Dead Cells is a game about choices. Do you want to speedrun the game in order to access treasure rooms that lock after a certain amount of time has passed, glancing down at the helpful timer in the corner of your screen as you dodge past enemies? You can do that. Personally, I chose to take my time as I traversed each randomly-generated level, filling out the metroidvania-style map, killing enemies, amassing gold, acquiring items that fit my playstyle, and leveling up my character build so that his (its?) weapons and abilities would deal massive amounts of damage. While playing through one of the levels, I found so many useful items that I had to stop and think, “Man, you could spend an eternity trying to figure out which combination of gear would be ideal for any given run.” And that’s the beauty of Dead Cells: you can approach this game however you want. There’s no wrong way to play.
Dead Cells is both a roguelite and metroidvania, featuring randomly-generated levels and permadeath, but also gated areas that you can’t initially access. Killing elite enemies in certain areas will grant you new mobility options that will get you into those blocked off sections of each map, but you can technically finish the game on your very first run without finding any of those abilities. On top of all that, Dead Cells is also a 2d, side-scrolling take on Dark Souls, featuring a similar healing system involving potions that take way, way too long to use. (Do I sound bitter because I died several times while attempting to heal myself? Well, I am. Thankfully, there’s an ability that speeds up the drinking animation, and I highly recommend you unlock it as soon as you can!) Between each level, you can recharge your stock of “estus flasks”, alter the properties of your items, change your character perks, and cash in “cells” that some enemies drop. If you die...well, you lose all of your unused cells. You can’t retrieve them from your dead body, since the levels change each time you play. So cash them in!
Like many entries in the roguelite genre, Dead Cells features a system of meta progression that carries across all playthroughs. This process can feel a bit slow, but I still felt that I was making progress during every session, even if I died a grisly death in one of the early levels. Using the cells you’ve acquired, you can add weapons and abilities to the pool of items that you might find as you wander through the levels, or you can unlock new perks and general upgrades if you want something that you’re sure to see on every playthrough. Again, the choice is yours. I tried to strike a balance between general upgrades and item unlocks, and boy, are there a lot of weapons and abilities in this game.
I know it’s a cliché at this point, but the huge arsenal of weaponry and character build options really did give me that Dark Souls feeling. You’ve got huge, slow weapons that deal massive damage, fast weapons that can get lots of little hits in, and all kinds of spells and traps that can inflict a myriad of status effects on enemies. Better still, some weapons will deal more damage against enemies that have those status afflictions, allowing for amazing item synergy at times. Nothing feels better than laying down a trap that makes your enemy bleed, shooting them with a poisoned arrow, and slicing them with a sword that deals +100% damage to bleeding enemies, plus another 100% damage if they’re poisoned. Nothing is better than this, do you hear me? Nothing! (Well, technically it could be even better if you freeze them first with an ice grenade, and then squeeze out another +175%. But you get the point. The options are nearly limitless.)
Despite the joy that I felt when I rained fiery, icy, poisonous, electric death on my enemies, there were also moments when I needed to rely on the game’s defensive options. You can block and parry your enemies’ attacks with a variety of shield types, there’s a spell that will teleport you behind your enemy for easy backstabs, and, if all else fails, you’ve always got your downward smash and a dodge roll with a generous amount of invincibility frames. And if that’s not enough, you can eventually unlock a wall run/grab that will get you out of (and into) lots of precarious situations. Those last three also seem designed to facilitate speedruns, should you choose to play that way. Simply put, your character has many options for traversing the environment and avoiding attacks, and the game is a joy to play. The controls are fluid, responsive, and fun, and when I died I never felt it was the game’s fault.
Speaking of which, you will die a lot in this game. As with most roguelites, this game is tough. Particularly the final boss. And if you manage to beat him, you’ll gain options to make the game even harder. I passed on that option, but you will have to play through the advanced difficulties if you want to unlock all the achievements. Good luck to the completionists out there! If you manage to get them all, you’re a better person than I am. I tip my hat to you. The achievements not related to beating the game are much easier to attain, as they mostly involve visiting each of the branching levels.
The environments in Dead Cells are a sight to behold. Each level features a unique theme and aesthetic, rendered with gorgeous 2d pixel art and populated with a variety of dangerous creatures. It seems that the “2 dimensional” enemies were in fact made from 3d models with a pixel shader applied, resulting in a strange look that isn’t as pleasing to the eye as the environments, but that never really detracted from my enjoyment of the game. While your character will traverse a variety of seemingly gloomy settings, like a prison, graveyard, and sewer, it never really feels that way due to the large variety of vibrant colors on display. Each of these areas is fully explorable, like a metroidvania map, but once you’ve left the current level there’s no way to go back. It’s a nice compromise between linear progression and open level design, and I usually felt rewarded for exploring each level to the fullest, as I searched for loot that could help me build the best character possible. (The only exception to this is when I’d find spartan sandals. They’re terrible. Do yourself a favor... don’t use them. Please! I beg of you. They’re that bad.) Most of the levels feature multiple exits leading to alternate areas, so it’ll take you several runs to see all of them. The variety on offer also kept monotony from setting in after completing multiple playthroughs, but your mileage may vary.
The sound design in Dead Cells is top notch. Everything sounds incredible: the swoosh of your broadsword slicing through the air, the crackle of electricity as lightning bolts burst from your fingertips, and, my personal favorite, the squish of meat giblets as they slop into the ground when your opponents explode. The sound effects make your attacks feel powerful, and they perfectly complement what you’re seeing on the screen. The music is generally great as well, though some compositions are better than others. After a long play session, I did find myself humming the shopkeeper’s theme, so there should be a few melodies that’ll stick with you when you’re done with the game.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned the story yet...well, there isn’t much to talk about. Your character lives on an ever-shifting island that’s seen better days. Apparently a terrible wasting disease spread through the island after an alchemical experiment went awry, killing most of the inhabitants off. And your character seems to be a product of this alchemist’s fiddling as well, as you’re some kind of half-man, half-plant monstrosity that can’t die (though the bodies that you inhabit can be destroyed). That’s really all I’ve puzzled together from the random lore scattered through the levels, so I can’t really say more than that. So, yes, like Dark Souls, the story is obtuse, it hangs in the background, and you can think about it as much or as little as you want to. I’m mainly here for the action, personally. It’s your choice.
Dead Cells was clearly a labor of love for its developer, Motion Twin. The game is an impressive synergy of art/sound design, battle systems, character progression, and procedural generation. Though the random nature of each run may not always give you exactly what you want, the most impressive thing about this game is that you always have agency over how you play though it. You can boost your survival stat and swing around a giant hammer while parrying your opponents attacks with a shield that generates gold. You can create a tactics build and lay down traps that whittle away your opponents’ health as you continually encase them in ice with a freeze blast. You can put every upgrade into brutality, set your foes ablaze with a fireball, and stab them in the back with a dagger that deals +100% damage to burning enemies (plus critical damage for backstabs). Or you can dodge roll past all of them. It’s your call. How will you conquer Dead Cells?
Final Score: 9.5/10
+ great blend of roguelite and metroidvania genres
+ responsive, fluid controls, fun mobility options
+ terrific sound and environmental design, good use of color
+ lots of options for weapons, abilities, perks, and stat builds
+ you can play the game however you want, and feel powerful doing so
Cons (minor nitpicks, really):
- the visual design for some enemies is odd, and not in a good way
- meta-progression system for unlocks can feel slow at times
- slow estus flask animation that sometimes gets me killed, just like in Dark Souls. Arrrg!
- spartan sandals