Having been in Early Access for around a year, the word out there is that Dead Cells is “Early Access done right.” Many games on Steam sit in an Early Access purgatory, but that has not been the case here. Some of us got to experience something special, watching the game grow through the process of development to take on the big dogs. I had the opportunity to experience the early days and wrote a preview. What we have now is not the original tower defense concept that the developers originally had in mind., and Motion Twin is sharing the final result with the world on every platform imaginable.
Spiritual Content: In Dead Cells, players will be encountering many monsters and creatures that are not of this world—most of them enemies. The main character is actually a soul that uses decomposing cells to revive himself. Some of the enemies will use blast spells against the player, and the player has the option to use a few of their own. Throughout each run, the player may run into what is called a Cursed Chest. Usually with a reward in it, the player risks dying more easily for the reward. There are magical teleporters that players have the option of using to backtrack to previous areas they’ve visited in a stage.
Violence: The objective of the game is to slay monsters and creatures and collect cells. This always involves the use of an arsenal of weapons to defeat your enemies. Enemies will burst into a mess of blood and pieces when they are killed. Dead bodies are littered throughout the game due to a a kind of plague; on occasion you will find the bodies with weapons sticking out of them. In the middle of a level you will also see your dead old bodies. There are also bodies hanging from various sections of a stage. Due to the nature of the game, players should expect to be killed over and over again until they have a successful run and finish the game.
Language. During my time with the game I have discovered the use of the words “s**t” and “d**n. Due to to the rogue nature of this game there is a chance that I have not caught every single word that gets dropped in the dialogue.
Drugs/alcohol: You don’t actually drink any alcohol in the game, but you do drink a health potion that will heal you.
In my preview article, I mention how Dead Cells seems to be pulling from a few different inspirations. The two biggest are Dark Souls and Castlevania. The main gameplay loop involves the player coming back as an undead soul and collecting cells by killing enemies through the various locations, which comes straight from the Souls franchise. Where it takes inspiration from Castlevania is the 2-D gameplay. The inspiration is evident through its use of platforming and how items work. Consequently, you can change food pickups into classic Castlevania pickups such as chicken as well.
We will get to gameplay in a moment, but what I feel is an undervalued part of Dead Cells is the presentation. Motion Twin didn’t take the easy way out and pixelate everything. Instead, it seems as though a pixelated filter was thrown on characters that were hand-crafted and smoothly animated. The stages don’t seem to hold that filter as much, and include many referential Easter eggs. The special effects are very vibrant and well animated too, whether it’s one of your tools or an enemy projectile coming at you. The soundtrack especially stands out too; I’ve caught myself humming the tune of the first stage.
The influences of Dead Cells continue to shine through into the gameplay. You’ll be collecting cells in hopes to get them to an NPC called the Collector at the end of each stage, except you’ll have to return to the beginning of the game when you die. Due to its rogue-lite nature, there are plenty of risk v.s. reward scenarios where you’ll have to decide to explore or press on; those circumstances become more dire when you have discovered a blueprint for an new item which is lost upon death along with your cells.
The progression I loved in the Early Access days has been improved upon. The three categories of upgrades are still here, but they are now color-coded as red for might, purple for tactics, and green for survival; they also improve whatever weapon or tool represented by that same color. This change encouraged me to think and plan for the perfect loadout rather than grab whatever the next weapon or tool that ended up at my feet.
At your disposal you have two weapon slots, usually one for a sword and the other for a bow or shield. However, that setup isn’t required—you could have two bows or two swords if you want. There are also two slots for equipment such as grenades, traps, or turrets. Those tools also play an important part in developing your strategy to defeat these tough enemies. The best part of Dead Cells is that every player has their own tactics and strategies for facing this world. For example, going into a fight, I like to hang back and get some shots off with my bow where someone else might like to power through with a sword and shield. In my opinion, doing the latter is asking for death, but some people love that rush of adrenaline I suppose.
Something to consider when forming a strategy is the animation of a weapon. This is where the Castlevania roots really shine, because a bigger weapon will be slower and have less attacks in its combo. Weapons like the twin daggers and the balanced blade are faster and have more hits in a combo, while weapons like the claymore or hammer are much slower and only have less hits that act as a trade off to a higher amount of damage. Higher tiers of these weapons and equipment will be available as you progress through your run. After tier IV, the weapons will start getting all kinds of crazy additional effects that can help too.
An addition to the final version Dead Cells are mutations. It is best to look at these as perks which provide small bonuses that can take the development of a good strategy even further. They are usually based on the three different colors of red, blue, and green that your gear is also tied to. Some of them grant bonuses to DPS, Some will improve grenades if you like to use those, and other can grant you a few extra points of health from killing an enemy. You have the option to run any combination of these mutations up to three at a time, and if you got the gold for it, or can scrap the loadout you have and select a new one.
Another addition to the final update is probably my favorite at this point—the dialogue. Sure, Dead Cells takes another note from the Souls series and keeps the story limited. You know that your a soul that is trapped on a deadly and mysterious prison island but that’s about it. However, like its influencer, Dead Cells drops little pockets of lore throughout the various stages in the game. Your character mostly interacts with the shopkeeper, collector, and mutation seller but that’s about it. Through most of the game there will be spots where you can inspect a small section in the stage, such as writings on the wall in the starting prison for example. Your character will usually make some kind of comment to himself on what he’s looking at along with a funny and rather well-animated gesture to show expression. He even breaks the fourth wall a few times and remarks at how convenient those writings are, and many of these moments contain Easter eggs too.
Players have the chance to explore that lore through collectible relics that grant them access to different areas of the map and new locations. Dead Cells is not a “metroidvania” exactly, but these elements are reminiscent of the concept. For example, the first one available that gives players the ability to raise vines from the ground. So instead of having to go through the Promenade of the Dead all the time you have the choice to go through the Sewers. I feel like most of my time with the game was spent in one of those two locations along with the Ramparts; I guess it’s time for me to “git gud” as they say. I enjoyed the multiple paths because it adds to the varied runs and gives plays some agency to play in the areas they feel best at.
This might sound cheesy to say, but I can’t think of very many negative things to say about Dead Cells. What I will say though, is that it may feel like a rough start to some players. The game doesn’t truly start until you defeat that first elite enemy and get the vine ability. Those elite enemies can be real jerks too—just ask the elite shield enemy that keeps wrecking me. it can feel a bit rough because you haven’t progressed very much. You’ve still got some fairly basic weapons and don’t have many of the upgrades acquired from cells yet. Although, there is a chance you might pick up a Dead Cells addiction once you do make it through that moment. That is when the game really kicks into high gear.
That small rough start does not compare to the experience you will have with Dead Cells further on. It does take notes from other video games we know and love, but it doesn’t copy and paste them like other indie titles seem to do. The conversation around this game has been about people sharing their own unique stories of victory, defeat, and their favorite loadouts. A game becomes great when no two players can tell the same exactly story, and Dead Cells achieves that. The combat and gameplay are insanely fun, and it’s a great progression system that adds depth. That sense of empowerment is great feeling, much to your own detriment as overconfidence can be your toughest enemy on a good run
Original Early Access copy was kindly provided by Motion Twin
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The Bottom Line
Dead Cells sits in a genre that many strive to find success in. It succeeds where others fail due to a providing a memorable experience. Its rogue nature creates such a variety in gameplay that no two players can tell the same story. The Gothic, medieval setting and mysterious lore make every step taken worth it, as does all the sweet weapons and upgrades.