I’ve been waiting for Motion Twin‘s Dead Cells to go gold for months now. It’s been around for what feels like ages, but always with my most hated caveat: Early Access. “You can play our game now, if you want! It’s incomplete and you’ll spoil the full experience for yourself, but if you absolutely can’t wait…”
Okay, that’s an unfair representation of how Early Access was used here. I understand that many developers nowadays employ it as a method of user-involved development, and honestly, I can’t imagine a better way to get actual feedback from actual players under actual play circumstances — the user experience researcher in me appreciates it greatly. And I have played some Early Access games to good effect, most notable of which Sunless Sea; I noted in my review of it that having access to those early-build memories made for an interesting review counterpoint to the current game. That said, I think Early Access just isn’t for me. I’m perfectly fine waiting a game to reach what the development team considers ‘completion’ — I know that’s an odd benchmark in this day and age of constant content upgrades, but listen, I can’t influence how my own brain works.
At any rate, Dead Cells! It’s out now! Let’s see if it’s been worth the wait.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium-high.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
Relaxed gloomy music. A dark reddish-purple island, set against the backdrop of a yellow-orange sky and sea. Bright blue-white letters for the title and the options bars. Theses could be written about how striking Dead Cells‘s title screen is, or how subtly it suggests you use a controller to play.
The options are mostly as-expected for a console-oriented game. Limited video settings, the most significant of which is probably the choice to pixelate your font or not. Audio, no subtitles, and a long list of languages, with built-in the option to ‘download another language’, presumably for when more translations become available. Some gameplay options regarding tutorial prompts and in-game action cues. Streaming integration settings, which don’t load for me, presumably because I’m not streaming. And I’m sure that most of you have seen the ‘diet’ menu here or there, which lets you choose the appearance of in-game food from a variety of choices.
And then we’re off! Dead Cells doesn’t waste a lot of time in setup; just pick a save slot and off you go.
Dead Cells doesn’t waste a lot of time with introductions, either. This is more or less exactly what I got after starting the game for the first time ever:
And just like that, we’re in the tutorial, which appears to be of the ‘yell at me until I do certain actions’ type. Did you know the bottom face button (A) makes me jump? Well you do now!
Up the ledge, through the door, and up the higher ledge again, I meet another person: A warrior, with bow and broadsword. They ask me if I’m “that headless fellow that’s been getting around”, which… apparently that’s already been established? It’s the first time I’m hearing of it. My character points at themselves, then gives a thumbs-up. No text is forthcoming, which puts me off a little — until I remember that, oh yeah. Headless.
“It must be strange to be back from the dead. Haven’t you noticed? You can no longer die. But you’re not the first to find yourself in this situation…” And with that, the other person stops explaining. No matter how much my character emotes raised shoulders at them, all I get is a broad “shouldn’t you be on your way?”. So I guess that’s it for backstory right now, then! I came back from the dead, I can’t die. Go figure stuff out.
Right beyond the least helpful exposition provider, something more helpful lies: A bow, and a shield. I work out that I can pick either of these as my secondary weapon. So either shoot things from a distance, or block three-fourth of damage with a timed prompt to block all of it. Hmm, difficult.
I move forward through the broken door and find… a glowing yellow portal, that flashes into life as I get closer!
I move down from the pretty portal to fin- oh god, monsters!
Glowing green zombie-looking monsters roam the lower level, and as I drop down, one of them grunts, rears back, and jumps about the length of a football field to slam into me. Or maybe just a few inches. Listen, it felt far. I respond by flailing on the main attack button until one of them explodes into giblets, dodge-rolling away when Dead Cells uses that exact moment to teach me how to dodge-roll, and them loosing arrows into the other one.
The monsters explode into blood and gold, the latter of which I quickly hoover up. I now own two-hundred and forty-five pieces of gold. I have no idea if that’s a lot or not.
One level down again, I find a gloomy-looking archer, who immediately draws against me. If I had a shield, if I had a shield, I could probably block or reflect these arrows while moving in closer to attack. But since I got a bow, I guess the only thing I can do is return fire — and then dodge-roll through the incoming arrow. Or just duck, that works too.
At this point, two interesting things happen. One, the killed archer drops not just a wallet full of cash, but also a bright blue orb. It gets absorbed into me before I fully parse it, increasing a small blue orb counter above my money counter — suggesting this is another resource I’ll be wanting.
And second, the killed archer also drops a giant scroll with a bloody sword on it.
I actually have to press a button to pick up this thing. It’s apparently a ‘blueprint’ for a ‘blood sword’, which — has the potential to be very interesting? We’ll see when I start to make sense of all this.
I keep moving through the dungeon. There are more zombies, and archers, and I kill them. Enemies made of purple orbs throw bombs off their own body at me, ignoring vertical limitations, so I jump down and kill them. Purple zombies with giant shields are invulnerable from the front, so I roll past their charging attacks and kill them. It’s a whole theme.
Some things that I learn include: First, you can open doors with the right bumper (RB), but if you want, you can also just attack or dodge-roll straight through them. This is faster and actually stuns monsters close to the door, though at the seemingly obvious drawback of no longer being able to close the door behind you.
Second, the glowing yellow portals are teleporters: After finding a second one, I can now use them to teleport to any portal on the level I’ve discovered.
Third, aside from my sword and bow, I can also find special powers, like grenades and traps. These map to my left and right trigger buttons, and seem to only be on a cooldown — throwing my grenade doesn’t remove my grenade, it just makes it so I can’t throw my grenade for a little bit.
Fourth, the power of my attacks and skills is determined by — well, by a bunch of factors, I think. I can see that all of them have levels: ‘Infantry Grenade I’, ‘Wolf Trap 2’, that sort of thing. But apparently, prowess is also tied to three numeric stats: Brutality, Tactics, and Survival. I find a golden scroll in one hallway that lets me upgrade any one of these; doing so increases my HP, and also increases my damage with items of that ‘colour’.
Finally, fifth, this game is real pretty when it wants to be.
I make my way through the dungeon more, killing monsters and eating kebabs. It’s full of mystery. Here, a giant treasure chest that opens when kicked, spitting out a single grenade power.
There, a golden door that demands payment to open.
Here, a grumpy shopkeeper that snarks at me when I don’t buy anything.
There, a mysterious purple sarcophagus that I can rub. To… no immediate effect?
And before I even know it, at the bottom, the passage out of here.
Surprisingly, the door to the ‘Promenade of the Condemned’ doesn’t actually lead to the Promenade of the Condemned. I first take a detour through a sort of liminal space, an in-between land, where I meet the Collector: A tall, fancy character who (from their looks and prominence on Dead Cells promotional material) I had assumed was some sort of boss. Instead, they very kindly offer to help me: I can trade them the cells that I found, the bright blue orbs harvested off certain monsters, to unlock new tools, weapons, and upgrades over time.
The list of possible upgrades is small right now, but it already immediately gets bigger: I hand the Collector the Blood Sword blueprint I found, and presto, they learn how to make a Blood Sword. Only twenty cells – a steal!
In the room beyond the Collector’s, which only opens after I spend all my cells, I meet another shopkeeper-like NPC — albeit a lot smaller — hanging out with a bunch of corpses that look remarkably like me. They offer me the ability to take one ‘mutation’, which as far as I can tell is a passive power drawn from a list. No strings attached. Do I want double the normal amount of bow ammo? Lower cooldown on grenade-type powers? The ability to eat my kills for a small amount of health? Or just straight-up one get-out-of-death-free card?
Finally, in the last room before the exit, I see…
Okay, listen, I have no idea what this is. But interacting with it heals me to full, and refills the empty health potion flash I just bought from the Collector.
And then I go through the door, and actually end up in the Promenade of the Condemned! What incredible adventures will I have here? Will there be new and interesting enemies?
Fancy new weapons and gear?
Talking chests that make things just a little weirder than they have to be?
All that and more, just in this area. And I’m only twenty minutes in. Do you think I’m excited to find out what other cool secrets Dead Cells has to offer in the future?