Dead Cells Review – Neverending Fun
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Motion Twin
Publisher: Motion Twin / Headup Games (German Retail Version)
Release: 6th August 2018
Dead Cells was responsible for quite an uproar, both with its quality and IGN´s plagiarizing writer. However, in the long run, this game will probably be remembered for the latter by many people, that´s just how it goes. Is it actually such a good game everyone says it is or just another mediocre roguelike Metroidvania, flooding the market for years, despite some amazing titles like Hollow Knight.
Playing as a failed alchemist experiment, the resulted blob takes over a near corpse and begins his journey towards the highest point of the castle-city. On the way, he´s surely to die over and over again but in the end, he will eventually conquer with his ever-growing arsenal of items and weapons.
Yes, Dead Cells´s basic concept doesn´t differ much from other roguelikes: You have to master 6 levels and three bosses, in order to win the game, one normal run can easily take up to 1 hour or more, making it quite the challenge to survive in this cruel world. After all, it´s a quite difficult game with its ever-changing huge array of enemies. Yet, what this game nails in an almost perfect way is offering diversity throughout your repetitions, letting them feel like almost new experiences from time to time. Typical for a metroidvania, you gain permanent runes from defeating bosses, giving you the ability to grow roots, detach from your body and so on. As a result, previously unreachable, mysterious rooms become new, explorable areas and are scattered in every biome and level.
Additionally, it boasts a huge array of possible biomes, in fact, almost every level and boss has 2-3 alternatives. Their entrances are often scattered around the previous level or depend on which one you chose to play before, making it pretty easy to also knowingly choose from them. Naturally, the sheer amount of biomes, especially considering their size, adds quite a lot of diversity to the mix, while providing new enemies and structures to learn. Combined with the new possibilities each major success on the way to the end provides for each new area, Dead Cells is definitely one of the few roguelikes games able to provide “fresh” content without invalidating your already gathered knowledge.
Though the true gem is the combat system, offering some of the most satisfying, direct system I´ve ever seen in any 2D slasher. First of all, every slash is executed almost immediately (naturally there´s delay depending on the weapon, as a hammer isn´t as fast as daggers) without any animation priority whatsoever. As a result, you don´t have to be scared to get trapped in them if you´re not careful enough since dodging will cancel literally everything, making the whole thing feel way less intimidating. Actually, Dead Cells encourages a fast, brutal playstyle through this, which is absolutely necessary too. Since shields won´t block all damage, dodging is key to survive.
Obviously, enemies and their attacks can get quite fast, almost with mere milliseconds delay, later on, making it essential to have fast reflexes and be able to predict their moves. Especially bosses and tougher foes practically force you to adopt a dance-like style, where both of you dodge and attack without any pause until one dies. With every new area, it becomes faster and harder. Yet, nothing about this spike feels cruel or demotivating, because the game gives you enough tools to customize the blob´s playstyle. Beginning with the classic weapon types, there are dozens of weapons in this game, giving you the choice between super-fast daggers to heavy hammers. They´re so different, that even those of the same category can feel quite different, for example, an assassin sword requires a different approach than an oiled sword.
Surprisingly though, the true strength lies in the items besides the weapons. While there´s not a giant selection, mainly restricted to traps, bombs, deployable turrets and iterations, they bring a whole new layer of strategy. Due to the fact, nothing except short cooldowns banish their usage, they become vital parts of every playthrough and not special things that have to be conserved, making them influence your playstyle even more. A boss can be ten times easier when you can constantly trap him and bombard him, without having to worry about jump attacks after all. However, at no point are they feeling cheap either since they never deal much damage making them enhancements for an already experienced hunter.
Of course, your equipment can be upgraded, same as you, giving them special abilities. Arrow-shooting swords, exploding daggers or oil-spouting weapons, there are tons of little passives each weapon can have, changing up every playthrough even more. They can also be reforged to get random new ones, in case you found a great weapon with bad abilities. It´s a great way to add flavour to the ever-same things, particularly because they become better and better throughout the areas, giving you a great sense of progression and success if you found a super powerful one.
Additionally, in-between those levels, we can spend our Cells we collect from slain enemies to purchase lasting upgrades for all runs and grant us a new ability for every mastered area, those disappear with our death though. It´s probably the most standardized execution in the entire game, nothing about those upgrades feels new or unique, they´re just there because they work. Not to say they´re bad, it´s great to have those two systems on top of everything there already but it was definitely the thing that left me the most unimpressed, everything else is just so damn perfect after all.
What´s truly impressive on the other hand is the amazing pixel-art style. Mixing classic 2D backgrounds, that beautifully portray vast landscapes or claustrophobic sewers, with 3D models works almost too well. Every character has super-fluid animations and cycles, blends with the environment due to a consistent style and creates such a beautiful visual experience. Combine it with pretty great design and you have Dead Cells, a gorgeous looking game. Only the soundtrack isn´t as amazing, while still good never manages to truly stick in your head for long.
All in all, Dead Cells doesn´t reinvent the roguelike Metroidvania formula. Instead, it aims to perfect it in any way and succeeds at everything. It´s fast, smooth, direct experience, full of diversity and smart level generation. As a result, it delivers some of the best combat, visuals and hours of fun. Only Hollow Knight could live up to this game´s perfection.
[A Review Copy was provided by Headup Games]