Permadeath and screamingly fast combat make Dead Cells a must play this year.
At PAX East this past year, in one of my many rambling strolls around the booths, I stumbled upon Dead Cells. In 10 minutes of play testing, after hearing so much about it, I knew this was a game I had to get my hands on to play in full and review. The combat was fast and fun, the lore was weird, and the graphics were delightfully retro.
When I did get my review copy, I jumped in and found myself in a difficult situation. I had JUST finished a game that reminded me a great dead of Dead Cells, and it was suffering by comparison. I spent nearly 100 hours in that game that shall remain nameless, to not unfairly compare apples to oranges, and my muscle memory was making me feel like Cells wasn’t living up to my own hype. I had to take a break and give the previous game some time to get out of my system before picking it up to try again.
There’s quite a few examples of this happening in pop culture – the similar releases in a short time frame – Armageddon and Deep Impact, Overwatch and Battleborn, and Volcano and Dante’s Peak (which to be honest I thought was the same movie), and in most cases one wins out resoundingly over the other. I don’t see that happening here, as it can easily stand on its own – with good reason.
While my time off did give me a much needed fresh take on this new review opportunity, I do still think there are some areas where the grass is greener on the other side, allowing me to let the great moments shine through, and still give some critical thought to some of the things I didn’t love.
First, a quick plot synopsis – you’re a squishy ball of goo, that can possess and animate the corpses of dead prisoners in an island fortress. When you do so, your head becomes a flaming ball, and you grab a few weapons to adventure through the tunnels, ramparts, and turrets of the island. When you die, the island reorganizes its levels, and you squish your way back to another corpse, and…well…here:
When you’re promised a roguelike, with insanely fast paced combat, and the price for death is starting completely over? Well that’s what Motion Twin delivers. While there’s some hints of metroidvania, with all the exploration and the unlockable perks and upgrades, the true focus is on bloody destruction, dodging, trapping, and slashing. I can’t count how many times I found myself stuffed to the gills with cells for upgrades, desperately trying to get to the next door before dying, pulse hammering in my ears, only to see a mob of enemies right in my path. Often, there’s no other way to go but through, so with a fist full of traps and quite a few dodges you have little choice but to wade into the mob.
This, as incredibly frustrating as it can be when you fail, is exhilarating as hell when you win. I felt a bit of that old Dark Souls magic when I’d manage to destroy a huge swath of enemies before getting to a doorway with a sliver of health left. I also can totally see where they take their Castlevania inspirations because those little bird bastards are the closest thing to the damned Medusa heads of yesteryear, and I hate BOTH of them with the heat of a thousand suns.
The graphics are picture perfect for this type of hilarity as well, as the need for overly complicated sprites is useless when the real feel is the crunch of weapon on demon/monster skin. Less is far more in this case as I was able to stay focused on my jumps, climbing, and what new interesting weapon combo I was setting myself up with instead of Fashion Souls-ing my armor choices to look the badassiest.
Difficulty wise, outside of the boss battles, most of the enemies are pretty simple to defeat. Yes, when they start to mob up on you it gets hairy as hell, and you’re constantly doing a great deal of health checking, the average monster you have to smash isn’t all that hard to kill. In true “vania” fashion though, every little bastard you engage with often takes a small chunk of health away, that will be missing at the most critical time of fighting one of the massive health bar toting bosses. I spent every damn cell I obtained over my first 10 or so lives in health potions just to give me a fighting chance. I’m a big fan of unforgiving games, and this made me very appreciative of how fast my character was and how often a seemingly easy level became a mad dash for my life.
Where the gaps lie, are in two critical places – the story, and the map.
Starting with the map – it’s a personal choice. The fact that the overall layout of the island stays the same, but the internal guts move around gives some structure to what I’m accomplishing, but when I unlocked something cool for my soon to die cell buddy to access new cool stuff with, I had nowhere to go back to and discover. In my mind, half the fun of the metroid half of the metroidvania genre is the mental map you develop of where everything is. Lacking that left me feeling a bit more disconnected than I wanted to, and took away some of the fun of going back to an old haunt with a seriously powered up arsenal to clean house. Roguelike might not be my cup of tea, for just that reason.
Story = here’s where the Dante’s Peak metaphor really shines. I love a great single player narrative, and even the basic lore of Belmont vs bloodsucker is enough to give a game an ominous undercurrent. Cells’ plot is barely there, and only discoverable as you progress – and even then you only get small hints at what seems to be a much larger world.
While I loved this tactic in the Souls series, it was because the entire environment was built to tell more of the story than the actual lore. Lost cities, undead gods, and even the player character themselves were all evidence to just how far the world had fallen. Here – I don’t get any of that, and I truly miss it. It feels like there’s a very big hole (cough cough Destiny, cough) here, that I’m not connecting even with the hidden bits. The other game I’ve been comparing this to had lore and tone and story coming out of its every pore, and I hope that in subsequent releases or DLC we get more of a feel of our bodiless protagonist, and more about his island prison.
Overall, Dead Cells is a hell of a good time. It’s light and fast enough to pick up and bang through for a short session, and deep enough to run over and over again trying to hit every timed door. If you’re a speed runner – good god is this game made for you. If you’re looking to lose yourself in a story and to revisit areas again after upgrading – might be a bit of a let down in those areas, but I think the rest of the experience can keep you coming back for more.