One More (Gut Wrenching) Run
Dead Cells is a beautifully crafted action-platformer with classic Metroidvania and modern rogue-lite elements. However, this mouthful of a description just cracks the surface of Motion Twin’s latest game.
The story is tenuous at best; players control a headless character through the depths of a dungeon, collect his Cells, and are challenged to loosley figure out what happened to him and this kingdom. There are some environmental storytelling with a sprinkling of hidden crevices, but most are few and far in between. Though this was adequately intriguing, the real story of Dead Cells comes from the gameplay and its mechanics.
Like many Metroid-like games, Dead Cells presents itself with a myriad of items, destructible walls, hidden abilities, amongst other secrets, all with incredibly fluid and fun gameplay. Most secrets require specific abilities that you eventually earn through your runs of the game, a classic and addicting benefit of Dead Cells. However, with it’s rogue-lite hook, once your character dies, that’s it. No redo. No extra life. No hard reset. Nothing. You start right at the beginning with none of the weapons, upgrades or modifiers. The first few times this happened to me a calmly pounded my first on the couch, mostly because it was no one’s fault but my own. But with each gut-wrenching defeat, I impulsively went for another run, excited to do a little bit better than before.
With each of these runs, you’re challenged to simply survive and get to the next area. Simple enough until you realize that each creature is set on attacking and destroying you. The dozen plus areas have distinctly different enemies, color pallets, and scores, along with a constantly changing layout after each run. Prisoners’ Quarters, the first area for example, has the same types of creatures, ability requirements, and general difficulty. However, each time you explore this area, the layout is slightly different – so don’t bother trying to memorize the best spots to pick up items. At first I detested this idea – the whole point of Metroidvania’s is mastering the layout and eventually find the optimal path towards success. After a few runs, this grew on me and added to the replayability and allure of constantly trying one more run after I was eventually killed off.
If you manage to survive long enough to complete an area, you’re whisked off to a “safe space” without enemies. Here you can deposit your collected Cells into permanent upgrades or unlockable weapons as well as utilize the money collected to upgrade or modify your weapons. Additionally, you’re able to mutate your character with up to three modifiers. One, for example, can lessen cooldown for grenades, while another can give back a short amount of health for each enemy defeated. I found this immeasurably useful when crafting my character and utilizing the weapons on hand. I was very fond of Dead Inside, which grants 30% more health right off the bat just in case I encounter a bit of difficulty. These mutations stay with the character, at least, as long as that body survives…
With all the weapons, upgrades, and mutations that you lose once you die, your character can keep a few permanent abilities. Like in classic Metroidvania form, once you defeat a specific challenging opponent (in Dead Cells they’re Elite enemies) you’re granted one of these powerful permanent abilities. With these abilities you can traverse deeper into the levels that you’re already familiar with, in addition to exploring new ones only accessible once they’re learned.
With over 70 different weapons, upgrades, modifiers, and mutations the possible combinations are immense. Figuring out which loadout works best for each area of playstyle is a wonderful balancing act that I kept finding myself in. Sure, I can keep it the same with a simple sword and ice grenade, but the allure of Dead Cells is to constantly try new pairings. The variability is extensive and the careful stacking of powers is much deeper than I was expecting. With all this, some weapons also generate random extra buffs; poison enemies, set them on fire, slow them down, etc. – further enhancing the complexity of the fighting. I did find myself getting into a pattern of the weapons I gravitated towards. The ability to freeze enemies then throw a turret in front of them was my favorite and most consistent mashup. I almost had to pull myself away from this to try others (The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset). Once I was able to pry myself away from this duo, I found myself loving even more loadouts, showcasing the internal reward from Dead Cells for experimenting and trying something new.
Even with all this in the standard game, there is a Daily Challenge, unlockable about a third of the way through the game. With this, everyone around the world is given the same newly formed level with a random assortment of enemies and weapons with the goal of completing the area within the time limit. Though this doesn’t add too much to Dead Cells, it’s a fun little addition that can distract you if you’re feeling overly annoyed by the standard mode.
The Verdict: 9.6 Out of 10
Dead Cells is an edgy, enticing, and exciting game that I simply can’t stop playing. The incredible rogue-lite loop of survive, fight, die, repeat is nothing new, but is exponentially enhanced by Motion Twins. The replayability and push to keep moving forward is punishing as much as it is rewarding. I highly encourage everyone reading this to give Dead Cells a try.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with the code provided by the publisher. For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.