The 2D Metroidvania rouge-lite market is probably the most fleshed out among the indie gaming scene, so for a game to stand out it really needs to offer something special. Dead Cells doesn’t only do this, but it excels in almost every area; it’s pixel perfect combat, slick visuals and cute snippets of story all make Dead Cells on of the best games to release this year.
As with pretty much all Metroidvania’s, Dead Cells simply throws you into its world with little information and even fewer tutorials. It doesn’t take long to pick up the basic combat of the game, you can roll, hold two weapons and two pieces of equipment. But despite the simple to understand mechanics, mastering them is a whole new ball game and one that is a sheer pleasure to play in.
Slashing or blasting your way through the stages of Dead Cells is no easy task, but the game always provides you with a powerful arsenal to do so. At the start, there are about six different weapon types to select from, including swords, whips, shields and bows. But each category has a myriad of options. For Example, you may find a bow that only does critical damage at close range, or a sword that is doused in oil so pair it with a burning item and it’s boom time for the enemies. Almost every weapon comes with an ability that can offer a genuine difference to your playthrough.
One of the most impressive elements to the vast selection of weapons is their versatility. Early on in my time with Dead Cells I just assumed the different weapons where to cater for different play styles, but daring to stretch out of my comfort zone proved to me this wasn’t the case, they’re actually there to promote different playstyles and every weapon is as powerful as any other in the right situation. This was most noticeable to me when using the Spartan Boots, so often I had dropped this kicking melee weapon, as, well, why would you take boots over a sword? But when I had no other option I thought I’d try them out only to realise that if you kick an enemy into a wall or off a ledge they’re a one-hit-kill weapon. Suddenly I found myself completely changing how I had spent my first five hours with the game to now accommodate for my new best friends.
This is a testament to developers Motion Twin for creating such an equal balance between the weapon selection that you can’t help but be intrigued as to what that new shiny toy does. The same goes for the two items of equipment you can carry – these come in the form of mini-turrets, grenades and magic spells like an ice blast. Just like their weapon counterparts, every time I unlocked a new item to collect I would have to sit and debate with myself about what was the best option going forward, something I haven’t done in a video game since Bloodborne.
If this loadout customisation wasn’t enough then at the end of each section when you restock your health and hand in your collected cells, you can also equip a new mutagen. These come in an array of styles that are broken down into three different categories; Brutality (which is red), Tactics (which is purple) and Survival (Which is green). Just as the name suggests they offer some pretty powerful passives. For example, a brutality mutagen would be to add 150dps to your weapons for 15 seconds after killing an enemy, and a tactical one was to reduce the cooldown of your equipment. My personal favourite was a Survival mutagen that restored 2 HP for every enemy I killed. Now, 2 HP is literally nothing, but scattered throughout the world are scrolls that you can use to upgrade one of the 3 different areas and by focussing my attention of the Survival area, a long playthrough would see that stat increase to 15-17 HP’s for every enemy killed, not too shabby if you ask me.
You would think that it’s this sheer array of brilliantly balanced weapons, equipment and player fitting mutagens that these are the star of the combat in Dead Cells, but I’m afraid you would be wrong, that award goes to the evading roll. Seriously, this roll is perfect; the startup animation, the I-frames during the roll all the way down to its length. The most impressive and useful element to this roll is how it allows you to move out of an attack animation. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve died due to being stuck in an animation, well, a quick tap of the roll button with your chosen direction and you’re out of there in no time. I should point out that it doesn’t get you out of combo animations, but that’s your own fault for button bashing. I cannot stress how many times this little fella go me out of a sticky situation and mastering it is key if you wish to progress.
As you can probably imagine, just like almost every other rouge-lite the combat here is not easy. Dead Cells does a very good job of making you feel invisible like you are a king of the 2D rouge-lite genre, like literally, nothing in the world can stop you. But this sense of triumph is often short-lived as you’ll come across a new set of enemies that will require a completely new approach or an elite enemy that requires pixel-perfect counters to take them down. If you think these guys are hard then wait until you meet the bosses, wow. These titan enemies require your utmost attention to not only study their animations and timings but also execute your attacks in the perfect window or it’s back t the beginning for you. But with risk comes great reward and taking down these bosses will see you bathed in cells, gold and very powerful weapons and equipment. The best tangible comparison for the combat in Dead Cells is to think of it as a 2D Bloodborne, where every aggressive movement on your part has the potential to work, and death normally falls down to a mistake you made.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Dead Cells is a rouge-lite, so upon death, you start back at the beginning with only a small amount of your progress carrying over. Here it’s your spent cells that carry over, and you can spend them on permanent upgrades like addition health pots, better starting weapons or more starting gold. They can also be spent on weapon blueprints you’ll find by defeating bosses and elite enemies. One of the most inconsistent things I find in Rouge-lite’s is the ability to make the players time feel rewarded and worthwhile, which, in all honestly, Dead Cells absolutely nails. Whether you’re jumping on for ten minutes to blitz through the daily dungeon or sticking around for a two-hour session, every venture through the prison walls is rewarded in some way, whether it because you’ve chipped away at another 6 cells on that huge health upgrade or the fact that you took down an elite enemy and unlocked a permanent rune. I’ve not once put the controller down throughout my 47 playthroughs to think ‘well, that was a waste of time’.
One of the hidden gems in Dead Cells is how it handles its storytelling. Playing through the different sections of the game you’ll come across various rooms or set pieces that will hold a written letter, a dead body or some other rather morbid piece of information. Although interacting with these only provides a small snippet of text, the effectiveness of this text coupled with the great animation of your character does a great job of providing just enough information. I found myself hunting through the environment to try and find more of this mini-story section to try and piece together what had happened in this world, and found great pleasure in trying to build this story puzzle in my head.
Dead Cells is quite simply one of the best games to releases this year. Making your way through the stunning pixel environments time and time again just doesn’t get boring, which is mostly due to the plethora of secrets to be found or new story snippets to sniff out. The combat is some of the best I played in any video game and gives you everything you need to not only overcome the enemies but feel like an absolute boss in doing so. I’ve delved into the depth of Dead Cells 47 times so far and have no plans on stopping until every single item, mutagen or rune is in my possession.