Dead Cells is a game that shouldn't work. Created by a small independent studio Motion Twin, and releasing on all major gaming platforms, Dead Cells combines two of the most popular indie genres, the Metroidvania and rogue-like. The pairing doesn't make any sense. A Metrodvania game is all about exploring every corner of a game's environment to deepest level. Meanwhile, rogue-likes, by design, restart the game's layout with every player death.
Against all logic though this fusion is a match made in gaming heaven. Dead Cells is difficult and at times very aggravating. Ultimately though the experience is one of rewarding discovery, fluid gameplay and a tremendous atmosphere. Dead Cells brings two played-out genres screaming back to life (over and over again).
The premise of Dead Cells is simple. The playable character is a unnamed (headless) warrior who is trapped in an ever-changing dungeon and is forced to fight for his survival. Every round of Dead Cells begins the exact same way with the undead protagonist coming back to life in a jail cell. A short sword is always equipped at the beginning with the option of picking up a defensive shield or ranged bow later. Once out of that starting area, Dead Cells opens up into a world that as terrifying as it is alluring, full of new weapons, enemies, and repeated 'game over' screens.
It's possible to beat Dead Cells in about 2 hours. The more accurate run time of the game though is around 10-15 hours though as trial and error are baked into Dead Cells' DNA. At first, Dead Cells and its shifting world seem overwhelming but there's always a sense of progression. Even though the world resets with every game over, each death is a learning experience, in a literal and figurative sense.
Dying not only teaches players how enemies react and what moves that need to be used to attack them. Is it best to throw a grenade at a teleporting sword-wielding baddie or charge at them slicing them furiously with dual daggers? These questions are asked constantly in Dead Cells and finding the right answer is half the joy of the game. Success can also provide tangible benefits. Defeating certain "elite" type enemies and bosses give out permanent items that will stay in the inventory no matter how much Dead Cells hero meets his end. This is where the Metroidvania part of Dead Cells enters the picture. For example, vanquishing the first real boss gives access to a power that allows climbable vines to grow opening up whole new pathways and areas.
Of even more importance to progression is the titular mechanic of the dead cells. Certain enemies will drop bright blue "cells" when they die. These cells can then be used at safe stations, scattered across the world, to purchase permanent upgrades. Among these upgrades are better starting weapons, more health flasks and a lot more. Dead Cells tracks and saves how many cells have been spent on each upgrade so even in the quickest runs there should be some manner of progress toward an upgrade or item as long as a safe station is reached at least once.
These are just the big ways that Dead Cells makes itself a little less punishing. There are plenty of small tweaks and mechanics that keep the game balancing on the knife's edge of difficulty. Motion Twin has crafted everything in such a way that the game is always fun but still tense enough that every encounter has a sense of consequence.
While the rogue-like aspect of Dead Cells helps more than it hurt, there is a downside. The world simply isn't as engaging as it should be due to its procedural design. It's always fun to roll, jump, and slash around but the dungeons would be more interesting if they was handcrafted, not created by an algorithm. There are even times when the level that's been formed since your a prior death is unfairly set up, whether because of the new platforming obstacles or an overwhelming amount of enemies in one area. 90% of the time a game over in Dead Cells is completely earned. However, the 10% it's not earned, really does rankle.
In the grand scheme though the world of Dead Cells feeling a little less structured is a small qualm. It's even arguable to assert that the excitement of the ever-changing environment cancels out the design not being perfect all the time. Dead Cells does so much right that it's a must-play for anyone with the slightest interest in Metroidvania, rougelikes or just 2D gaming in general.
Dead Cells is available now for 24.99 on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.