This review is based on the Steam Early Access version of this title. The official final version is planned to be released within approximately 8-10 months. All opinions, images, and video captured are from the Early Access version of the game.
Indie developer Motion Twin brings us back in time, giving us a rogue-lite, metroidvania, action platformer. On this adventure you will fight your way through an ever changing castle, unlock over 50 items and weapons, and die…a lot. Death is a peculiar notion, it allows the player to unlock more levels within the castle to fully explore. While death is permanent, you will have the opportunity to upgrade your character with new skills that will help you get a longer run and possibly beat the game in one life. This, is Dead Cells.
There isn’t much to say about story besides the fact that you play as a corpse that has risen back from the dead by an unknown entity. There isn’t much explanation when it comes to Dead Cells, but there doesn’t have to be. Fight, explore, die, unlock weapons, upgrade, die, unlock new level, die…this is your motivation for completing the game. The heart of Dead Cells lies in its sweet gameplay.
Dead Cells offers fluid combat mechanics that are easy to learn and will feel very familiar to any metroidvania fan. Fighting throughout the castle is a blast, learning enemy patterns and how to defeat them is half the fun. The game never holds your hand, forcing the player to figure out enemy weaknesses and which combination of weapons and skills works best. There are about 50 weapons and skills to unlock and discover throughout your many playthroughs of the game. I found that the double blades and the bow worked best for me, giving me a close and ranged advantage. Bombs and freeze grenades showed most useful when it came to throwables, throwing a freeze grenade in a crowd of enemies allowed me to quickly slice-and-dice my way through a closed area…and then there was death.
You see, death in Dead Cells is only the beginning. Every time you die you begin your journey all over again, only this time you have unlocked more levels to explore and you get to keep your newly unlocked skills. Permadeath isn’t may favorite concept in games but Dead Cells manages to make it fun and addictive. Trying to last throughout the 11 different levels in one life is certainly a challenge to say the least. Facing mini bosses for the first time can be a bit frustrating since you must learn their patterns to survive, which typically ends in death the first few times you fight them. Starting all the way back from the beginning does tend to get a bit repetitive after a few deaths and can cause some serious rage-quitting. I typically stopped playing after my fifth death, but I always progressed further each time.
As far as unlockables are concerned, you cannot spawn with your newly found weapons. You only have them for as long as your alive and can later find them throughout the castle in random locations. Speaking of random, the castle changes its layout after every death so its slightly different every time you play. This definitely adds to the experience in a positive way, making it feel fresh even though you’ve been playing the same level over and over again.
As for skills, those are permanently unlocked once you attain them. Being able to climb vines and teleport to other locations are just a few of the unlockable skills that really change the way you play the game.
The pixel art in this game is near perfection. Lighting, animations, color palette, detail, all of these things make for a truly engrossing experience. The attention to detail is top notch, seeing smoke effects from your characters burning head in a low lit cavern or even seeing water splash among your feet as you run through the dark sewer. Background landscapes and levels have a good amount of variety that kept me excited to see where the game would take me next. For pixel art, it really doesn’t get much better than this.
With an ever changing castle and the need to unlock weapons and skills, there is a decent amount of replayability here. The developer claims that playthroughs can take anywhere from 10 to 30 hours or more depending on your skill. I can definitely see how that’s so, considering the amount of times one has to start over form the very beginning of the game.
WHAT IT CAN DO BETTER
Since this is an Early Access title, there will be multiple updates to the game throughout the year. I would love to see the weapon unlock system improve so that you can at least choose your weapons when you spawn again. Starting the entire game over again for the fiftieth time using the basic weak sword and shield is just a chore that I felt was unnecessary. The game has enough challenges as you progress through the more difficult levels and not allowing you to start with a newly unlocked weapon doesn’t add much to the experience besides making it more frustrating to start all over again. I get that permadeath is supposed to be challenging, but not being able to utilize your unlocked weapons until you stumble upon them somewhere in the castle (which didn’t even happen in some of my playthroughs) was a big letdown.
Dead Cells has a lot of great things going for it. Its no checkpoints, kill, die, learn, repeat system works well and there’s some great fun to be had. The game seems to be going in the right direction, any metroidvania fan will have a blast tackling this adventure. Just don’t expect to get out of this one without a scratch.