It’s been a relatively sparse summer in terms of video games. After weeks of nothing of particular interest, suddenly we find ourselves drowning in games. All of which seem to fill the same niche. “Metroidvania”, “Roguelike-like” and “Procedurally Generated” are the common terms linking a great many number of them, but of them, only one has managed to stick out and actually capture my interest: Dead Cells.
In my search for something new and refreshing, I bounced off a great many game before finding this one. Hollow Knight and Dandara are games that came across a little too self-indulgent, failing to grab me because of their map system or their basic movement mechanics giving the player too much to do. Dead Cells isn’t exactly that same kind of game, but the things it does well, it does expertly.
Dead Cells comes from Motion Twin, a small French developer of only 11 people. They’ve been knocking around for a good long time, the team has spent much of their time making game for iOS, Android and for web browser. Dead Cells stands as their first release that’s become available on Steam and on Consoles.
Described on their own website as the first ever “Roguevania game”. Dead Cells owes a lot more to the Rogue aspect of that particular portmanteau than it does to the Castlevania aspect. While you will find a familiar, grid based map reminiscent of the later, exploration is by no means a requirement for progress. The game’s focus is on its combat, which is incredibly well realised, snappy and diverse. While many similar games of this sort can easily getting bogged down trying to tell a story, Dead Cells focuses on replay-ability and being fun in the moment to moment above all else.
Approach to storytelling
This genre of game has always had an issue with storytelling in my opinion. With the games oftentimes being too broad and with so much time spent wandering, it can be difficult for players to keep the pieces of a cohesive story straight in their minds. Developers have to bottleneck progress in order to have players meet story beats in the order they need them to. With mixed success. Dead Cells approaches this in the best way, by making it completely optional.
All of Dead Cells’ story comes from background elements, hidden areas with brief interactive elements and the few characters that you can actually talk to. In other games, important story beats can be so few and far between that you end up forgetting what was happening by the time you hit the next wedge of story. Dead Cells peppers its story into the game, never overtly telling you whats going on.
As you replay the same areas over and over after each inevitable death, you run by these flavour settings over and over, constantly reminding you of what’s going on in this world you’re playing in. It’s a great approach. Even someone like me, who heavily values narrative in video games can just ignore them as I grind and die over and over. Which is the main draw for the game.
Focus on Game play
Despite having a Metroidvania style map and world layout, exploration isn’t the focus of Dead Cells, rather the focus is completely focused on its combat. When you first start playing, your abilities are limited. Only having access to two weapon slots, a dodge roll and a ground pound. As you wander around and progress you find more equipment; traps, grenades and different kinds of weapons.
Using these tools, you make as much progress through the game as possible, learning the enemies’ telegraphed attack patterns and collecting Cells and Blueprints along the way. These resources are where the “Rogue-like” element comes into play.
Dead Cells is a very challenging game. It’s the type of game that, in theory, you could complete on your very first run. While player skill is a huge factor in your effectiveness in the game, the idea is a slow build up; repeating the same stages over and over, collecting blueprints which give you access to more abilities and the cells that unlock them for you. While the early game can seem frustrating as you die over and over, if the game gets its claws into you, this repetitive approach means that dealing with enemies in earlier stages becomes child’s play after hours of experience. It ends up being your own skill rather than in game progress that gets you though.
It’s as you get deeper and access more equipment, you begin to realise the depth to the game. Each weapon type has its own strengths and weaknesses, and you can start to build a play style around your favourites. Additionally, the more you play, the more you begin to value the perks on weapons and become able to synergies them. Having a run based around the +100% damage to burning enemies sword you picked up for example, or taking mutation perks that strengthen the two turret traps you found.
But even then, the game still contains an element of luck in regard to which items you’ll find during a run. Meaning that even after a hundred hours of game play, you can discover and fall in love with a new weapon or build you’d never thought to try out before. And it all feels in favour of making you a better player. The random nature forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you adapt to any given situation the game throws at you.
While the generation of stage layout is random each time you play through, the enemies and their abilities are not. So the more you play, the more you know what to expect. At a certain point, the only thing holding you back is your own skill. It’s a really satisfying loop and one I still don’t feel anywhere close to mastering.
Thanks to the elements of randomness though, sometimes the game can feel brutally difficult. A combination of enemies and stage layout can sometimes throw something at you that you’re in no way equipped to deal with. Or it just feels like a cheap encounter that can take your entire life bar down to nothing in a matter of moments. The final stage of the game also feels downright unfair and cheap. Given, I felt that about earlier stages of the game before I sunk some significant time into them.
I have seen a lot of chatter online though that the final boss it just cheap no matter how you approach it. Which can be frustrating, but at the same time, no matter how angry I get at a death, I always jump right back in for another beating. It’s hard to put the game down.
The Game’s Look
There was a time when developers would laud their graphics style as an homage to the graphics of a bygone era. Dead Cells doesn’t jump out as paying tribute to the graphic style of any particular console of the past. Rather, it seems to take a broader semi-retro aesthetic. The game has a pixel blur to it rather than looking like it’s pure pixel art in itself. It gives everything a unique look I am real fond of. But where the game really shines is in its biomes. Each stage is starkly unique. Giving a great sense of either open space or claustrophobia depending on where you are.
On top of this, the game is designed in such a way that there are some stages you’ll not see for hours and hours unless you progress through the stage in a particular way, having a certain core ability unlocked. Which is random happenstance if you don’t know hat you’re looking for. While I did previously praise the game for focusing on combat and not really prioritising exploration, going out and doing it anyway is still rewarded.
Each level having dead ends with small challenges, shops and chests for you to further customise your run or farm blueprints. It’s give and take though, because while that might make it seem like you should be combing through entire maps before moving on, the are reasons to just rush through too. Each stage has a time door, one that starts ticking down as soon as you start playing. If you meander around looking for extra loot, you’ll almost certainly miss these doors and their contents by minutes or more. And the rewards are usually substantial enough to warrant a speed run mentality instead of a meticulous one. It just further deepens the approach one can take toward this game.
Dead Cells is a very impressive game that’s difficult to put down, while also managing to be a frustratingly difficult one. This isn’t one for the faint of heart. I haven’t really played any of the Dark Souls style of video game, but I get the impression that there is a lot in here that would appeal to that crowd too. Unlike those games though, the action in Dead Cells is more simplistic and snappy. Your inputs are simple and more often than not, failure is in your own hands. Be that as a result of a lack of knowledge or a result of blind panic.
Even when things start to feel exceedingly cheap and unfair, unescapable situations aren’t too common unless you dive in head first. Speed comes with experience and you need to earn speed.
With so many of these Metroidvania style games coming out in such a narrow release window, it’s going to be a struggle for any of them to stick out as much as Dead Cells does. It’s a fantastic game I’d recommend to anyone even slightly interested in playing this type of game. I’ve tried my best not to crap on similar games out which fail to capitalise on the market desperate for something new. Dead Cells, it’s really a cut above the rest.