These days in the gaming industry, confining a game to a single genre is not as simple as it once used to be. Even in the 2D platforming genre, you got the Metroidvanias, RPG-lite, Soulslike, Souls-lite, Roguelike, Rogue-lite and all those other goofy names people come up with. Developer Motion Twin’s Dead Cells is another game into a long line of games that cannot be confined within the lines of a single genre. How good is it? Well, let’s find out, shall we?
Featuring elements from all the afforementioned genre, Dead Cells is a metroidvania inspired, action-platformer developed and published by Motion Twin and released (out of Early Access) for PC, PS4, XBox One and Nintendo Switch on August 7, 2018.
Story & Narrative
Dead Cells belongs to the club of games which likes to keep its story minimalist and encourage crazy fan theories and witch hunts all over Reddit. The game takes place in an unnamed island where a clump of cells come together and becomes lil’ old you (yeah, Biology!). You learn that you’re immortal the hard way and sets out to unveil the secret of this dangerous, ever changing island. That’s basically it for starters and it falls on the players to interpret the lore and the bigger picture from the snippets of information given away in the levels. While it would have been cool to have a properly conveyed narrative, Dead Cells is not at all held back by this minimalist storytelling.
Gameplay & Mechanics
Combat & Exploration
Like mentioned above, Dead Cells sure does borrow a lot of elements from a variety of genre. At its core, Dead Cells is a 2D side-scrolling, action-platformer with perma-death being a prominent feature. The player character starts off as nothing but a clump of organic mass equipped with a measly sword. In true Metroidvania fashion, you are free to explore levels with procedurally generated layouts one after the another, with the primary aim to beat the final boss. The levels are heavily populated with various enemies whose sole purpose in life seems to be nothing but ruin your day. Soon, you’ll come across a pile of upgradeable weapons of different tiers, lethal traps, stat boosting scrolls, vendors and cells which serves as upgrade points. The more you play, you’ll retroactively unlock many closed off sections of the map, and even entire levels for the pleasure of your subsequent runs. The conveniently placed waypoints that lets you teleport around the level is a godsend which keeps backtracking from turning into a chore. The addition of daily challenges and challenge rifts are a nice addition too. Plus there is mod support and Steam Workshop integreation which is always welcome.
Combat in Dead Cells is all about momentum, twitch reflex and how you time your dodges. The combat is real simple, easy to pick up but hard to master. It’s made even more engaging due to the availability of dozens upon dozens of weapon combinations and experimentation. Combine the adrenaline pumping combat with the butter smooth animations and fluid controls and you got the show-stealer. There’s nothing more satisfying than sprinting across the map, making tactical decisions on the fly and dropping down on a group of enemies and slaugtering them to oblivion, all in the matter of a few seconds. This is where Dead Cells is at its best. Yet, despite how badass or godly you might start to feel, the threat of permanently losing your items and money is always looming above the player. This is where the roguelike inspirations come in. One bad decision, and bam! You have to start from level 1 with nothing but the rusty sword at your side. There are situtations in the game where you think you can take down two more measly enemies while you have less than 25% health and walk away with more cells. But not all of us has the luck of an Irish man. Higher the risk, higher the reward. Do you play safe, or risk it all? This makes you careful on how you approach each enemy, especially at later stages.
The first 10-15 hours are an absolute blast and showcase the game at its finest. But the more you play, the more problems that crop up. The constant cycle of repetition can get old quite fast, and frustrating. It’s not because the game is painfully hard. Because it isn’t. The difficulty of the game depends on how fast you learn the ins and outs of the combat (at least on the initial playthrough). But even a veteran player make mistakes. After a while, it starts to feel as if the very few permanent upgrades available are just not enough. It can be a genuine chore to run all the way from the first level to the last one all the time. Then there is the lacklustre procedural generation. Look, I get that it’s nice and easy to run through familar levels than levels that change drastically on each run. But the procedural generation of Dead Cells is pretty basic and doesn’t do anything that makes you not feel deja-vu every time you run through a level a second, or a third time. For a game where you spend a lot of time going to the beaten path over and over, it sure could have used a more varied level generation.
Another thing about Dead Cells that can rub the players the wrong way is the RNG and the unbalanced arsenal. In Dead Cells, you have to find gear to use in the field. There are a lot of good low tier weapons/traps in the game that can be found early on, especially an ability that lets you freeze enemies in place. I don’t have to tell you how much valuable an ability like that in a game like this. But as you spend cells to unlock flashier gear (flashier doesn’t mean better), the chances of these low tier weapons appearing in levels become exponentially low. Even with an ability to refresh vendor inventory, there is no promise that you will find what you need for your meta build. You could say that every piece of gear is technically viable in a normal run. But that beats the purpose of meta builds. Even though your character has three stats called Brutality, Tactics and Survival that boosts your HP and damage with specific weapon types, it will become apparent which among the three is useful and which aren’t. The game, after a point, forces you to stick to a particular style by scaling the enemy to player’s stats. Then there is the umbalanced enemy scaling. If you picked up too many stat boosting scrolls (they stop giving HP after a point), then too bad, the enmies will hit harder than what your HP can handle. The lines between freedom and illusion of freedom is often blurred in Dead Cells.
Visuals, Performance & Sound
Dead Cells looks to late 80’s and early 90’s platformers for aethetic inspiration and nails it perfectly. It looks like a game straight out of those days, but with an HD paintjob. It does a fine job of hitting the nostalgia nerves hard. Each level has a theme of its own that sets it apart from the previous one and everything is as detailed as it can be.
The game ran at a constant (locked) fps of 75 on a GTX 750 paired with an i5 7500 and 8 gigabytes of RAM at 1080p. Dead Cells will run on the potato(est?) of PCs and will have no problem maintaining smooth gameplay.
When it comes to sound, Dead Cells does a decent job. Everything sounds just as you expect it to. The soundtrack isn’t as memorable as Symphany of the Night or Ori and the Blind Forest, but it gets the job done. Don’t expect anything you’ll want to strip naked and do Fortnite dances for.
Parts of me strogly suggest that Dead Cells, with its fluid combat and impressive platforming, would have been better suited to being a classic metroidvania game with the roguelite gameplay being an additional challenge mode. Whatever fault it has lies in the roguelike department. But chances are you won’t notice even half of the listed issues during a casual run. That’s how Dead Cells is meant to be played- in short bursts of one or two runs with the player ‘getting good’ with each subsequent playthrough. With its satisfying combat, smooth platforming, tight controls, non-linear progression and the sheer amount replayability, Dead Cells has broken new ground and has set the bar for future games in the genre to surpass.