It’s incredible to be around during a time when so many indie games are thriving; Games like Shovel Knight, Salt and Sanctuary, and Hollow Knight are proof that there is a major space for indies to succeed. Recently, I got my hands on the new game from Motion Twin, Dead Cells. You may recognize it as being in early access for PC, with the full release on August 7th. I love it when a game like this comes out of nowhere and takes the industry by storm.To sum it up, Dead Cells is an elegant mix of Metroidvania with Roguelike, or more succinctly described as a Roguevania that will challenge you even if you’re familiar with the genre.
As soon as you start, you’re thrown into a beautiful pixelated 2D world with not much of an introduction. You know the drill: Explore, gather story bits from the environment, and die. A lot. One thing you may notice is how fluid and snappy Dead Cells feels. The controls are responsive, making it satisfying to traverse the world. From the moment you strike your first enemy, you will realize this game is special – The guttural crunch of the weapons digging into your foes feels and sounds so impactful you’ll become addicted to mastering the complex combat system.
And you better hope you do, because Dead Cells will force you to become good at it if you want to proceed. Seeing as how this is a Roguelike, dying plays a huge roll in the way this is played. Once you realize you will have to restart from the beginning of the game after death, you will probably be separated into two different categories; That’s the thing, Dead Cells isn’t for everyone. Losing almost all of your progress after death can take its toll and it’s understandable why some people would be turned off.
To those who are up for the challenge and are maybe even a tad masochistic, you will find this to be one of the best of its kind. See, Dead Cells has a lot of little nuances that helped keep me engaged. For one, each level is procedurally generated, making no two runs the same. Each individual level always has a consistent theme, but the layout will be different every time. This will force you to rely on the art of combat instead of memorization.
Even though the levels are procedurally generated, they are so well designed each time that they feel hand-crafted. That’s the issue with many Rogulikes: Many times the levels are functional, but never have the same feel as something that has been deliberately designed. That is not the case with Dead Cells. Certain things can always be found within the levels like vendors, secrets, and treasure chests. Having the same items in every map will work as a checklist to ensure you’re exploring thoroughly – after all, that’s the point of Metroidvania games, right?
Exploring in Dead Cells is top-notch, not unlike the game the genre is derived from, Metroid. You are rewarded for traversing the levels by being given upgrades, access to new areas, and the ability to see the whole level’s map. Pulling up the map to see all of what you explored will always feel good, especially in a game as difficult as this.
Between the levels is a short area where you can assign permanent upgrades that you can carry with you even after death. These act as the safe rooms and become almost a second home after what you probably just endured. You can also spend your money on much-needed perks like health boosts, damage bonuses, and even an extra life.
One thing you will definitely want to hone in on are your weapons and gadgets. Though, the weapons you find are random, so many times you must make due with what you get. That’s kind of the nature of the Roguelike genre; To succeed you must master all weapons and items, not just one. The complexity can be overwhelming but once you get used to it, you might find yourself in an all-too-familiar, “just one more run” situation.
Weapons have different elements like bleed, ice, fire, and/or poison. Depending on your playstyle you may find yourself gravitating towards a certain weapon combination. While these items are random to an extent, you can do things to manipulate the game into giving you what you want, or at least close to. Aside from that, each weapon falls into one of two categories: Brutality and Tactics, while a third category, Survival, will assist with your health. Upgrades for these are hidden throughout the levels and give you a little reward for exploring.
Eventually, you will unlock different merchants that will help you on your journey, one of which allows you to re-roll weapon buffs. Re-rolling your weapon buffs in between levels can help you mold your character to your preferred playstyle and the fact that you kind of have to earn this is intriguing and different. The thing about Dead Cells is that it has such an addicting gameplay loop, but even if it’s brutally difficult, I found it hard to put down.
Every few levels you will encounter a boss that will be the ultimate test of patience and skill. They do the thing where they ramp up in difficulty as their health goes down. As for the design, these bosses are intricate, albeit a tad frustrating. You will be doing a lot of rolling through attacks, and doing the best you can to come up with a build that will work for that boss. On my first attempt, I had no idea what I was doing and I quickly met my demise because I just was not prepared for what was ahead – That’s okay. This is a deliberate design choice.
Dead Cells is a great example of how quickly progression can be earned, but also how quickly it can be taken away. You start with 100 health points, but it’s not uncommon to upgrade your health bar to somewhere around 8,000. That sense of progression happens so quickly and exponentially that it doesn’t seem all that bad when inevitable death occurs. You know you can always get a great build in a short time. The feeling of improvement acts as a driving force because you have to play each level so many times. But because those levels are different every time, Dead Cells never feels repetitive. That’s the beauty of it. It manages to hook you in with a simple premise and keep you around with its variety.
Variety is so important and Dead Cells nails it in an astounding way. Everything from the levels’ themes, music, weapons, enemy designs, level designs – I could go on and on – feel almost perfectly designed. It does a great job of always keeping you working towards something. Because of the randomness and difficulty, there is always a lingering feeling of the unknown and that’s pretty freaking cool.
If Metroidvanias and/or Rogulikes are your thing, I cannot recommend Dead Cells enough. It sucks you in and makes a compelling argument to keep you in, even if it’s kicking your ass the entire time. I’m so excited for the general public to get their hands on this one because it will be up there with the greats like The Binding of Isaac or Rogue Legacy. 2018 has been a killer year for games so far, but I think I may have just found my Game of the Year.