As technological advancements in game production continue to evolve exponentially, generating unique ideas has become increasingly difficult for creatives attempting to produce marketable concepts with innovative direction and originality. As a result, recycled ideas and borrowed mechanics from popular titles permeate the market, especially within the sphere of large publishers. One could argue that well crafted stories, environments and gameplay of yore, have suffered in some respects at the hands of these new tools at the developer’s disposal. Trading substance and inventive alternatives for alluring visuals with accessible gameplay mechanics. While Dead Cells is a patchwork of recognizable influence, does it manage to achieve a unique vision or does it pale in comparison to its fabled inspirations?
Dead Cells is a side-scrolling roguelike, Metroidvania inspired action-platformer, developed by Motion Twin. Currently, the game is still in early access, however it has received massive support and acclaim within the Steam community since its release on May 10, 2017. Since then, Dead Cells has received five massive content updates in conjunction with several patches. With over a dozen environments, fifty+ weapons, three bosses and elite-variants of common enemies, there is a wealth of content to explore and replay for the $15.00 price of admission.
Players begin their journey within the Prisoner’s Cells, assuming the role of a seemingly immortal green mutation, which oozes out from a pipe coming from the ceiling. Slowly, this parasitic life form makes its way over to a headless corpse on the floor before fusing with it, transforming the mutation into a radiant ember surrounded by viscous black smoke, seated atop a capable new form. There isn’t much explanation beyond this, as players are thrust into a world which trades plot for kinetic gameplay, as fluid as it is fast.
Dead Cells plays much like a Metroid game with roguelike mechanics comparable to Rogue Legacy. Players will eviscerate, explode, freeze and trap hoards of ruthless monsters lurking within the perilous depths of dilapidated dungeons, noxious sewers, misty fjords and ominous graveyards, just to name a few. Each procedurally generated map offers a wealth of content to explore, with a wide variety of diverging paths which offer their own unique set of challenges and varying ranges of difficulty. Players are given the option to adjust the difficulty curve based on which stage they choose to advance to at the end of each level. This provides players the ability to bypass entry level stages with low-yields and recycled upgrades, as they grow stronger with each run.
Unlike most other roguelikes, Dead Cells’ procedurally generated world avoids inconsistent design by spawning areas from an expansive database of algorithms, which makes each playthrough feel unique and organic. While the visual elements remain the same, assets within each environment change their configurations. Occasionally, procedural generation results in dead end rooms and room generation errors which necessitate restarting the entire area. However, these minor hiccups are few and far between and to be expected to occur in a game which is still in early access.
The level of verticality within each map is reminiscent of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, however navigation is more nimble and seamless, with tight platforming controls and the option to teleport short or long distances via way-points the player will automatically activate upon discovery. Exploring every corner of the environment is incentivized by opportunities to discover gems contained behind destructible walls, partake in timed events or activate cursed chests, yielding formidable weapons and upgrades at the cost of survivability.
Dead Cells operates on the principle of risk versus reward. Weighing potential outcomes of delving deeper into the map or engaging in difficult encounters gives players the opportunity to be conservative or risk losing their possessions to accumulate more. The aforementioned cursed chests are a prime example of throwing caution to the wind for the potential acquisition of gems, blueprints, weapons and stat. boosters, paired with one caveat: kill ten enemies before lifting a curse which kills you upon taking any damage from an enemy.
Upon death, players will respawn back in the Prisoner’s Cells, losing any blueprints, gold or cells they’ve collected from enemies or objects, as well as the weapons and skill upgrades they’ve accumulated throughout their run. At the end of each area, players will encounter “The Collector,” within an interlude environment, where they can permanently retain any blueprints acquired, allocate accumulated cells, heal, and assign new damage, utility or survival mutations in preparation for the next stage. This approach to progression feels fair and much less crippling than preceding roguelike titles. Dying with a backpack full of resources is devastating, but never frustrating; I always felt responsible whether it be a lack of skill, or a poor decision, to push forward when I should’ve departed.
Dead Cells modernizes the chunky pixel art style of its influences by putting smooth-2D animations front and center, while incorporating meticulous detail into each gorgeous landscape. Dynamic lighting showcases the extensive palette of saturated colors on display, as players flow from one reflexive encounter to the next. Background styles are clean and bold, conveying the tone of each level immediately and immersing the player in each evocative atmosphere. Chunky, pixelized spell effects explode across the screen, scripted background elements react to the player’s movement, hypnotic flames illuminate grim circumstances and projectiles collide with shuddering force.
While there is no auditory dialogue, surprisingly emotive animations between NPCs players encounter and the protagonist, effectively convey their dispositions during textual exchanges.
Progressing through the various twists and turns of each stage becomes a rhythmic experience, giving players the ability to dictate the pace of combat and exploration with the option to be methodical, impulsive or evasive. Combat is swift, flashy and incredibly fun. Evasion becomes just as exciting as attacking with the clever implementation of the dodge mechanic, allowing players to evade in mid-air or roll thru incoming projectiles.
Players are given a vast arsenal of melee/ranged weapons they can utilize in conjunction with powerful utility skills or spells. Stacking randomized items and weapons, which complement one another’s stats and bonuses, serves as a catalyst for developing your build to effectively handle the increasing difficulty of each encounter. The oiled sword for example, douses enemies in oil, which you can then ignite with numerous fire sources for massive damage multipliers. Finding compatible items is a roll of the dice, as randomization provides opportunity for favorable synergy or none at all. Once players have permanently unlocked new items, they should have the option to choose their startup weapons, instead of dying until they’ve received their preferred composition.
The accelerated tempos and nostalgic tones of Dead Cells’ soundtrack accompany the startling sounds of its action. The operatic tones of the soundtrack harmonize with the severity of danger, integrating a functional contribution to gameplay, layered within a foreboding soundscape.
With the sheer volume of enemies, particle effects and projectiles to account for onscreen, it becomes difficult to keep track of your enemies positions and incoming damage. Promptly responding to vigorous sound cues made by enemies is imperative for players to survive each encounter without taking an exorbitant amount of unnecessary damage.
Dead Cells is a prime example of a polished early access title that transcends the familiarity of its influences by adopting its own unique vision. Motion Twin has done an excellent job of evolving the game in tandem with community feedback, remaining responsive and open to criticism and suggestions. While I would like to see more options for customization in the future, Dead Cells in its current form, is challenging, addictive and tremendous fun.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.