Designed as a side-scrolling roguelike with heavy inspiration drawn from the Castlevania games, Dead Cells brilliantly squashes any frustration that arises from death with reassurances that most of the work the player puts in before their final breath adds up to something meaningful. The next run will be better because of the time and effort put into the last. This boost of confidence makes Dead Cells a dangerous game, as I continually found myself saying “just one more run.” As the clock turned from night to early morning and I made more gains in weapons, perks, and areas to explore, I didn’t want to put the game down.
In the opening seconds of play, you learn Dead Cells’ nameless protagonist is designed to handle failure well. He has recently perished, and you get to witness his resurrection. This odd being walks again, but only one thing is different: His head is missing. That vital space is now occupied by a swirling vortex of fire and smoke that can consume cells from other living things. His mission from this moment forward is to kill demons and devour their cells to become more powerful. When he dies, he goes back to square one, but if he can reach a safe zone, the cells he earned carry on.
That’s it for the story, and while the world’s strange foes and locations call for explanation, the brevity of narrative works. You don’t need to know who this guy is or where he’s going. Your only hope is that he did enough with his last life to reawaken with a better sword or an extra health flask.
The focus of the entire experience is on the pursuit of power, which is glorious. Developer Motion Twin wastes no time placing you on the hunting trail, which unfolds across sprawling, procedurally generated areas occupied with heavy enemy resistance. These foes range from slugs with pointy teeth to aggressive knights who will strike you down if you so much as pause for a second. The adversaries are well-designed in that their weaknesses are easy to exploit if you are on your game, but can be a handful if you screw up in any way. They all have unique behaviors and tells, and when jumbled together with other foes, take on whole new identities and may need to be addressed in different ways.
How exactly you approach encounters changes with each run, as the weapons and items you find are random. In one playthrough, your best bet may be a slow-slicing broadsword. In another run, you may rely on a powerful crossbow. The modifiers attached to said weapons can completely change the way you play. One modifier may reward bonus damage if the crossbow’s arrows are shot upward, whereas the broadsword could give you a 175-percent damage boost if the target is frozen – which means you want to hunt down a freeze spell, or modify a grenade to shower ice when it explodes. The expansive inventory of weapons is fun to explore, and even more enjoyable to wield. Each brings something different, and figuring out how they complement other gadgets is part of the fun. Once you find a lethal combo, and pair it with a mutation that can amplify boosts, you’ll be stomping bosses and gaining cells like mad.
The precise controls and nimbleness of your character accommodate all the weapon types well. The backbone of the experience is basic hacking and slashing, but it feels so good, given just how precise and skill-laden it is. The character’s dodge roll, stomp move, and double jump are also sewn into the mix well, both for exploration and combat. Evasion and counters are easy to execute, and you can bound across platforms with the grace of a superhero.
Some of the randomly generated level designs run into problems with long stretches leading nowhere, or two teleporters appearing practically on top of each other, but exploration is always fun and rewarding. Rare drops are littered across the adventure, and push you to perform well enough to reach a point where they are permanently added to your potential arsenal. The game’s biggest problem is the time commitment it demands from players. Yes, I can see myself playing Dead Cells ad nauseam, but as more time is dedicated to it, you learn you have to grind to earn the biggest rewards, which you may need to reach the latter stages. For instance, a full day of playing is likely required to unlock the fourth health flask. That said, as the hours flew by, I continually found new things in the stages, and other Metroid-like powers that granted access to regions I didn’t know existed.
Dead Cells is one of the more approachable and rewarding roguelikes I’ve encountered. Dying is never fun in games of this ilk, but the well-designed reward loop softens that blow and bolsters all subsequent runs, making the experience more about exploration and time committed than just player skill.