A few hours in
The time is now a good two dozen hours later. Veteran Dead Cells players might wonder how my initial starting run ended up panning out. To those players, I’ll say that I managed to survive my curse, made it through the Promenade and the Ramparts, and eked out a hard-earned victory over the Concierge, before finally meeting my end at the hands of one of the Clock Tower’s sword-wielders.
Non-veteran players might be scratching their heads at this point. ‘Wait, what? First run? I thought Dead Cells was advertised as a metroidvania with roguelike and soulslike elements. How do ‘runs’ feature into it?’
And I’m glad you asked, non-veteran players! This is actually something I wanted to bring up early in the review. I’ve seen Dead Cells described as metroidvania here and there, both in official materials and in critical reviews, including at least one review putting it side-by-side with Hollow Knight [which I reviewed here]. And this is really surprising to me, because… Dead Cells isn’t a metroidvania-style game? Like, at all. I understand that talking about genre definitions isn’t the most productive way of kicking off any review, but the mismatch here is so great that I genuinely struggle to understand.
What makes a metroidvania for you? I’ll tell you what I associate with the word: A large, seamless, interconnected world that you can traverse at will according to your abilities, largely closed off at first. A suite of new movement/combat abilities you unlock over time, that are necessary to progress and eventually beat the game. A predicable difficulty curve matched by a predictable player power curve. And maybe some sort of dragon, possibly one from space.
Dead Cells hits none of these points. Its world is not seamless nor interconnected, its movement abilities are ancillary, its difficulty curve is oddly hooked and repeating, and I haven’t seen any dragons yet.
I’ll try to address these things a little more down the line, but it won’t be a very interesting review if I only talk about what Dead Cells isn’t. As for what Dead Cells is… If I’m comparing it to other games, I can tell you that it does have some serious roguelike in its DNA, and a little bit of soul. The closest game that immediately springs to mind isn’t so much Rogue as it is Rogue Legacy, that strange game about forcing a family of adventurers to assault a haunted castle over generations until they’ve finally amassed enough wealth to buy their way out of trouble.
If I’m not comparing it to other games, Dead Cells is a race. Dead Cells is a game where you constantly thread the fine needle between being as careful as you need to survive and being as fast as you can get away with. Dead Cells, cribbing words from a better writer than I, never wants you to stop running.
The atomic unit of Dead Cells is the run. You start each one in the same area, the gateway to the Prison, where you get to select your starting gear: Initially that rusty sword and starter bow/shield, though that can change. You enter the Prison and make your way through the whole thing, fighting enemies and collecting treasures and cells, until you find an exit. Not the exit, but an exit, because Dead Cells is in an interesting way limitedly non-linear: Most levels have several exit points, somewhere between one and three, and the exit you pick determines which (procedurally generated) stage you go to next. This is spatially arranged: The physical gate you go through determines your progression. It reminds me of those Spelunky levels with multiple exits, or of arcade racing classic OutRun, in a way. It’s nonlinear in the sense that you can choose your path, but limited in the sense that the level structure is a branching diamond: Many levels spin off from the start, but (at least in the current version) all level paths eventually bring you back to the Clock Room, the Palace, and the Courtyard.
During levels, the general pace and mood of Dead Cells‘s play is very energetic. Or rather, it was to me. It’s entirely possible to play Dead Cells slow and steady, scoping out levels and engaging enemies from safe positions; I know many people that play that way, and the game’s loading screen tips occasionally give this exact advice. It’s a valid style of play, but it’s not the energy that Dead Cells exudes. It exudes action. Levels are small and packed with enemies, movement and attacks are fast, and the controls are responsive enough to allow for a fluid style of blocking/dodging/jumping. And while a lot of ranged weapons are legitimately powerful, there’s just something about ground-slamming into one enemy, dodge-rolling past a second’s attack, and eviscerating a third with a guaranteed critical hit from your rapier.
It’s not just my personal feeling that Dead Cells encourages speed, it’s coded into the game proper in several ways. For instance, killing several enemies in quick succession grants a temporary speed bonus. Ground-slamming from a long height is not only the fastest way to get down, but also the only way that doesn’t stun you (apart from elevators, which also feel very fast). Gold and cell pickup ranges are pretty generous, encouraging you to keep moving. And then there are the timed doors, special doors in several levels that lock after a certain amount of active time has passed. Two minutes for the Promenade, eight minutes for the Ramparts, and so on. Reaching these doors generally means not exploring each level fully, but they’ll reward you with cash, cells, stat boosts, and often one door-specific blueprint (the first time you get there). They’re speed-play carrot and stick both: You want to get their rewards, and you loathe finding them closed. Dead Cells isn’t too mean about these: Almost all special areas are exempt from the passage of time, meaning you can shop or compare items from chests in peace. But all the same, too late is too late.
Of course, your actual moment-to-moment energy is strongly determined by the items you find and decide to use, which is like 90% random. If your best items this run are a long-range bow and a shield, your optimal play style is going to be very different from finding a great knife and fire grenade. In my experience, Dead Cells is still pretty fast-paced even when building for slow items, and you can always opt to go with whatever you want. But grain of salt, etcetera, etcetera. A lot of Dead Cells‘s replayability also comes from trying different runs with different items, or from making the best of an unexpected situation.
These are the basic elements of a run, and a run lasts for… Well, it can go one of two ways. On the one hand, you might make it to the final boss, kill them, and beat the game! On the other hand, somewhat more commonly, you might die. Both outcomes result in mostly the same follow-up, though: You’re brought back to the start, the room before the Prison stage, to start over and get yourself into another run. And so on, and so forth, until eternity — or until you decide to do something else.
From the above, you can see how Dead Cells‘s is neither seamless, since parts of the world are bolted together through clear passageways which serve to mask the significant visual changes between areas, nor interconnected, since you can only ever move forward — there’s no going back. The one aspect of it that looks metroidvania on the surface is the fact that the stages are seeded with paths that require certain abilities to move through: Vine sprouts you can make grow, sections of floor you can cave in, that sort of jam. You gain these abilities during play by going to the right level and engaging certain minibosses, after which you’ll get the associated ‘rune’ and have the ability forever.
Here’s the thing, though: Aside from the very first one, the vine-growing trick you learn on your first run through the Promenade, all of these are technically optional. You don’t need any other movement ability to make it through Dead Cells, and in theory you could make it to and beat the final boss on your first ever run. It’s very unlikely you’ll do this, but it’s possible — and it’s equally possible to only ever follow the starting path. You’ll need the movement abilities to access certain levels, and levels are seeded with secrets you can only get with them. But in the strictest sense of the word, they’re completely optional. Hell, playing Dead Cells on my Switch, I managed to beat the final boss on run four — without either the Ram or Spider runes.
Oh, and those movement abilities? Are pretty much only for that purpose. I guess the Ram rune empowers your slam attack somewhat, and the Spider rune can be used for clever platforming, but for the most part they’re essentially fancy keys in a different skin. That’s not a particularly relevant slam, but it’s one metric I use for distinguishing between good metroidvanias and bad ones — or in this case, a not-at-all one.
It’s also been said that Dead Cells has a bit of Souls in its makeup, and that one is true — it’s just not the one I initially expected. What I expected was slow, careful combat, and slow, somber environmental storytelling, painting a picture of a world that no longer was. What I got was combat where I dodge-roll through everyone just because I can, and where I’ve power-slammed into hidden spikes on several occasions. And the storytelling is… still mostly environmental, and focused on painting a slow picture, honestly. But it’s much funnier than I would have expected. Your main character in particular is not some kind of spirit of vengeance, but mostly an irreverent jackass who makes bad jokes and casually snarks at the limitations of the game engine. It’s not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but the tone matches the game’s overall aesthetic in a way I didn’t expect: Fast-paced, bright, and very often not making all that much sense.
The two biggest Souls-like influence Dead Cells carries are the titular Cells, which you use to unlock upgrades between levels, and the way it handles its health potion — basically an Estus Flask with a different name, where every between-level space counts as a bonfire. Regarding the former, you can only use cells you’ve gained if you manage to survive to the end of a level — and you can only cash in blueprints you found as well, which later in the game is often the bigger worry. Blueprints don’t drop all that often, and certain blueprints are ‘rare’, and there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing one of those red-tinted bad boys appear in a level where you’re low on health, out of potions, and nowhere near the exit. Not that I would know how much that stings.
Getting new blueprints is the second source of Dead Cells‘ replayability: Only certain enemies drop certain (normal or rare) blueprints, and that includes bosses, which actually gives you a reason to visit out-of-the-way levels. And finding and unlocking and using new gear is fun. The large range of weapons and powers allows for a lot of possibility in the place space: Melee weapons play differently from bows play differently from ranged powers, and the combination of items you bring makes for lots of new experiences. Some of them do feel a little stronger than others (such as the ice crossbow, which basically combines the best parts of the ice bow and the heavy crossbow), but for the most part, the variety feels pretty good. This is also one of the main ways in which Dead Cells resembles Rogue Legacy, but ‘better’: Getting new upgrades is cool and fresh, but it’s not actually mandatory to do so. Though getting bigger health flasks does help.
A secondary additional play space is afforded by the forging system, where you can upgrade and ‘reroll’ items in order to gain new powers. It’s random and increasingly expensive, but can lead to some good synergies if you’re lucky: Getting a ‘+175% damage to a frozen target’ affix on a broadsword when you also have ice grenades can make things a lot easier.
Finally, a third replayability is found in the ‘boss stem cells’, which you gain from defeating the final boss and which unlock higher difficulty modes. Increasing the difficulty means you can upgrade your gear more and get more cells, as well as open special locked doors, but also leads to harder enemies in earlier stages of the game and less (or even no) health potions. I don’t super like these, particularly because of the last part, but I’m probably still going to try playing this way. And since you can only unlock difficulty 2 by beating the game on difficulty 1, and you can only unlock difficulty 3 by beating it on difficulty 2… I’m sure you can see where the variation comes from.
And, here’s the thing: If the thought of playing Dead Cells over and over and over to get better gear and to grind through higher difficulty modes sounds boring to you, that’s totally fair. It’s a high-quality game, but it’s not for everyone. If it sounds good to you, though… It might be that, like me, your future free time is now at serious risk.
One thing I haven’t even brought up is how good Dead Cells feels to play. The motion, the animation, and the sound design all come together very often to contribute to excellent game feel (I don’t like that term, but it’s applicable here). The regular melee weapons can feel a bit flighty sometimes, though critical hits pack the required heft. But things like the long spears, the shotgun-crossbow, and the pyrokinetic fireballs feel incredible to throw. Roll-slamming through a door is fun, every time. To say nothing of the ground-pound powerslam.
And it’s really important to emphasize how good the animation is on its own.
Dead Cells is, not to make too fine a point of it, a very well-designed game. Specifically, it’s a very well-designed intensive combat platformer, with cool persistent roguelike elements and a touch of souls in resource risk and ambient narrative. And no metroidvania aspects to speak of. It’s a great game to play to beat, or to play to ‘unwind’, or to play the daily challenges, or just to play to have something else on your mind. It might be the first game I got on the Switch after getting it on PC, and it’s worth having and playing on either of those platforms. It’ll run you the equivalent of $25 on a variety of platforms, but if you’re at all into replayable platforming action it’s well worth that price.
Jarenth keeps forgetting to talk to the Collector after beating a boss and then donating all the cells to the Blacksmith, which means he’s ‘lost’ the Clock Keeper’s Velocity blueprint *five times*. Yell at him to say hi on his way out on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?