With so many different titles on offer nowadays, it takes great effort for any single game to truly capture your imagination. There are plenty out there that provide their fair share of fun, but that’s the easy part. The difficult part is finding one that truly sticks in your mind – something that captures your thoughts long after you turn it off, and makes you crave for the time that you’ll be able to turn it back on again. Dead Cells, therefore, is a rare breed – a game that achieves not only that feeling, but does so with almost breathtaking ease.
To explain why, it’s first necessary to explain what Dead Cells actually is… Yet that’s actually a little bit difficult to do. It’s perhaps the developer’s own coined term of it being a “Roguevania” that best describes what’s going on here. Take the gameplay of Metroid and Castlevania, throw in the elements of a good Roguelite such as randomly generated levels and items, and then blend thoroughly. The result sees you exploring 2D dungeons filled with hordes of enemies to smash and bash your way through, all in your quest to find skill-improving scrolls and ever more powerful weapons as you desperately fight your way towards the end.
What that gameplay description really fails to capture, however, is how lightning fast, silky smooth and just damn satisfying this game is to play. There’s a constant visceral pleasure in basic combat, such as rolling deftly past an enemy attack and them smashing them into a pile of giblets and gold. Combine this with the skills you can collect, though, and things get really interesting. How about using a magnet grenade to drag your foes into a set of spinning saw blades on the ground? Or using a bear trap to snare an enemy and then setting the whole floor on fire around them? Soon your first tepid steps towards each new enemy encounter fade away with time and practice, to be replaced with you slicing and dicing through the hordes like an absurdly terrifying ninja. That feeling of power and pure skill never gets old, and even when a single misstep has the potential to cruelly end your rampage, the desire to keep hold of that feeling makes it so you’ll be immediately eager to dust yourself off and try again.
What truly makes Dead Cells so compulsive and fun to play, however, comes in the shape of the very cells that grace the game’s name. In simple terms; cells drop from killed enemies. Pick them up, get to the end of the stage, and you can use them to unlock more weapons and abilities or – crucially – permanently strengthen your character in some way. This can include getting a health potion that carries extra doses, upgrading the equipment you start off each run with, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides that.
It’s a simple enough idea, but it’s an idea that completely changes how Dead Cells plays. To give an example, it encourages you to actually explore every level and get into as many fights as possible, because the more you do that, the more cells you obtain. Secondly, it makes every run feel like it has purpose, even the ones that are dramatically cut short or feel doomed from the start. You could limp to the end of the first stage and immediately die on the second, but the few calls you collected in the process means you still walk away with a sense of forward progress – no matter how small.
Think that’s all? Nope. Cells also provide a nice little bit of a risk/reward factor; get to certain doors in time or fight particularly powerful foes and you’ll be richly rewarded, but in turn greatly increase your risk of an untimely death. Keep hold of all the ones you collect without spending them, and you can also reach a point where the ability to permanently upgrade items is presented to you – a tantalising prospect, but a reward you’ll have to stay alive long enough to reach. It gives you something else to think about on top of everything else – play it safe, or risk it all? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this simple mechanic is what really fuels that pure “one more go” factor – there’s always new items to work towards, something fresh and exciting to splash your hard earned winnings on. Overall, it’s an excellent system, which adds so much depth and fun to what was already a highly enjoyable base experience.
Dead Cells isn’t without fault, however. If the game suffers a main issue right now, it’s in balance. There’s a fair few items and skills that just feel like they’re objectively better than what else is on offer. Perhaps the prime offender of this comes in the form of anything that carries the ice effect, allowing you to freeze your foes in place while also slowing them down once they thaw. This immediately removes most of the threat anything carries – it’s hard to be afraid of something that’s moving at a snail’s pace, after all. When you’re beating bosses with ease due to the fact they’re basically permanently stationary due to the sheer amount of ice skills you’re spamming at them, that’s when you truly start to get the sense that things are getting a little bit ridiculous.
Many other items also have the opposite problem of feeling that they have very little practical use. The whole subcategory of shields falls foul of this – even with the bonuses they confer, it’s vastly easier just to roll past attacks instead of trying to perfectly time your blocks to achieve said bonuses. Overall, the whole balance issue is not one that is game breaking, but it does stint the variety of your runs somewhat. You might start with good intentions and take a shield, but once things start going south you’ll likely fall back on your old crutches – and that’s a shame.
Honestly though, that’s my only real gripe with the game, and indeed the only thing that truly gives away the fact that it’s in early access. The only other problems I’ve ever encountered are a grand total of a single crash, and one run where the map generated in a way that made it impossible to progress. Both of these things shouldn’t happen, I don’t deny it – but compared to the woes and misery given to gamers via other early access titles, these faults feel like a very minimal dent to the overall experience. Overall, everything here just feels so polished and fun to play that even at this stage I’d have no issue with purchasing this as a fully fledged title. Put simply, don’t let the feeling you might be buying a half finished or broken product put you off Dead Cells, because the reality is that’s far from the case.
If you’re looking for one final argument as to whether you should buy this or not, put it this way – I bought this title in late December. In the brief time before 2017 ended, this title still had such an impact on me that I’d consider it one of the best games I played all year. It’s fast, it’s furious, and it’s just downright fun – your purchase of Dead Cells should be a Dead Certainty.