For PC gamers, Dead Cells is a game that’s been kicking around in some fashion for a long time. It launched on Steam Early Access last May to near-universal acclaim, yet Motion Twin has used the past year and change to refine, tweak, and add meat to a top-tier roguelike. Those looking for an engrossing tale had best look elsewhere, but if it’s a sumptuous and meticulously made 2D action game you’re after, look no further.
Dead Cells scratches that very same itch that Rogue Legacy did some five years ago. It’s the kind of roguelike for people who don’t like genuine roguelikes. Pickier people would probably call it a rogue-lite, allowing as it does for players to carry some precious over, providing some merciful benefits to dying and starting over. That’s not to say that Dead Cells can become a walk in the park. Far from it. The vast majority of the upgrades merely boost the chances of finding some hot pauldrons or a vicious knife, rather than starting the player off with a massive health bar and DPS into the thousands. No. Instead, with each incremental upgrade, players can unlock the ability to start each run with more gold, or the chance of finding a particular shield, or skills that can open up shortcuts to entirely new stage themes.
The core of Dead Cells is, as the develop succinctly puts, a rogue-vania. Each run will take the player through a randomised dungeon layout, albeit with specific themes for each area and certain bosses along the way. Death takes the player all the back to the beginning, massaging the blow somewhat but allowing accumulated ‘Cells’ to be spent on upgrades. The Metroidvania aspect comes from both the style of exploration and the permanent abilities that can be unlocked, such as planting seeds to grow huge vines and explore new routes. Or teleporting. Or a litany of other skills which needn’t be ruined.
It all lends itself to a very satisfying loop of dungeon crawling, loot finding, and upgrading skills and equipment. Rinse and repeat. In theory, Dead Cells is a game which can be completed on the first attempt. It’s very unlikely, but it definitely leans more into skill than it does upgrades. To my mind, finishing Dead Cells in one shot is a much more achievable task than in Rogue Legacy.
Crucially, progression deeper into the campaign feels like a mastery of the systems and the combat rather than brute forcing with skill upgrades, and encounters that felt impossible soon become simple once the right tactics have been mastered. When coming up against an opponent that threw out several mini versions of itself, while itself being protected by a shield device, I quickly found myself overwhelmed. This became the point at which I pushed myself to master traps, turrets and grenades though, providing vital distractions as I worked to thin the crowd.
And this mastery of the systems is true to Dead Cells at large. It’s a game which encourages the player to use every trick in the book to overcome its tyrannical difficulty. It will knock you down, again and again, but the crucial part is that Dead Cells is so damn good that you’ll want to get right back and give it another shot.
After being crunched down by a mid or late game enemy, you will realise you are but an infant playing in the laps of gods. This is reinforced by the sublime skill upgrade system, totaling dozens upon dozens of unique unlocks. Best of all, when you die each of these skills that have been unlocked are visible in glass jars hanging from the ceiling. It’s a neat visual touch and the hundreds of empty jars reinforce just how far there is to go.
Combat in Dead Cells borrows from the 2D Dark Souls school of thought. Combos can be worked together, but there’s also a dodge roll with invincibility frames that can be used to quickly get the other side of an enemy and attack their rear. It feels incredibly slick and precise, with enemies appearing distinct and their attacks telegraphed, leaving no doubt as to what’s going to happen next. Knowing is a whole different to actually doing though, and players will have to master using up to four unique weapons simultaneously. On the gamepad, the two main weapons are mapped to the face buttons, while the two additional weapons (which may be grenades, traps, turrets, etc) are activated with the L2 and R2 triggers.
Most importantly though, combat in Dead Cells feels awesome. It’s punishing on one hand and yet feels empowering on the other. The player almost always has the advantage of maneuverability, whether that’s slamming down from a ladder to deliver a devastating slam, or rolling past a shielded to stab them from behind. Traps and decoys lend a playfulness to proceedings while also providing a tool for those who wish to keep their distance and use ranged attacks. It never feels unfair, and true carnage usually only befell me when attempting something naive, or kiting one group of enemies into another.
As the process is repeated though, mastery of the combat means taking down the earlier enemies become easier and easier. On top of this, the deeper into the run you go, the better the loot to be found. There are whips to be found, or electric bows, or even a sword that guarantees a critical hit after a roll. Each makes the player feel more powerful than the last, which can make it all the more crushing to head all the way back to the start. Despite this, it’s effortlessly easy to slip into another run and do it all again. As ever with this genre though, the constant retreading of early content just isn’t for everyone. Dead Cells can demoralizinging, without a doubt, particularly when any given run can easily be upwards of an hour when hitting the late game. For me, there was always that carrot-on-stick upgrade to grab though, and with each run, it felt like I was getting better.
A word or two has to also be said in regards to the visuals though. The pixel art on display here just oozes quality. It’s by turns ominous, atmospheric, and also darkly humourous. Motion Twin have also achieved the near impossible as well by making a procedurally generated game not only interesting to explore during each run, but also ensuring every area is visually unique while being immediately clear about the environmental dangers that await the player. It’s not often we get a pixel-art game that looks quite this damn good but Dead Cells is just such a game.
For fans of roguelike and roguelites, there are precious few negatives that can be thrown Dead Cells way. We know going in that it’s going to be unforgiving and potentially repetitive, it’s part and parcel of the genre. Some will be turned off by what’s essentially a slog through the same repeating themes for 30 or so hours. But what’s been layered on top of this basic template is just a fantastically well-made action game.
Dead Cells is fast-paced, slick, action-packed and pitched just right in terms of difficulty. This is paired with a ridiculously addictive upgrade loop and drool-worthy animations, combining to deliver a roguelike which can stand tall alongside greats like Spelunky.