Dead Cells Review

Slay, Scavenge, Die, and Try Again

Dead Cells Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS, Android
Developer/Publisher: Motion Twin

In the modern gaming landscape, it;’s always refreshing to see promising independent titles manage to accumulate the attention and acclaim needed to be considered a monumental success, and since its initial launch via Steam Early Access, Dead Cells has done just that, boasting a vast number of awards and having managed to sell over 2.4 million units.  Which is incredibly rare for a title of this caliber.  Yet through its widely recognized quality, stream-friendly design, and even a publicity boost from being part of a widely reported controversy regarding an IGN writer plagiarizing his review of the game, Dead Cells managed to achieve this elusive level of success.  And despite having been on my radar as a game that, in all likeliness, I would have loved, I am just getting around to it now.  Because that’s the Natalie Neumann way.

Background aside, Dead Cells is an exploration driven action platformer with a focus on accumulating gear and upgrades while going through procedurally-generated environments and collecting procedurally-generated equipment.  Both of which reset every time the player character perishes, where they are sent back to the beginning to repeat the process all over again. Or in simpler terms it is a roguelike metroidvania with a very strong focus on replay value, being a very accommodating pick up and play style affair that can be stopped at any time, but a complete run should not take players much more than an hour, even if they take the time to stop and smell the metaphorical roses.

What exactly would incentivise a player to keep coming back to this game  Well, first and foremost, the developers at Motion Twin positively nailed the game’s feel, being incredibly slick, quick, and fluid in a way that few games are, delivering one of the finest feeling 2D games I think I’ve ever experienced.  The jumping, slashing, firing of projectiles, everything feels like it went through several iterations and passes until it was deemed just right, and amounts to a game that is simply a joy to play. But there’s also the very structure of the game, which is divided into a linear progression of branching stages, or rather biomes.  Each of which features a few elements that are familiar across as procedurally-generated permutations, but the distribution of enemies, items, and rooms all keeps players on their toes, and keeps the act of exploration engaging. 

This exploration also naturally leads to upgrades, and there are roughly three categories.  Temporary upgrades such as weapons and level up scrolls that boost the player character’s combat effectiveness for the current run.  Runes that offer permanent upgrades, allowing player to access new areas in other biomes, or improve the experience in general. And cells that must be invested after completing each biome, where they can be used to craft blueprints, items either dropped by enemies or found as treasure.

These blueprints are permanent additions to the game that run the range of weapons, temporary buffs, costumes, and a few immensely useful upgrades, like increased health potion capacity and the ability to turn old or unwanted gear into gold.  It does a lot to make the player feel as if they are improving or iterating on something as they keep playing the game, inching steadily closer to a gobsmackingly vast assortment of options with each cell invested. It is precisely because of this multitude of decisions, this cascade of options, that helps give Dead Cells a very gravitational quality to it, and one that had me itching to get back to it whenever I could. 

Every item found represents an opportunity to revise one’s moveset in a meaningful way due to the amount of modifiers attached to them.  Every opponent represents a challenge that could break the player’s established flow, so they must think of the best way to approach every situation.  Every biome is a winding path that the player can explore in a multitude of directions, either exploring every nook and cranny, or speeding through with style and grace before eventually reaching branching paths that can dramatically change the content and challenge of one’s run.  Every biome complete gives players the opportunity to choose what they want to invest their cells in, if they want to upgrade their current gear, and what beneficial mutations they want to carry with them.  

You are almost always making a meaningful decision in Dead Cells, and that does a lot to keep the game engaging for a long stretch of time, as the decisions available to the player only become more complex and varied as the player makes more progress and unlocks more options for them to consider.  There are so many upgrades, so many combinations to try, and generally so much joy to be squeezed from this game that it could last players upwards of a hundred hours, especially when considering the multitude of challenges and extra modes available.  Which incidentally makes me feel like a scrub because I keep going back to a few reliable standbys, rather than being bold and experimenting with all the tools that were given to me. Hell, I don’t think I ever used a shield once during my playthrough, but I always dropped everything when I caught a glimpse of pyrotechnics or the heavy crossbow.

So the gameplay gets a glowing recommendation from me, but what about the presentation?  Well, I would describe Dead Cell’s visuals as lavish at best, and overbearing at worse.  The game features some immensely detailed animations, boasting such fluidity and so many moving parts that find the way these sprites move and go through their idle stances to be genuinely impressive considering how everything retains a pixelated aesthetic.  The backgrounds are immaculately detailed, boasting a large number of small details that do a great deal to give these environments distinct personalities. While the assorted visual effects and flare go to create a visual feast of detail, sparkling objects, and also viscera if you’re cool with that.

However, with everything in motion, running at a smooth 60 frames per second, it is fairly easy for one to get visually overwhelmed, especially if they are not the most well versed in action games.  Between planting traps, spreading fire, shooting projectiles, collecting gravitating drops, and avoiding the assaults of numerous enemy types at once, there is a lot of information to process, and often without much buffer time.  Thankfully, the UI never manages to be intrusive during this process, remaining rather slick, featuring menus that minimize the number of necessary inputs from the player, and struck me as quite polished. Well, aside from the in-game text, which is fine for menus and the like, but it is a font size or two too small for the few dialogue segments strewn throughout the game.

Oh, right, Dead Cells has a story, doesn’t it?  Well, yes, Dead Cells does indeed have an underlying story to tell, but it does so through small bits of observational dialogue from the player character, environmental storytelling, and a miscellaneous narrative table scraps that must be manually pieced together in order to be fully understood.  It’s a trend that I have spoken out against in the past, as I prefer my stories to be more direct and straightforward, and struggle to understand who anybody finds this shoestring method to be more compelling. All that I could really tell, and all that I needed to know, is that the world is screwed after revolts, experimentation, and general devastation that has allowed this realm to subsist in a perpetual dilapidated state, with beings who are little more than aggressive animalistic creatures being few and far between.  Which, come to think of it, is the go-to setting for a lot of games with fragmented narratives like this

While on something of a negative streak, I feel that I need to balance out the immense praise I granted the game early on, and discuss the matter of difficulty.  After about 4 hours with the game, I managed to get all the way to the end and beat the final boss on the base normal difficulty. Another 11 hours later I managed to clear all other areas, defeating the more elusive bosses strewn throughout my travels, and clearing every accessible biome at least once.  With that done, I then tried continuing down what I could only assume to be the next intended step in my progression, and began playing on hard mode, which swiftly whooped my butt for the next 5 hours. Not necessarily because it was so hard, but because of the jump that is represented between these two difficulties, greatly boosting the damage dealt by enemies, boosting boss health, and limiting the player’s health resources considerably.  It all made for a very discouraging experience that was best represented by how I went from clearing the game with relative ease to struggling to get to the halfway point. And while I am sure that with enough upgrades, persistence, and steady accumulation of skill I could surmount this challenge at the very least.

Which is a damn shame, because Dead Cells does a generally excellent job at just about everything else, being this finely crafted focused refinement of one of my favorite genres, remixing much of its core structure and appeal.  I would personally love to keep at it, pushing myself further and playing the game for dozens and dozens of hours and surpassing these challenges as I garnered more options and developed a more refined understanding of the game’s flow and mechanics.  But unfortunately I have this pesky thing called a review schedule, so I must put aside what was very close to being a modern favorite of mine and move onto something else that will hopefully hit that elusive target.

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