Around two hours into Motion Twin’s wonderful metroidvania/rogue-lite Dead Cells, I was on a roll – confident I’d really gotten the hang of things, and certain I was on the path to victory.
I’d just fought my way through a dungeon full of zombies, barely made it in one piece across a field of demonic killing machines, and done battle with wizards and archers along the ramparts of an ancient castle. I felt good. Powerful. Ready for whatever came next.
Then I came face to face with the first boss, and my newfound arrogance led to my foolhardy tush being handed to me on a plate. I fell in battle, and was returned once more to the now all-too familiar starting area.
And so, faced with the prospect of doing it all over again (yet again), I decided I’d walk away for a bit. I turned off my Switch and went to make a cup of tea.
Without even really realising it however, I found myself back at it – knee deep in zombie guts and nearly at the second area – before the kettle had even boiled. Long story short; Dead Cells is seriously damn addictive, my friends.
Here’s the deal for the uninitiated: Dead Cells is essentially a cross between Dark Souls, Binding of Isaac, and classic Metroid – but it amounts to so much more than the games that influenced it.
It’s that rare breed of game that offers a slick, punishing, but constantly rewarding experience that will always leave you desperate to come back for more, no matter how hard it slaps you down. And it will slap you down hard.
The hero of Dead Cells is unable to die, you see. A silent protagonist, it’s your job to guide him through this mysterious castle and find the way out. Like Metroid, there are special items to collect that open up new areas and help you get through earlier areas faster – the twist, however, is that when you die in Dead Cells, you lose all the gear you’ve collected and have to go right back to the beginning to start over.
Only certain perks – like traversal abilities and health potion upgrades – will remain with you when you return to life, whereas most of your gold, weapons, and precious cells (the “souls” of this game that can be used to be upgrade and unlock new gear) are gone.
Unlike Dark Souls, you can’t reclaim that shit, my friend. When it’s gone, it’s gone, which makes trying to find the exit in an area so you can go upgrade your gear an arse-clenchingly tense exercise- especially when you’re lugging around 30+ cells.
If starting over again and again sounds like a bit of a slog, that’s because it can be – but very, very rarely. For the most part, you’ll find that each playthrough gets incrementally easier, thanks to those handy cells we were just talking about. You remember. It wasn’t that long ago. Pop back up the last paragraph if you’ve already forgotten, I’ll wait.
In between each “level”, you’ll come across a helpful chap who can help you unlock all manner of handy goodies. These range from permanent perks like health potions or the ability to retain a certain amount of gold upon death, to weapons and traps that can be unlocked and will randomly appear across the map on your next playthrough.
In short then, every time you die, you’ll get to start again with new gear to find, a better understanding of the enemies, and – even though the map layout does ever so slightly change each time – a better understanding of where you’re going. If it sounds slightly daunting on paper, it’s really not as complicated as I made it sound. As soon as the game starts, instinct kind of kicks in, and you really do just go with the flow, even if that flow does seem to kill you a lot.
Still, once you accept that you’re just gonna have to roll with the punches and adjust to the game’s ethos of doing a little bit better each time, the game really clicks. Death is never something you want, but it never feels frustrating or unfair. You simply head back to the start, safe in the knowledge that you’ve learned something important, or earned a sweet new bit of gear.
I know the idea of having to play through the same areas and fight the same enemies over and over again doesn’t sound super appealing, but Motion Twin have done a magnificent job of turning what should be a massive pain into one of the game’s most addictive – and innovative – features.
For a start, a “run” doesn’t even take that long. You can get through an area in anywhere between two to ten minutes, depending on how thorough you want to be. During the first few hours you’ll want to scour levels to find the best weapons, unlock blueprints, and collect as many cells as you can – but as you slowly upgrade your characters abilities you’ll come across stronger weapons more frequently, negating the need to comb every nook and cranny of every area.
You’ll also be pleased to know that there are various permanent runes you can claim. Not only do these make travelling from A to B a little more expedient, they also open up new paths that lead to entirely new areas, in that grand Metroidvania tradition. For example, early on you’ll discover a rune that lets you sprout vines to climb to previously unreachable ledges.
With this new ability, you’ll find that from the starting area, instead of going back to the usual second location, you’re able to reach an entirely new section which in turn has its own secrets, enemies, and upgrades to discover.
It’s this constant loop of minor progression that makes death in Dead Cells genuinely rewarding, and deliciously addictive – no matter how many mistakes you make, the game will continue to slowly unfold in front of you, revealing something new, and offering you more choices with every new start.
These choices naturally extend to combat, which offers a frankly astounding level of detail and variety. You’ll start off with your standard sword and bow (or shield if you prefer), but you’ll slowly unlock blueprints for powerful flaming swords, ice bows, elemental attacks, bear traps, turrets, grenades, and more.
Your loadout will often come down to the items you discover during a run, which gently nudges you to try out new tactics with every fresh attempt. With that said, if you are set in your ways and know that ice attacks, a quick sword, and a turret is all you need for a good time, then if you scout an area hard enough you’ll usually find something along the lines of what you’re looking for. Even when you can’t though, adapting to new approaches is all part of the fun.
Combat itself is absolutely incredible, by the way. Slicker than an oiled up Danny Devito, scrapping in Dead Cells is a deadly ballet of dodges, melee attacks, and ranged moves. Your two standard weapons are joined by two special items – the aforementioned turrets and grenades.
Not only are these fantastic tools for clearing a crowd of enemies without ever getting your hands dirty, you’ll find that they also have a super generous cooldown time, which means you can, for example, throw freeze grenades, roll behind opponents, and slice them to pieces till your heart’s content. This is currently my favourite tactic, by the way.
There are various enemies lurking throughout the game, all with their own unique attack patterns for you to learn and master. Once again, the more you play, the easier you’ll find even the more formidable of foes as you discover the best techniques for dealing with them swiftly, and without mercy. That’s not to say the game doesn’t remain a constant challenge however – the second you start to get complacent, Dead Cells will beat your face into the pavement and remind you who’s boss.
To sum up then, Dead Cells is a towering success on every level. Motion Twin have managed to smoosh together two genres that should never, ever have worked together, and created an utterly captivating, constantly changing arcade-style adventure.
The idea of playing through areas over and over again had me groaning when I first heard about it, but in practice there’s more than enough variety in the weapons, secrets and enemies you discover on your journey – helped by some first rate combat and level design – that ensures I genuinely cannot put this game down.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I was cut down far too soon on my last attempt. And you know what they say – if at first you don’t succeed, stab things with your flaming ninja blade till you get the result you want.