Kill. Loot. Die. Repeat.
From a visual standpoint, Dead Cells was a game that I had been intrigued by for a fairly long time. I had seen bits and pieces of it on a variety of different websites and Youtube videos based around the early access build on the PC. However, it wasn't until the whole plagiarism ordeal surrounding the game that I truly took notice. While it's unfair that the game has been connected to such a scandal, Dead Cells is a game that needs to be on people's radar, a game that truly needs to be celebrated. Dead Cells is one of the best games I've played in 2018 and a strong contender for my Game of the Year.
Dead Cells is a game built around learning from your mistakes. It can be brutal yet also wildly forgiving. It can reward you with encouragement one moment and then rip it away from you in an instant, yet you always feel as if you are learning something new. The third or fourth time that I encountered the boss at the top of the Clock Tower, I always felt ready for him, yet I would fail each and every time until I found an assortment of weapons and traps that finally worked to my advantage and even then, it was by the skin of my teeth. Through this repetition, I not only learned more about the battle itself but increased my skill set to the point where I can now take him out with barely needing to refill my health gauge at all.
The key point to survival in Dead Cells is by collecting blue glowing cells from the bodies of your foes. The more you play, the more cells that you retrieve, provided of course that you collect them from the remains of a random kill and live long enough to deposit them. These cells allow you to unlock permanent upgrades that continue on with you since death will strip you of the weapons and traps you currently have on hand. The more you upgrade the more tools you have at your disposal.
Dead Cells is as long or as short as you want the experience to be. You can work through the four bosses currently active in the game or tackle the various challenge rooms or rifts that you'll encounter on your travels. Much of the length of the game comes from putting together certain builds or attempting to track down each and every blueprint available. This obsession to complete your collection is very real and one that is easy to take on considering the way in which it displays what you've unlocked thus far. Once you've mastered the in's and out's of the game, you can trigger even harder modes through the use of Stem Cells, special items that can be stacked to further increase the difficulty by adding in additional enemies, limiting your access to healing and more.
You begin each run as a little green blob that finds new life in the headless body of an adventurer, seemingly trapped in a prison. You'll start each renewed life with a low-powered sword and have access to two replacement weapons shortly after you begin. You can adjust these nearby gifts by purchasing special upgrades that will randomize each weapon within your unlocked cache of items and weapons. I lucked out later on in one of the final levels with tracking down a very rare and powerful bow blueprint. By purchasing an upgrade that randomizes the offered bow at the start of the run, I would often luck out and have it available from the start, making my attempts far easier in the process. What is so enjoyable about Dead Cells is that even though this is a rogue-like dungeon crawler that has an element of permadeath to it, you still have progression systems that legitimately make you feel like you are always progressing in some form or another. Dead Cells is quite literally the gift that keeps on giving.
Developer Motion Twin has constructed a randomly generated world with a few exceptions where you'll encounter the same layout for a few elevators or areas where you'll use a rune ability to reach a high up platform. While each location does change up the pathing required to progress to a new location, the changes themselves don't feel overly drastic and where other Metroidvania games tend to rely on memorization, Dead Cells simply wants you to adapt to the ever-changing map.
While there are currently 17 different environments, several of these are single locations like the Black Bridge which is only a few screens long or the starting prison which is only meant to be the starting area. A standard run of Dead Cells only sees you visit a handful of these biomes as you can make it right to the end with skipping locations entirely as most stages with offer you up a choice of which path to take. This means that you could skip out on fighting the Conjunctivius Boss in the Insufferable Crypt should you avoid the path to the Sewers entirely. By choosing a certain path throughout your adventure, you can avoid certain locations altogether and find the route that works for you.
As you explore the variety of locations offered to you, you'll encounter special rune stones that will trigger a small boss encounter. These Elite enemies pack a bit more punch than your normal foe, but they can go down quick enough with the right mixture of items. Eventually, you'll be able to wield something as basic as a shield and have your foe quite literally disintegrate just by touching you. These battles will leave you with a special rune ability that will grant you access to out of reach areas via teleportation, vines, ground destruction, or the ability to climb walls.
During each playthrough of the game, you are timed and while that timer doesn't effectively lead up to any big event, it does prevent you from accessing certain locked doors should you not make it there in time. These areas provide special blueprints as well as a whole heap of other rewards. While it can be downright embarrassing to reach a door that says it was "locked 14 seconds ago", it does light the fire in you to do better next time.
Dead Cells allows you to wield two main weapons such as a sword, a rapier, a shovel, a bow, or an automatic crossbow, as well as two traps. The picture above shows one of my favorite loadouts that took me right through to the end. While there are certain weapons like heavy swords that have a bit of a slower swing, every single weapon or trap offered here is helpful in some way. As you dive deeper into the game and push through to the later levels, each weapon you buy or come across will be better than the last. I had an Impaler II during a few early levels until I stumbled across the Impaler V+ that was better in every conceivable way.
To say I enjoy the combat in Dead Cells is an understatement; I flat out love it. In fact, it might be some of the most satisfying combat I've played since Ruiner, and that is one of the most impressive titles I've played in years. Every jump, roll, or swing of the blade or even something as simple as tossing out a few traps while jumping up to an above platform is satisfying as hell. Building up a rhythm in Dead Cells can almost bring out the speed runner in you as the movement systems offered here are practically flawless and are built for speed. Never once during any run did I feel that I was cheated out of a death, that I didn't deserve it or I died because of slow unresponsive controls. Dead Cells never feels cheap.
While the story to Dead Cells is overly simplistic, you'll learn little bits and pieces of the narrative through a small group of NPC's. While not all of them will remain around during your time with the game, you'll encounter a few that will offer up their services for a bit of coin or whatever cells you currently have on you. It's here where you'll purchase upgrades, new weapon modifiers, and mutations. Upgrades allow you to unlock permanent boosts like increasing the number of health potions you can carry, randomizing certain starting weapons, or unlocking new weapons based on the blueprints you'll discover.
Weapon modifiers allow you to trick out your items with stat rerolls like replacing that bonus damage to enemies on fire with having your victims emit a toxic mist instead. As you can reroll each modifier to suit your needs, I liked to make sure my weapons complimented each other like having my bow deal out toxic damage and then have my turrets deal additional damage to those affected by my toxins. Mutations work in a lot of ways like modifiers like reducing your cooldowns, giving you more health, or boosting the number of arrows your bow can fire. While mutations reset upon death, you can track down blueprints to make them a permanent fixture to the assortment you can choose from.
Exploring the randomly generated world offered here may lead to a dead end or two, but you'll often discover a secret area or a bit of food stuck in the wall. The food items themselves can be tailored to your own personal diet as you can change up the look the food has when you encounter it. Healing and health are a given when wanting to stay alive, but so are collecting special scrolls that allow you to put points into your Brutality, Tactics, or Survival stats. While I won't go into detail about how to effectively use these scrolls, I'll instead explain what they are. When you encounter a scroll, you'll be asked to choose which upgrade you want from a few choices that are based around those stats. You may be presented with red weapons having a bonus to their damage and only see a 15% increase of your HP, or select additional damage from purple weapons and see a 50% increase. You will come across several scrolls and whether or not you choose to work on a Tactics build or just a somewhat balance fighter is totally up to you.
The retro 2D pixel aesthetic isn't new and in fact, Dead Cells is only one of many games that have been released recently that have built their game around it. That being said, Dead Cells is a wonderfully animated and colorful hack and slash game that offers up a massive variety in its environments, allowing each location to stand out despite the familiarity that each level shares. The way the camera pans in when you approach a treasure chest, or the way the cages rattle when you fly up in a speeding elevator, there are subtle touches here that stand out wonderfully. The main character himself has a lot of fun and enjoyable animations as he interacts with a stranger behind a door or when an NPC asks him a question or two. Dead Cells is a gorgeous game that knows exactly what it wants to be and excels at it superbly.
I've reviewed the game on the Nintendo Switch because frankly, I wanted the game to be portable. I've watched the graphical comparison videos between the Switch and the other consoles and frankly, the differences are beyond minor. The Switch version does have a hiccup or two in regards to framerate, but the times that it even stutters are exceptionally rare. Every version of this game looks great, runs great, and it is impossible to buy an inferior port of this title. While I have the information regarding pricing down below, the PS4 and Switch versions do cost more than the Xbox One version, at least in Canada.
While my death total is probably in the thousands, I keep coming back to Dead Cells on a fairly regular basis. Booting it up to collect a few cells here and there to unlock new upgrades is as addicting as its fast and furious combat. Few games expertly deliver on every aspect of their game design and Dead Cells just happens to be one that does. Dead Cells wants you to enjoy it, it craves your attention, it wants you to get better at it and it offers up systems that compliment that dedication. Regardless of how many times I died during the final encounter, the journey back to that fight always offered up new blueprints, upgrades, and abilities that made each future attempt that much more possible, even if I did have less than 100 hp left when I finally beat that damn bastard. Seriously, F that guy!
Dead Cells was purchased by the reviewer.
All Screenshots were taken on an Nintendo Switch.