Death is just another opportunity
Where do we go when we die? Do we stay in the ground to rot, burn in hellfire or party it up with the big G in the sky? If you’re the nameless prisoner in
Dead Cells then your answer is right back where you started, doomed to repeat your day endlessly in a decrepit dungeon fighting horrible beasts. It may sound even worse than hanging out with Lucifer, but for us gamers it makes for one hell of an action game.
As a headless prisoner you try to navigate an ever-changing prison island labyrinth of dingy hallways full of torture devices and disgusting sewers in your attempts to escape. Every time you die you start back from the beginning by taking over another corpse, but you can carry over a few upgrades and runes to make your next attempts easier. It’s harsh but fair so you never feel like your time is wasted even if you fail. The story is limited, but you don’t need much,
Dead Cells is all about its movement and combat – both of which are brilliantly smooth and reactive. It’s a bit like Dark Souls in that it’s all about mastering what you have in an environment that has challenging but perfectly balanced enemies.
As you fight your way through a range of horrible creatures you’ll collect cells that you can spend in sanctuaries between each area of the island to unlock permanent perks such as health potions and better weapons to access in future runs. You can also unlock mutations that will do things like give you 3HP every time you kill someone or give you a second life if you die, but these will disappear on death. There’s also a chance to upgrade your strength and health pool as powerful scrolls are generously spread around each area, you just need to spend some time ferreting them out to make the most of each attempt. Eventually you’ll be quickly blasting through the earlier zones to work your way through the later ones.
Every run is different – the island completely changes so you’ll never be traversing the same paths, and you’ll also encounter different boosts at varying points. Sometimes that means there’s a certain amount of luck involved: your path on one run might have easier-to-access chests and scrolls to temporarily boost your damage and HP setting for you to beat bosses faster. On one run we encountered an overabundance of spike pits at difficult jumping angles so we died far faster through clumsiness than we had done in previous playthroughs. It’s never too grim though, there’s never a sensation that the game is being unfair with its randomisation as it stitches pieces together incredibly well – sometimes you just get slightly more of the one aspect you might personally be weaker with, like us with spikes.
However, the more you play the more confident you become – you get faster and braver as you cut through enemies you’ve become familiar with. You almost become zen-like as you
look past what’s on the screen and start doing things by instinct. Timed gates that only open if you reach them within a certain time limit suddenly seem more reachable. Even if you’re terrible at the game (like this reviewer) there’s still a sense of progression thanks to being able to chip away at upgrades. Despite dying constantly the combat feels so good that it doesn’t ever feel unfair – you’ll learn to get there eventually, even if you’re a little slower than your peers.
The prison may be bleak but it’s also full of secrets. Sometimes you’ll find rooms with books or corpses that will hint towards the lore of the place, or hidden paths that can only be accessed if you have the right key. Keep a sharp eye and you could even find secret cakes buried within the walls marked by subtle runes – useful when you need a health boost. It’s these hidden elements that keep you coming back – you never know what you’ll find. Occasionally you’ll come to a dead end in your path but that only ever happens if you don’t have the tools to overcome it yet. By defeating bosses you unlock permanent runes that can affect the environment. For example, sometimes you run into green masses of cells that can be tickled, but come back later after getting a rune and they’ll burst into towering vines which open up new paths to you. It gives you an incentive to keep playing, as earlier stages can lead to new places entirely with the right runes – those early stages stay fresh through multiple playthroughs. Which is massively important when you’ll be spending a lot of your time dying and respawning at the start.
With so many nooks and crannies to uncover, constantly changing environments and loads of weapon types to experiment with, the gameplay constantly feels fresh. It also looks beautiful – the sprite work is grimly dark yet wonderfully clear with some cheeky animations thrown in that give everything some personality. All of this, wrapped around precise and satisfying action combat, makes this a game worth investing in. Your prisoner may be going through hell, but Dead Cells is heavenly.
“Hidden elements keep you coming back – you never know what you’ll find”
Far Left Eventually all of these jars will be filled with the upgrades you’ve unlocked.
right It may be a horrible prison but the world can still be beautiful.
Left Shopkeepers will sell you better weapons, but you’ll lose them when you die later.