I loved my bike when I was 10 years old. It was a silver Raleigh Grifter and I rode it everywhere. It was comfortable on the roads and could even handle the makeshift set of dirt jumps on the village playing field, which the older boys had crafted out of two piles of dirt that had been dumped there. But occasionally I’d fall off and graze or cut my knees. And sometimes my feet would slip off the pedals and I’d land heavily on the frame, with my man-parts taking the full impact, and even though I’d be in agony for ten minutes or so, I’d get straight back on to try again. I’d try to blame the bike for the latest injury, even though I knew my lack of skill or failure to prepare was really to blame. And Dead Cells is a very similar experience.
Dead Cells has been described as a meeting of a Rogue-like and a Metroid-Vania and that’s certainly true as it takes the best parts of both of these to create a quite brilliant game. Just like all the best Rogue-Like games you will lose all progress when you die, but it’s not as punishing as it first sounds.
When you start Dead Cells you’re a reanimated corpse in the Prisoners Quarters with one life, a basic melee weapon and either a basic bow or a shield. You are then tasked with completing the game in one “run” through. Impossible right? Well at the start it definitely is, but killing enemies will earn you ‘cells’ and playing through the procedurally generated levels will result in you finding upgraded weapons and blueprints for new weapons. Complete the level and these blueprints are handed in to the collector and then unlocked with the collected cells in order to make them permanent. This in turn makes them more likely to be found during subsequent runs in chests or from the vendors. It’s all random though, there’s no picking favourites to start the next run, but just having a more powerful weapon will make that next run through a little bit easier. As well as weapon improvements there are also grenades and turrets to be picked up, as well as permanent perks such as health flasks that stay with you after death. One of my favourite visuals in Dead Cells is the opening area filled with empty bottles, that are filled with your unlocked weapons and give you a good sense of just what you will need to accomplish.
The grenades and turrets are a great to tackle a level as you can take out enemies from a safe distance, which is a great tactic when your health is running low, although you are required to stay close to the turrets as otherwise they don’t work. There is a great deal of complexity to the weapon choices as there are perks which do additional damage. For example, the Ice Bow can freeze enemies so it makes sense to partner it with a melee weapon with a perk that does additional damage to frozen enemies. I have also had swords with a perk which cover the enemy with flammable oil, which is incredibly lethal when paired with a fire grenade and is a great way to take out multiple enemies. The levels also contain scrolls that are used to upgrade your characters skills in brutality, tactics and health, making you more powerful as you progress through, but these are not permanent and die along with you.
This upgrade mechanic always makes you feel as you are progressing and becoming more powerful. Granted, there are times that you feel like you need to grind in order to earn enough cells to unlock that next upgrade, but it’s an enjoyable grind that feels purposeful. As all the drops are purely random you may find yourself starting off with an unfavorable weapon, which then requires you to modify your play style, at least until your favoured one is unlocked! This does lead you to adopt different styles on each run through which then may change your objective of that run. For example, completing the first level in under two minutes will open a special area in the second level with treasure and upgrades, so you may decide to ignore enemies and rush through, or you may decide to farm for as many cells as possible.
The enemies that you face in Dead Cells may look quite harmless at times but they are deadly if you don’t take care. Just a few hits from the basic Zombie or Archer faced in the first level will result in your death, and only the most carefree and skilled players will dare to jump onto a ledge with three or more enemies. Every enemy has a ‘tell’ when they are preparing to attack, so learning these is essential if you want to avoid death. Your characters Dodge move is probably the move you’ll want to master before any other!
Dead Cells is a lot deeper than what I have just described as there are doors you can’t open and areas you can’t reach, which of course will open up as you learn those new skills, just like all good Metroid-Vania’s! One of the upgrades you’ll earn is the ability to climb walls, which dramatically changes the way you’ll play the game in later levels. As you progress there is also a story being told, but you won’t find one cut-scene in sight, as it’s all told via features in the environment.
Dead Cells will give you a similar feeling of those bike-riding feet-slipping moments I described earlier, and at a fairly regular occurrence, but as I mentioned earlier it never feels unfair. I had plenty of moments where I inwardly scolded myself for being stupid and therefore lost the ability to take on that end of level boss, just because I had lost too much health in an unprepared and stupid move. Dying whilst carrying upwards of 30 cells and a few new blueprints has happened on more than one occasion, but again it never feels like the game’s fault, but mine every single time!
Dead Cells strength lies in those moments, as you rarely rage-quit. Pretty much every time you’ll grab a drink, have a loo break and then jump straight back on the bike for another attempt. And, pretty much every run you’ll get further, unlock better weapons and feel stronger. And want to play for longer. And then you’ll come across something new, like a cursed chest or a timed gate, or a level where you have to light beacons to guide you through, and you’ll feel mesmerized by the world Motion Twin have crafted and motivated to beat those new areas.
If there was any complaint to be made about this game its that I have experianced a couple of crashes and some stutter in gameplay, but neither of these are very serious. Some will find fault with difficulty and length, as it is a game that only the most dedicated will ever complete. However, this is also a positive, as it is a game that will provide a lot of gameplay hours, as I am only really 20% complete on both consoles, yet still have a lot of achievements to earn for reaching levels for the first time. Like Moonlighter before it, Dead Cells is a game I am reviewing despite not completing it, but again it will be a game that I will keep playing because it’s just so good.
I have seen and played Dead Cells at various EGX events over the last year and I am thrilled that the promise it showed in those early demos has been realised. Dead Cells will be on a lot of Game of the Year lists for 2018 and deservedly so. It will be on mine, despite the pain from all the falling off! Also, despite having review code for the Xbox One version I also purchased the Switch version so I could play on holiday and when travelling for work. Its the first game in a while that I am playing on two different consoles. I haven’t done this in many years and this demonstrates just how good Dead Cells is!