The rogue-like genre is a packed field these days, but it takes a lot to get the balance right of what makes them enjoyable. Many developers end up with a game that fails to give players the right opportunities to observe, learn, and improve from their mistakes, and instead of challenging, their offerings become frustrating and discouraging. However, indie developer Motion Twin seem to have hit on the right formula, marrying the rhythmic, ‘dancing with the bosses’ style of combat from the Souls games with a Metroidvania style side-scrolling format and roguelike rules to create Dead Cells. Combine that with vibrant, colorful visuals and a kickin’ soundtrack heavy on orchestral and acoustic alike, and you’ve got a fast-paced, arcadey experience that’s great for quick 20 minute sprints, but that will absolutely devour entire days of your life if you’re not careful.
In it, you play the anonymous Prisoner, adventuring your way through dungeons, ramparts, sepulchers and castles to try and escape an island where a mysterious disease called the Malaise runs rampant. Those ruling the island have imprisoned the majority of the island’s mutated inhabitants (whom you’ll have the pleasure of meeting/slaying), retreating within their stronghold to try and escape their grasp.
The gameplay in Dead Cells is classic “easy to learn, difficult to master” fare. To fill your two weapon slots, you’re given a choice of a rudimentary melee weapon, shield, or ranged weapon. Likewise, you’re also given two “Skills” slots, where you can equip anything from deployable turrets, to grenades that freeze, burn, entrap enemies, and power-ups that give you temporary buffs.
The effectiveness of these are governed by the game’s three stats: Brutality, Survival, and Tactics. Brutality is where you’ll find the majority of your lighter melee weapons and explosives. Survival makes you harder to kill and also governs some of the heavier weapons like broadswords, greatshields, and crossbows, and Tactics covers Spells, turrets, and weapons that are tricky to use but circumstantially very powerful. The majority of these tools you’ll find as blueprints throughout Dead Cells’ randomly generated dungeons, using scavenged gold and ‘Cells’ dropped from enemies to unlock them once you’ve reached the end of the level. However, the entire exercise is risk-reward: should you die before reaching the end of a stage, your Cells, blueprints, and upgrades are lost and you begin right back from stage one.
Once unlocked, your various weapons, spells, and gear are added to an expanded pool of items that are distributed randomly throughout each dungeon. It’s this element of uncertainty that brings about the major running theme in Dead Cells’ gameplay: making the best out of what you’re given. You might have a preference for a Brutality build, but if all you keep finding in chests are Survival or Tactics gear, you’d best get learning how to adapt. Being pressed into exploring different combinations of powers by the weight of your circumstances was a major source of enjoyment for me, the other main one being the combat.
The speed and fluidity of it harkens back to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but the animation and sound design team has done a fantastic job making it feel so much more viscerally impactful. The weight of the warhammer and giant broadsword really come through, as does the juicy exploding sound your enemies make when you’re using the Lightning Bolt spell to channel your inner Palpatine. Learning to dodge roll and time your parries with precision can be tricky, but the satisfaction you get once you get the hang of things and are carving through enemies like the entropic winds of death is absolutely worth it. The endless combinations of gear, random dungeons and loot, and tracking down all the game’s 50+ weapon blueprints makes it endlessly replayable. I’ve already racked up over 50 hours of play and haven’t even explored Dead Cells’ optional, post-game hard modes.
The art direction in the game is also joy to look at. Far from the drab and depressive gray palette of its influences, Dead Cells is vibrant and colourful, and the various biomes you’ll explore each have their own unique aesthetic. The same can be said for the enemies: numerous times I thought I had the game down pat, got cocky while entering a new area, and got turned into mulch. There are dozens of different creatures in the game, all of whom have a diet that consists primarily of your face, and all of whom overflow with personality through their designs and gestures. It’s these, along with the hundreds of little details like the hellish red glow and falling ashes in the Ossuary that truly breathe life into Dead Cells world.
Finally, it would be a crime to end any review of Dead Cells without mentioning the fantastic score that accompanies it. It keeps on brand with the ‘technicolor Dark Souls’ vibe the game has, mixing the typical kinds of haunting orchestral soundtracks you’ll get on other dark fantasy games with some fucking kick-ASS flamenco guitar. It creates this vibe that is equal parts ominous and adventurous, and the ingenuity of this combination is worthy of note. Check out one of my personal favorite tracks below and you’ll hear what I mean:
Dead Cells is still in Early Access, and is slated for an August 2018 release. Early Access games can be a gamble, but Motion Twin has put out a robust offering to fans that continues to add more layers as development progresses. If you’re into challenging hack-and-slash gameplay, this fast-paced technicolor nightmare is one you’ll come back to again and again and is well-worth picking up.