Dead Cells Review: Dying never felt so good
In a genre that's never been more crowded with quality, Motion Twin's self described RogueVania manages to position itself as a clear cut above.
As the video game industry entered the current console generation, indie games experienced a renaissance. What was once an afterthought to the console manufacturers was a now a major focus and the indie scene that had always been there on PC also managed to explode in popularity. With this indie game boom came a glut of side-scrolling roguelikes and Metroidvanias, many of which were of the highest quality. Understandably, it will be hard for many gamers to muster excitement for yet another entry into this already crowded space, but it would appear that we live in a magical time where the universe chooses to dump some amazing 2D action games on us in rapid succession. Dead Cells, the self-dubbed “RogueVania” from french developers Motion Twin is simply outstanding and represents the best the genre has to offer. Experiences like Dead Cells are the reason that so many of us chose video games as our primary hobby.
Born from garbage
The game begins with a hunk of waste being flushed down into a dilapidated prison like the byproduct of a Burger King binge. The pile of goop rolls over to a seemingly fresh dead body and infuses itself within the flesh husk. You take control of this fresh sewage body and begin battling your way out of the prison and into varying levels full of light platforming and deadly foes. Should you manage to get yourself killed during this endeavor (spoilers: you’re gonna get killed), the game returns you to the prison where the circle of life begins anew and a fresh flush plops down and takes a new body.
While you will lose everything you gained in your failed run through the game, you do retain the knowledge you gained from battling the enemies, along with the strength and weaknesses of the weapons and items you found while progressing. Starting the game from scratch after failure is a recurring trope within the roguelike genre, but Dead Cells mixes things up so that you get a sense of progression despite your repeated failures. Enemies (and sometime treasure chests) can drop cells. These cells can be spent with The Collector, a hooded fellow who appears to convert your cells into Berry Blue Kool-Aid, which comes to rest in the big tank he carries on his back. In return for these cells, The Collector will give you access to weapons, items, and character upgrades.
The Collector is conveniently located between each of the game’s levels. These areas serve as a short break from the chaos of combat and allows player to bank their cells and spend the gold acquired from slain enemies. The Collector always has some of his crew handy, with one fellow offering to upgrade your current equipment or to re-roll their magical affixes and another fellow who bestows you with special mutations. These mutations are passive buffs that can improve your combat effectiveness, the strength of your tactical items, or simply buff your HP bar. Occasionally, The Collector and crew will be posted up near this other dude who offers the promise of better random drops within the game world in return for cells. The cell commitment is incredibly large, but can allow players to come across incredibly powerful items much earlier during runs.
Dead Cells offers a wide array of weapons, shields, and tactical items to help you dispatch the bad guys. Each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses, as do the tactical items. When you begin a run, you will only have a dull sword and the choice between a basic bow or basic shield. As you progress through the game and cash in cells with The Collector, you will unlock the ability to start off with different weapon types. These weapons are randomly chosen from the pool of items you have purchased from The Collector (his offerings can be expanded by finding blueprints in the game world).
Always different, always the same
Due to the random nature of the weapons and items, each run you make through Dead Cells can play differently. The strategies that worked well when you carried a heavy broadsword and shield will get you killed quickly if you are holding a whip and crossbow. As you work to dispatch various types of enemies, certain item combinations can make your job incredibly easy or very difficult. At first, I was disappointed when I was forced to use a weapon type that I didn’t like, but I grew to appreciate virtually everything that was at my disposal. Perhaps the greatest praise I can heap on Dead Cells is that it manages to make you love the things you thought you’d hate.
Because the game is designed around you dying and repeating runs, you will find yourself working through the prison and other early areas repeatedly. This could be a real slog, but Dead Cells offers randomized level design. Each new run brings a new path to completion, yet manages to feel familiar in a way that allows you to speed through in the early stages of your run. Once you have a strong handle on how the combat works and have earned some nice starter gear, you will find yourself tearing through the earlier levels like a god. The game also rewards those who like to make speed a priority by having loot that is gated behind doors that will shut on a timer. If you don’t make it to the door before it closes, that path (and its loot) is gone forever. Each level is also littered with secret areas that may or may not be accessible, depending on which of the game’s permanent rune upgrades you have acquired. Metroid fans will certainly appreciate this.
Explanation of the game’s mechanics and design aside, Dead Cells is simply a wonderful experience. It has the best combat feel I’ve ever encountered in a game of this type. The varying weapon attack animations, combat rolls, parrying, and tactical item play work together to create a rewarding experience. Trying new item combos and discovering new tactics for dealing with problem mobs feels really great. Even after more runs through the starting prison that I can remember, dicing up the grunt zombies still feels as good as the first time. Boss fights go from being absolutely terrifying to moments of feeling godlike when your attack strategy works to perfection.
Random encounters can result in a perfect storm of destruction. During one instance, I tossed out my arrow turret that emits a toxic cloud (and causes enemies to explode into frost novas). My weapon was a set of daggers that caused additional damage to poisoned enemies and I made a few slices after freezing the elite enemy and his minions in place. Another mob equipped with an explosive cannonball launcher fired in my direction as I jumped out of the fray. I managed to properly time up a parry with my shield that reflected the cannon back at the mob pack, setting off a chain reaction of explosions and ice novas that left the walls painted with viscera and the ground littered with treasure and cells. The confluence of item abilities works wonderfully and is intensely satisfying when it saves you from certain doom. The system evokes Diablo 3’s skill and legendary item affix synergies in the best ways and does so in concert will the airtight controls and combat mechanics. Dead Cells is a masterclass in 2D action combat.
The game has a slightly pixelated aesthetic that won me over from the first few moments. Each new level brings an eye-catching backdrop that oozes style and helps convey the appropriate mood. A wide color palette helps make even the most decrepit dungeons appear lush and inviting. The game is full of great particle effects and the ambient lighting bathes the different environments in an eye-catching glow. The juxtaposition of a bright, warm sunset with the cold, damp interior sections often left me standing still, marveling at the moving painting when I should have been slicing and dicing. Animations are top-notch across the board and the action is simply better than anything else seen from its peers. I played Dead Cells on PC and found the game to work perfectly with no crashes or performance issues. It has a wide array of the options you'd expect, though it lacks native 21:9 ultrawide support. The inclusion of Steam Workshop support has led to a plethora of mods that let you mix up the game in various ways and will likely extend the life of the title for years.
The road to the top
I find it hard to judge Dead Cells without also considering its path to release. The game entered Steam Early Access on May 10, 2017 and the team at Motion Twin went to work on adding new content and refining the experience. Help from the community was solicited from the very beginning and it was exciting to see the game receive meaningful improvements with each new patch. Back during our Best of 2017 deliberations, I argued that Dead Cells was the most deserving of the Best Early Access game award. Had it released in its December incarnation last year, it would have been in my Top 3 games. After another six months of development and an all new content update for its official launch, Dead Cells is a much better game than it was late last year. Prior to this launch update, the game already felt like it was the best in class. The new additions, polish and content added for launch feels like what we normally get for “Definitive/GOTY Edition” re-releases, except that everything is available for launch.
I’m not a big Metroidvania guy, but Dead Cells managed to conjure up the same feelings I had when I played Super Mario World, Portal, and Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. It isn’t perfect, but no game is. It evokes feelings that remind me why I fell in love with video games in the first place. It is the video game equivalent of getting your back scratched while you take a dump. I give Dead Cells my highest possible recommendation. 9/10 prison poop flush resurrections
- Insanely well-crafted 2D combat
- Lush pixel visuals
- Excellent item synergy
- Randomized levels
- Near-infinite replay-ability
- Mod support via Steam Workshop
- No 21:9 ultrawide support
- It didn't come out when I was 10 years old
Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Dead Cells Review: Dying never felt so good