Crashing castles in DE AD CELLS.
Dead Cells has robust DNA. This is an action platformer with Castlevania’s environments and gothic bestiary, wed to Dark Souls’ exploration and sense of risk. From Diablo it inherits weapons with randomized effects and deep combo potential, and from Spelunky it learns how to create that ‘just one more run’ feeling with new surprises to discover. This is an ambitious act of successful synthesis, as its components have been executed beautifully. It’s gorgeous, for a start. Smooth animation, evocative pixel art, and gratifying effects cast Dead Cells in a good light from the off. Its moody fortresses and haunted villages are atmospheric but never drab, and each zone introduces a new splash of color to the game’s palette. Defeated enemies erupt in a shower of gems and weapons strike with gratifying force thanks to on-point sound design.
These touches gild a superbly-executed movement and combat system. You have a double jump and a dodge roll that grants a vital window of invincibility. You can bust through wooden doors to stun enemies with a satisfying crunch, and leap from chains to dodge projectiles and reach new areas—and that’s without factoring in your arsenal.
You can carry two weapons and two items. The former range from swords to spears, bows, throwing daggers, and hammers, each with variants, special combos and the potential to drop in rarer forms with stacking effects. Items include grenades, traps, and turrets, with their use mitigated by a cooldown. You’ll start off by using whatever’s to hand and figure out optimal combinations.
Your access to gear is gated by Dead Cells’ progression system. As you play, you collect cells from fallen enemies. These can be spent on permanent upgrades—like more uses of your health-regenerating flask, or the ability to hold onto more of your gold after you die. Most importantly, you can invest cells in item blueprints. You’ll find these as you explore and kill enemies, and once you’ve spent enough cells you unlock a new item which can be found in subsequent runs. When you die, you lose all the cells you’re holding and are reset back to the start with your upgrades in place.
You’ll earn a rush of upgrades at the start of the game, with the pace slowing as you get deeper. Unlike Metroidvania games, you’re not wholly reliant on specific upgrades to progress: The ones you do need, like the teleport, you’ll earn early on.
The world itself is split up into zones, with each playing host to its own unique enemies and secrets. You’re rewarded for both sticking around to try to garner as many rewards as possible from an area and for speeding ahead. Dead Cells’ strength as a roguelike comes from the way it lets you choose the kind of run you’d like to embark on—levels are rearranged every time you die, but not to the extent that they become unrecognizable. Instead, mastery means discovering what the quirks of a given environment are and how to recognize areas where the best rewards are likely to appear.
Dead Cells’ punishing structure can cause grief. Its bosses are gratifying to overcome, but being reset back to the start of the game every time you die makes it a slog to practice against them. Similarly, you might grind to unlock the right weapons for an encounter you’ve been struggling with, only to find that they don’t spawn where you need them. And when a good run goes south, it’s heartbreaking. This is an excellent game, but it can be mean. Or to put it another way: This is one of the best games I’ve ever quit in frustration.
Even so, perseverance has its rewards. With experience comes knowledge of which weapons and encounters to prioritize, which routes to take, and how to get back to tricky boss battles faster. When it all starts to come together, frustration fades, and your love affair with Dead Cells’ phenomenal fundamentals can start all over again.
This is one of the best games I have ever quit in frustration