Dead Cells — Review

Super lethal dude with a star for a head

I finally was able to muster up some self-control by taking some time off from playing Dead Cells in order to write this review. I got this game 3 months ago and I had never been into rogue-like games before nor did I particularly enjoy retro visuals. Yet Dead Cells is both and I am thoroughly enjoying this game every day of the week. It is not that Dead Cells revolutionized the games of its class; it simply rethought some of the concepts.

Gameplay is as good as any place to start a review of a videogame. Dead Cells is not much of a rogue-like game, but more of a rogue-lite game (more on that later). In rogue-like games, the idea is that you play through a game with a certain degree of randomization going throughout the levels, enemies and loot. Once you die however, you are sent back to the very beginning of the game, losing all the progress you have made. In order to combat the repetitiveness, the randomization elements kick in so in theory you should be able to play the game every time without feeling repetitive. Of course, in-theory does not always work in practicality. Most rogue-like games suffer because the randomization engine sometimes creates scenarios that tend to break the design of the game. For example when the level topology prevents you from progressing any further or a very unfair scenario that forces you to die without being able to do much about it. This Meta reliance on RNG (random number generator) tends to take the control away from the player and hands it over to chance. Dead Cells relies on randomization as much as the next rogue-like game, however it enforces stricter rules and with enough developer/designer control to let randomization to do its thing without creating something crazy that unbalances the game and throws a wrench into player progression.

Structurally Dead Cells plays like a metroidvania game. The game starts with you being shat (literally) into a dungeon through the sewers as nothing more than a couple of cells. It does not take long for you to grow enough of them to make yourself a whole body, except your head. Instead, you have a star indicating that your head is missing and you need a constant supply of cells to keep going until you have enough to grow yourself a brand new head. The quirky story sets the tone of the game to come, but the narrative simply acts as an introduction to the world — you will not be needing a steady supply of cells to keep yourself alive nor having a cell for a head makes any difference. It plays like a 2D sides-scroller with gating system of metroidvania. You will come across a wide variety of weapons and items as you progress. Because of RNG, you will not always get the combination of weapons and items you seek. Therefore, the game subconsciously encourages the player to adapt to what they have. You are encouraged to experiment until you find a combination that works the best for you, with the weapons and items you currently possess. There will be times you might have to let go to one of your favorite types of weapons, only because it does not gel well together with the rest of your abilities. Abilities in the game can be expanded or swapped for one another using Items. At a time, you cannot carry more than two weapons and two items. Where the weapons only help you during combat, items on the other hand can dramatically change the way you play the game. Like for example you have an assassin’s dagger that does a good damage upfront, but does 4 times more damage if you can backstab enemies. You can position yourself behind enemies to make it effective, or if you have a teleporter, you can instantly teleport behind the enemies and stab them. The teleporter might even leave behind a trail of oil behind you; I guess now you know when to use that Molotov you just picked up few moments ago. This is just one example of how seemingly one-dimensional weapons become multi-dimensional with the right tools and strategy.

Let us talk a bit about the controls. Holy ***, the game feels incredibly tight. Modern games often times have all kinds of fancy animations which all look great and all, but never feels like they are concerned about making that all-important connection with the player input. Not Dead Cells, with every button press you get an instantaneous result. The solid controls allows for precision platforming, attacking and dodging with no wasted transition in between them. The game takes this up a notch by giving boost in speed if you can keep the kill count ticking, encouraging fast gameplay, which is a boon for speed runners everywhere.

As previously stated the game looks toward metroidvania in terms of map progression. The game blocks off certain sections of the map that leads to new levels, until you have the right ability. These abilities acts like a key as well as a way to stop new players from entering high difficulty levels.

Dead Cells is a rogue-lite, not rogue-like. Even though they sound quite similar, there are key differences between the two. Where progression is fully wiped every time you die in a rogue-like game, Dead Cells allows you to retain some of the progression you had made it. Weapons and abilities disappear after death just like a rogue-like game; however if you manage to return the cells you have captured to a vendor, you can permanently upgrade certain stats of your character. These upgrades can be anything from unlocking new weapons by exchanging blueprints, upgrading existing ones, or increase the amount of times you can use the heals. Again, you still have to earn these weapons on every play through. What Dead Cells does is it softens the blow of death by keeping certain attributes as permanent unlocks. This allows the game to feel like rogue-like, yet with every run, the players can upgrade themselves to have a better chance to go further each time.

Before Dead Cells, I never really enjoyed the aesthetic of 8-bit or 16-bt modern games. — it mostly had to do with the artists’ lack of imagination to create cohesive art based on the limited palette given to you by 8 and 16-bit games. Designers treated the palette as a limitation instead of a guideline, but with Dead Cells, that is clearly not the case. The game, in one word, is gorgeous. The colors, the animations ranging from exaggerated to more subtle movements convey story and atmosphere. At no point I felt Dead Cells would have been a better without the 16-bit aesthetics.

I got this game on an Early Access and as of writing, it still is. Yet I never felt like it was an Early Access game. In fact I would have never been able to tell had there be no disclaimer every time you launch the game. Over the past 3 months since I got the game, the developers continuously added a bunch of content and polish to an already polished game. Other developers take note; this is exactly how you handle Early Access. I hope to update this review when the game comes out of Early Access.

10/10 — Doesn’t get better than this

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