Release Date: August 6th, 2018
Platform: Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Switch (Played on Windows)
Developer: Motion Twin
Publisher: Motion Twin
Dead Cells, a rogue-like with a bit of Metroidvania elements, is the latest game by Motion Twin. You play a small booger-like substance that controls a corpse as you try to escape the depths of a prison isle. It features a procedurally-generated world with most of the player’s time being spent running through collecting resources. Along the way, you’ll face off against a handful of bosses, and a number of tough enemies on a quest for your salvation. Dead Cells has immensely satisfying gameplay and seamlessly integrates its mechanics into a cohesive package.
The area Dead Cells shines strongest is its progression system. Throughout each run, players will collect cells which can be used for permanent unlocks such as new weapons, spells, and passive abilities. Cells can be found in chests, and there is a high chance for them to drop after defeating a foe. When you die you lose all of your collected cells, which may seem unnecessarily punishing, but makes cells feel more valuable. You’re able to spend all of the cells you’ve obtained at the end of a level, so players can choose to continue exploring, risking death and losing everything, or escaping with their lives and what they’ve collected. The system makes each new unlock feel more like an achievement because of the work that went into it.
Along with the direct upgrades to a player’s arsenal, Dead Cells features intangible progression with respect to learning each of the different levels and enemies. Each area features a specific layout for the landscape with some even having unique mechanics. I’m a big fan of the Forgotten Sepulcher where a shroud of darkness will continually damage players unless they are in the safety of lanterns. Additionally, learning each enemy’s attack set is vital. Foes can kill the player in a few attacks, so mistakes are often fatal in Dead Cells. The tension makes learning all of the little details a compelling experience.
Speaking of enemies, the combat in Dead Cells is top-notch. Mistakes can be lethal in Dead Cells, but approaching situations smartly can mitigate the need for twitch reflexes. Thanks to the vast variety of abilities, spells, and weapons, a number of different approaches can be used for each encounter. For instance, if you’re not adept at melee combat, a bow could be used to tear an enemy apart from afar. Alternatively, a set of traps could be laid down as you repeatedly bait enemies into them. The different options make Dead Cells feel more accessible while making players feel like they’re outsmarting the game.
Additionally, all of the skills feel like integral parts of the experience. You’re able to carry two weapons and two skills mapped to the face buttons and triggers respectively. Examples of skills include deployable traps that immobilize enemies, grenades that explode applying secondary effects of frozen or burned, and a grappling hook that pulls a target toward the player. As they have short cooldowns, players can build entire strategies around skills, instead of relegating their use solely to dangerous circumstances. In my first several hours of play time, I found using traps and baiting enemies into them a very effective way to dispatch tougher foes.
Furthermore, all weapons feature unique gimmicks, encouraging a wide variety of experimentation. Some will proc a critical hit when a condition is met like backstabbing an enemy, dodge rolling, or recently killing a set number of foes. Others are slow but hit for incredible damage while having a chance to apply a stun. Having such a plethora of viable options for players to experiment with is a testament to how well crafted the combat experience of Dead Cells is.
While the progression and combat are highlights of the experience, exploration falls to the wayside. I’m somewhat reluctant to refer to Dead Cells as a Metroidvania due to how poor the exploration elements are implemented in the game. The randomly generated maps follow patterns, so each run will have you running through environments that, while different, are almost identical to previous runs. Additionally, while your path can branch in several directions, players are never able to backtrack after leaving an area. As a result, Dead Cells feels a lot more like a series of obstacles to overcome rather than a sprawling maze to be explored.
Another mechanic that contributes to the lack of exploration are timed rooms that contain large rewards. The doors for these rooms are gated behind a time limit after which they will be locked off. As an example, the first of these doors is closed after the two-minute mark. The reward behind these doors is large enough that it eliminates the need for players to explore each area fully. This encourages rushing forward to continue collecting subsequent rewards instead of meticulously combing every inch of the map. In combination with the stale feeling of the map layouts, I didn’t find Dead Cells’ exploratory elements very gratifying.
The writing is also on the weaker side. There are various relics scattered throughout the levels with flavor text, which aims to help flesh out the world you’re exploring. While they help a bit, the lore doesn’t add much to the experience as a whole. I found the design of the levels, and which enemies appeared in each, to be much more effective at telling a story about the world. I’d have preferred if less flavor text was used when the art already articulates exactly what is stated in the text.
One final point to raise: the art is really nice. Enemies are all visually distinct from one another, and the wide array of colour makes each new area stand out. Despite how grim Dead Cells’ world is, it still manages to be fascinating to explore thanks to all of the detailed environments. Everything is also animated extremely well, so the looks don’t come at the cost of a smooth experience.
Dead Cells is a fantastic game and an easy recommendation to fans of rogue-likes, or those who want a truly rewarding experience. The progression system will keep you hooked and so does mastering the game’s combat. Punishing as it may be, nothing feels better than finally pushing a little further or unlocking a new upgrade you wanted. The weaker exploratory and world-building elements are negligible in the face of what the game does well. The art helps to round out the package to be one of 2018’s finest games.