Developer Motion Twin describes Dead Cells as a roguevania, meaning they’ve made a roguelite metroidvania hybrid that could be the mutant offspring of Spelunky and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with Dark Souls for a godparent. It’s a combination that will attract players who might usually be deterred by permadeath, and it still provides a fantastic challenge for those not scared away by such a learning curve.
Dead Cells is set on an island where the mysterious Malaise has sickened and mutated the population. Fragments of story can be discovered throughout the game, telling of an Alchemist's experiments and the King's attempts to control the Malaise. One failed alchemic experiment is the blob of sentient goo that takes possession of a headless corpse to become the hero of the game. Intelligent use of colour and lighting bring the island to life and give a unique atmosphere to each area in the game. The ambience is further enhanced by a soundtrack that swings between eeriness and beauty, changing mood with each transition.
Kill first, then enjoy the sunset
Initially a single path to the final boss is available, going through a series of procedurally generated biomes and boss rooms with many inaccessible areas along the way. Thorough exploration players will eventually lead to runes which permanently grant the abilities required to enter every area. This transforms the game into a multilinear adventure with twice as many biomes to explore. Between levels players can heal and replenish their health flask, spend gold to improve and re-roll affixes on their current gear, equip mutations and visit the Collector to turn in new blueprints and spend cells on persistent upgrades. After boss fights players can also visit the Legendary Forge to permanently improve the quality of gear in their game. The starting selection of gear and mutations is varied enough to suit a range of playstyles, but it is well worth collecting new blueprints and experimenting with different loadouts. Acquiring new items vastly increases replay value by making many loadout combinations available, and many of them are great fun to use. They can also be game changers that either build on a player’s strengths or compensate for their weaknesses. For example, someone with great timing in close combat might want to obtain the Punishment Shield which deals critical damage on parries. In contrast someone who struggles with platforming through spiky areas will benefit from the Tough Nut mutation which reduces trap damage by 80%.
On each playthrough the player collects stat scrolls and assigns points to Brutality, Tactics or Endurance to increase their hit points and damage output. Gear for melee combat mainly scales with Brutality, while Tactics governs damage from most ranged combat gear such as bows, crossbows, spells, turrets and traps. Block and parry damage from shields scales with Survival, which also grants more hit points than Brutality or Tactics. Each point invested in a stat gives a 15% damage increase, but HP increases gradually reduce to zero. Alternate scaling on many weapons and skills makes it possible to build high damage loadouts around a single stat, but doing so requires enough resilience to deal with becoming a glass cannon and dying more often. At the other extreme a player can maximise hit points by balancing all three stats, but may then struggle to hurt tougher enemies unless they unlock and use gear that rewards technical skill with extra damage. However, it’s unnecessary to go to either extreme as building around two stats gives a good balance of power and toughness.
There are over 40 different enemies in Dead Cells including bosses, and players will also encounter Elite versions of many of the standard enemies. They hit hard and have a wide enough range of attack types that encountering mixed groups can be very challenging. Fortunately the controls are simple and responsive, making for fast, fluid action whether attacking or dodging. Melee enthusiasts can hack and slash as well as blocking and parrying with a shield, while ranged players can drop turrets and traps then back away and shoot from a safe distance. Players who enjoy speed running can dodge roll and jump past most enemies and use the built-in timer to set and beat personal records. The base difficulty is not easy, but a determined novice could have a lot of fun getting helpful gear and upgrades while building enough skill to beat the game.
Slashers use a combo attack that creates a shockwave
The metroidvania side of Dead Cells combines very well with the unforgiving roguelite learning process because there is so much to discover. The distraction of exploration and acquiring new gear and upgrades goes a long way to reducing the sting of dying repeatedly while learning the game. A sense of progression is firmly established by spending cells with the Collector after every level, and reinforced on death with an immediate respawn at the start of the game next to visual reminders of gear and upgrades acquired so far. Overall the game does such a good job of supporting motivation to keep trying that it’s generally much harder to stop playing than to continue after a death.
Dead Cells is full of considerate details that address potentially fun-killing aspects of the game, leaving little to detract from the sheer pleasure of playing. While it’s expensive to buy all the upgrades, gear and mutations, it doesn’t feel like a soulless grind for resources. Some of the Collector’s prices are high, but there are also many inexpensive items that are genuinely useful. Incremental purchases of Legendary Forge upgrades means that returns on these investments are quickly seen in the game. Many blueprints are rare drops from enemies, but players can avoid grinding for them by using a Hunter grenade that makes enemies drop blueprints on death. Effort has also been made to balance the resources available to people who play in different ways. Players who kill everything will collect gold and cells as enemy drops and find all the stat scrolls in the biome, but speedrunners can get these resources in another way by accessing timed doors before they are sealed.
Around two-thirds of the achievements can be obtained on the starting difficulty, and most of these will come from normal actions such as reaching new areas, beating bosses, absorbing runes, cumulative kills and unlocking new weapons and skills. Higher difficulty levels can be activated by absorbing boss stem cells after killing the final boss. Players who make it to the highest difficulty will need strong technical skills and to think carefully about their choices of build, gear, mutations and route through the game. 14 out of 53 achievements are aimed at players who are able to beat the game on higher difficulties and complete battles without being hit.
This game was featured in our Best Xbox One Platformer Games Available in 2019 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?
SummaryDead Cells is an excellent game that will challenge and delight seasoned roguelike addicts, yet Motion Twin has also made it accessible to newcomers. The combination of roguelite and metroidvania genres wraps the bitter pill of permadeath in a sweet coating of exploration, with a solid progression system and plenty of reward loops to help inexperienced players get into the game. Meanwhile expert players can speed run, ramp up the difficulty level and equip the gear and mutations designed for skilled users. Dying repeatedly has never felt this good.
- Fast, fluid combat with responsive controls
- Beautiful pixel art and music
- Highly replayable
- Success is immensely satisfying
- Difficulty and permadeath will deter some players
The reviewer played over fifty games and earned 33 out of 53 achievements. An Xbox One code was provided by the publisher.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Get the biggest Xbox news delivered straight to your inbox every week.