To say that the now very much part of the lexicon ‘Souls-like’ and ‘Metroidvania’ sub-genres are beloved by a wide far-reaching audience, would be an understatement. And so, the premise of a Super Metroid, Castlevania, and Dark Souls hybrid, with the added charm of randomly generated dungeons and progress that takes on some elements of a rogue-like – is a hard one to resist for a lot of people. Us included. To describe Dead Cells, the new indie action platformer from developer Motion Twin in this way though, sells -- or, cells -- the experience a little short.
Although born from inspiration taken from several genre heavyweights, Dead Cells more than manages to carve out a name for itself. With gorgeous art direction and presentation that blends pixel-inspired animation with modern lighting techniques, initial impressions leave an indelible mark. But after a few hours of learning its intricacies, Dead Cells begins to reveal its genius – and in the process present an entirely new and exciting reinterpretation of classic mechanics. And another reason to remind us all that an action-platformer can still feel fresh and exciting in 2018.
To try and get to the bottom of why Dead Cells works as well as it does, is no easy feat. Whether it’s the Team Fortress 2-inspired turret and trap mechanics that allow you to build defences to avoid direct combat in a playstyle that might feel cheap or like cheating. Or how about the projectile based combat strategy that completely changes once you trade a powerful bow for a freeze-blast. And then proceed to freeze and slow enemies before moving in to strike with your sword. Perhaps it all boils down to an initially lacklustre-seeming progression system, that only begins to reveal what it all means after time is spent learning all the different combat strategies.
Where other rouge-likes or rogue-light titles might end each run by giving you the option to gain a small damage buff, health increase, or bonus armour – Dead Cells instead implements a system where you spend Cells mostly to increase potential drop-rates and the power of certain weapons and items during a run. That and some much needed health potions. This random, and initially not all that impressive sounding system, results in an experience where no two run feels the same. And sure, that might be a descriptor one could easily attach to any game that features random levels or a measure of procedural magic – but Dead Cells takes it all to the next level.
Success and your own experience will vary depending on the items and weapons you find. Health and damage bonuses are found and earned during each run, which changes the mostly familiar rogue-like mechanic into a robust system that means your arsenal, power, and overall strength can drastically change over the course of a few short minutes. One run you might-even get lucky and find an orange legendary sword right off the bat, which then takes you further than you’ve ever gone before. It’s an exciting approach that invites multiple playthroughs and reinforces that age-old saying of ‘expect the unexpected’ even after playing Dead Cells for several hours.
The only arguable downside to the setup is that in Dead Cells, the cost and benefit of upgrades takes considerable time to become apparent. Especially if you struggle with the often-difficult nature of the combat and enemy encounters. Boss fights that escalate in both intensity and difficulty the longer they go on is a feature that we equally love and hate. And for lack of a better term there’s a sense that although skill, and getting better the more you play, plays an important role in how long Dead Cells may take to conquer – progression is a little grind-y.
But, by forcing a player to test out a slower double-handed blade over their own preference of taking twin assassin blades into the field - Dead Cells presents an experience where you’ll want to dive back in and discover everything about it. A notion that also applies to the level design, each with their own often visually stunning locations filled with secrets and shortcuts. Discovery is a part of Dead Cells, which might come through one’s own experimentation - or simply watching someone else play and interact with the world in a way you never thought of. Taking it slow or speeding through a map, multiple paths to reach the final boss, backtracking and teleportation that never feels like a burden, and a story, world, and setting that is as mysterious as both the original Metroid and first Dark Souls game – it’s the complete package.
In a time when wonderful looking indies are being released on a weekly basis, Dead Cells stands out among the pack. Not only in terms of its wonderful visual aesthetic, but how it opts to present its seemingly familiar mechanics in exciting new ways. It’s incredibly well balanced too, no doubt thanks to the extended Early Access period that saw the experience grow based on community feedback. From progression to combat to its strange world filled with secrets to find and items to discover - Dead Cells is a game one could easily savour and come back to for months. And when compared to the classics that inspired its design, that’s just about the perfect outcome too.