Real Talk By: Zombie Zac
With no shortage of Metroidvania or rogue-like indie games in 2018, Motion Twin’s Dead Cells arrives with something to prove. While in early access on the PC for some time, Dead Cells’ final build is now available on all platforms. What I discovered was an enthralling, challenging, single-player 2D action platformer that wasn’t afraid to bring new ideas into the fold. Dead Cells’ gameplay DNA is heavy on combat customization and throws players into interconnected environments that splinter off into multiple paths — all of which reward speed and tactical coordination. Inside these levels Motion Twin draw on a number of influences that when tossed into the cauldron conjure an adventure that is both masochistic and pleasantly rewarding.
As with other rogue-likes, Dead Cells allows only one death and your run is over. When your character begins again, he is resurrected in a lab and has a randomly generated selection of starting weapons to choose from. The long term grind is all about the upgrades that carry over into future runs and obtaining all the main skills to reach shortcuts. There’s essentially two currencies: Gold and Cells. Gold is used for buying items in shops and re-rerolling stat attributes. Gold will be lost at death, except for a base amount that is increased over time with upgrades. Cells are the most precious and come from random drops from enemies (and are also found in some secret locations) which then are deposited towards various progression unlocks upon the completion of each level. Dead Cells will wipe all your Cells away, though, if you die without depositing them— the most overt nod to the Souls series. Speeding through the levels help you hit timed gates which contain plenty of Gold, Cells and useful power ups. These power ups are only valid for your current run and they’re found scattered throughout the level, increasing your weapons, skills and health. What you choose to put the points into will dramatically effect your play style for that run and what types of weapons you will want to equip.
Most games have you pick out a character in the beginning— A warrior, mage, rogue, paladin, cleric, but Dead Cells has you define yourself on the go each time you play. The flexibility really encourages multiple play styles, and keeps things constantly engaging without ever boxing you in. Whether it’s ranged weapons like bows, or fire bombs, to elemental lightning strikes or poison daggers, to fast dual-wielding blades, tactical traps, and turrets, all of the possible combinations feel well balanced. That being said, my personal favorite build would be one focusing on turret guns and traps. While exploring, blueprints can be found from defeating enemies or locating hidden rooms and once constructed those weapons now have a chance to appear in future play throughs. The drip-feed of unlocking, upgrading and discovering secrets is rewarding whether you play just one run, or dive in for a couple hours.
While the levels you slide, flip and bounce through are randomized, they do appear in the same order each time and are interconnected in a finite way. Within the randomization certain things always occur, like shops, or a certain number of power ups, even some secrets show up each time — just in slightly different locations. Also, each level has their own enemy types and they all can be deadly if approached haphazardly. Occasionally you will square off against Elite versions for more rewards, or open a cursed chest that deals a severe handicap but also powerful loot. The more runs you make the more you get used to what to find and fight even though you’re technically going in blind each time. It’s a fantastic combination of randomization and hand-crafted design that defines Dead Cells as the Diablo of 2D action platformers. Whether it is the poisonous sewers, the maze-like crypts, or the vertical climb of the towering clock towers, there is no shortage of striking environments and dangerous obstacles to keep things exciting.
The option to take your time and explore every nook and cranny, killing all creatures in your path or to parkour through the many dangers is yours to choose. Dead Cells has easily 40+ hours of gameplay to complete a single successful run, and yet technically it can be done in minutes with an upgraded character and skill. To gather all the upgrades and to master different build-types Dead Cells could entertain for well over 100 hours for hardcore enthusiasts. The speed running aspect will really win over some players and streamers, as it almost feels like its own eSport. Just as the game is built around dying and trying again, beating the final boss loops around for more challenges and game mechanics to explore. With expressive 2D animation and a dreamy gothic, yet colorful art style, Dead Cell’s presentation is high-caliber. Even the music helps define each level with a foreboding atmosphere and the melody that plays in the Shop will drill itself into your head for hours.
Dead Cells only stumbles when it comes to a couple places. While there really aren’t any serious issues, there is a definite lack of context to what is going on. There’s barely any story, or memorable characters, or for that matter any distinguishable world lore. It’s all very pretty looking, so it’s a shame it’s lacking character and a bit nondescript — save for a few notes you can find here or there that give brief insights into the world. Who you really are, or why the world is overrun by creatures is only scarcely hinted at. This doesn’t impact the quality of the gameplay, but it does keep the player from developing any kind of endearing bond with this universe. What’s more of a drag is playing through the same environments many, many times. And killing the same zombies, over and over again. Still, at $24.99 it’s a very fair asking price for the amount of quality content on display here. Dead Cells is a deep, rewarding and addictive experience that manages to make dying over and over again feel completely new.
Dead Cells Gets
4 out of 5
+Randomized and hand-crafted feel
+Encourages different play styles
+Great 2D pixel art and memorable soundtrack
+Unique game design
-Lacks depth to story, characters, world lore
-Can feel repetitive