Dying really is an awfully big adventure after all
You might think, not unreasonably, that a game which begins with your character already dead – decapitated, a condemned prisoner way past the point of appeal – might be extraordinarily short. Yet each death, including the first, is a new beginning. You must complete the entire adventure in one sitting, with no extra lives or continues. It’s a familiar concept – and one that has never been executed (ho ho) so well. A self-described roguelite, each stage’s layout is randomly generated every time you play. The phrase ‘no two runs are ever the same’ may feel tired in late 2018, but it’s worth repeating here. Every stage is significantly different every time. The reason this is impressive in Dead Cells is that the template of a traditional 2D platformer is used, complete with locks, keys, ladders, and more, and each layout feels hand-crafted. There’s the occasional dead end, but this is forgivable.
Any comparisons to Dark Souls are extremely misleading. This is an action platformer with fast-paced combat, where nothing can one- or two-shot you if you’re at maximum health. Indeed, the longer you survive, the longer your total health bar will grow (for that run). You’ll occasionally come across scrolls which simultaneously buff your health bar and the damage dealt by colour-coded weapons. This is where the first element of long-game tactics comes in. For example, do you select the scroll that offers a 60% health bar increase, yet powers up green weapons (of which you currently have none), or the red one that offers less health, but buffs your sword by 15%?
Broadly speaking, alongside your dodge roll you can carry two primary weapons (choose from sword, bow, shield), and two cooldown-reliant support weapons mapped to p and i. A shield allows you to parry with generous timing, opening up a whole new can of worms. A bow helps keep foes at a distance, while a melee weapon allows you to deal damage without worrying about ammo. It’s the distribution of all these items that helps make the experience so compelling.
Needless to say, luck plays a large part in which weapons you come across, and which effects those weapons carry, in any run. But by collecting and spending blueprints and Cells from enemies, you’ll slowly but surely unlock permanent twists. A health-restoring potion, new weapons, the ability to start with a random weapon from your unlocked pool… these are small but important additions that help keep things fresh. It says much that the first time I get as far as defeating two bosses and five stages before dying, my instant reaction is not frustration, but to dive back in with renewed determination and confidence. You’ll keep seeing the same handful of biomes, yet it never gets old. Chances are, this game will never be dead to you.
“THE DISTRIBUTION OF WEAPONS HELPS MAKE THE EXPERIENCE COMPELLING.”
You often learn by dying, yet this somehow never feels unfair. Compelling and endlessly replayable, the quality of Dead Cells is unlikely to cause division among your friends. Luke Kemp
The pixel graphics fit the ominous atmosphere surprisingly well, and the animation is superb.
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