the health and damage upgrades I could lay my hands on, collecting as much money as possible, and buying weapons when I found shops. These playthroughs could last over an hour and it was devastating when I finally died. I didn’t feel like doing another hour-long run, but I wasn’t ready to put Dead Cells down either. I started another run barely even thinking about it. I blitzed through the levels as quickly as possible and missed loads of upgrades. This would usually be a recipe for disaster, however Dead Cells has a cool system with upgrades hidden behind doors that lock after a certain amount of time. If you’re going fast, you can grab the money, upgrades, and cells behind these doors to at least partially make up for other things you’ve missed. Overall, you’re still better off playing carefully, but this is a good mechanic nonetheless.
There’s still so much I haven’t had the chance to discuss. You can mutate your character between levels for extra health, reduced cooldowns, or for a second life on death. There’s a challenge room and other secrets I haven’t yet uncovered. While the story isn’t up to much, there are a few pieces of lore dotted around. It adds a little flavor to proceedings but is easily ignored if you don’t care about it.
The bosses I’ve fought fit the mantra of “tough but fair” perfectly. They have well-signposted attacks and at least five phases per fight, getting gradually more aggressive as you whittle down their health. The obvious problem is that if you die to a late boss it might be a while before you get a second chance, especially because there is a random element to which one you face.
I should clarify that I have not yet completed Dead Cells. I’ve made it to the final level, but have not beaten it. I’m confident I’ve spent enough time with Dead Cells that this shouldn’t really matter, however I’ll leave you to be the judge of that. Rogue-lites can be tough games to truly complete at the best of times and Motion Twin has already confirmed it will be adding new content via free DLC shortly.
As I mentioned at start, the term Metroidvania (or just “vania”) isn’t really applicable to Dead Cells. Yes, there are upgrades that let you access new areas, but they don’t affect gameplay all that much. Unlocking the ability to bash through the floor doesn’t function like a new ability; it’s more like getting a key to a new area.
Dead Cells might not be the Metroidvania it half-heartedly professes to be, but it is a phenomenal rogue-lite and probably the best game I’ve played this year. The constant feeling of progression should be enough to tempt even those who don’t usually enjoy the genre while still being intense enough for those who lap this stuff up.