Dead Cells Review
An excellent addition to the growing roguelike genre
Roguelikes have begun to see a resurgence over the past few years thanks to the burgeoning indie space, and I have had what can be described as an inconsistent relationship with the genre. My first and favorite was The Binding of Isaac which took the genre into the bullet-hell shooter space. I have spent many years since attempting to find another roguelike that scratches a similar itch and fills the Isaac-shaped hole in my heart. I’ve tried FTL, Risk of Rain, Spelunky, Crypt of the Necrodancer, and Enter the Gungeon to name a few, but I have not found any of them all that compelling. I still frequently revisit The Binding of Isaac today, seven years after its initial release.
Rogue Legacy came the closest to winning me over. It's a very entertaining roguelike that utilized a Metroidvania mold complete with different areas, bosses to overcome, and persistent upgrades that you slowly chip away at between each run. Dead Cells follows in Rogue Legacy’s footsteps in those aspects. However, the similarities largely end there. Dead Cells is a fast-paced and incredibly intelligently-constructed Metroidvania roguelike that has stolen my heart from The Binding of Isaac’s clutches and is not going to be giving it back anytime soon.
Dead Cells borrows many aspects from roguelikes and Metroidvanias to create what’s essentially a side-scrolling combat-focused roguelike. While I could leave things there, merely describing it with such a mouthful of words would be doing it an incredible disservice. It stands a cut above many other games in the genre by providing an experience that’s fun and satisfying for nearly every run. It borrows from Metroidvanias by gating your progress based on having certain abilities, and it breaks levels up into different locales that culminate in a boss fight. It’s best described as a roguelike because you start over in newly-generated levels after dying. That’s all well and good, but why is Dead Cells so good if it’s just borrowing from what has come before? The answer is simple: the gameplay.
Dead Cells plays like an absolute dream. Combat is fast but deliberate. Progression is extensive yet simple. Your arsenal is ample yet manageable. Nearly every aspect of Dead Cells feels as though it was painstakingly revised and refined until it got to its current brilliant state. The title is combat-focused, so you spend most of your time killing enemies rather than navigating through labyrinthine locations. While the general movement and navigation feel great, the combat feels even better. Whether it be a bow, a sword, or your foot, each weapon feels different but remains fun to use. Each defeated enemy explodes after the killing blow, which provides satisfying tactile feedback to the killing rhythm you begin to establish as your familiarity with the mechanics increases.
You also have access to secondary weapons like grenades, traps, and elemental spells that punctuate your combos and synergize with your other weapons in satisfying ways. Few things compare to the satisfaction of combining your elemental effects and modifiers to make every kill cause a devastating explosion and swift elimination of all the surrounding enemies. The general pace of the combat is satisfyingly fast. As you become familiar with enemy attack patterns and how your current arsenal functions, you will begin to move through areas faster with each passing attempt. Not only does the rapid pace look awesome to anyone watching, but it also feels great to be bursting through enemies at a blistering speed.
Dead Cells makes the player feel powerful regardless of how he or she likes to play, with plenty of options to pursue. You can prioritize ranged attacks, close-quarters melee, cleverly-placed traps, or the choice of so much more. Each weapon you come across has one of three colors associated with it which determines which of your skill points influences that weapon’s strength. These skill points are reset at the beginning of each run and are doled out at a satisfyingly consistent pace. You can feel your character becoming more and more powerful with each run which gives each playthrough a satisfying arc, like that of a MOBA match. After completing each level, you are also rewarded with a choice of mutation which provides your character with a significant enhancement. These can take the form of a simple health increase or, as an example, boost the damage you deal for 15 seconds after killing an enemy. They can fundamentally change how you play, and make a single run’s progression feel even more satisfying since these mutations also have corresponding skill point colors and become stronger when you increase their corresponding stat.
While your stats and some of the gold you collect reset on death, your other progression does not. In between any two levels is a vendor that offers permanent upgrades or weapons that add to the pool of possible random weapon drops, in exchange for the precious titular cells that randomly drop from defeated enemies. Although you lose your unspent cells after death, you don’t have to buy any of the cell vendor items outright. You slowly chip away at these items during each run. Did you happen to die early on this run? Odds are you were still able to dump a couple of cells into a potential future upgrade, so the run didn’t go completely to waste. You also keep any major traversal upgrades you encounter along the way which cuts the fluff and lets you get back to what's enjoyable: creatively killing enemies.
Even though Dead Cells is truly special in many ways, it is still unable to escape some of the inherent weaknesses of the roguelike genre. The run-based nature of things means that you are going to get very far and lose all that progress at some point. While the ability to chip away at upgrades that transcend runs helps lessen the blow, it can still be difficult to motivate yourself to start again when you must play through areas you’ve already completed dozens of times. The randomly generated layouts and shorter level lengths also help, but many may find it difficult to keep finishing an area that looks, sounds, and feels the same each time. Also, since levelling up stats is a major component of each Dead Cells run, you can find yourself getting bogged down in the math and statistics of it all. There is going to be an ideal way to min-max your current situation. If you ignore that fact and just plug your upgrade scrolls into what you feel will be the most effective, you are probably going to have more fun, but you also aren’t going to experience as much success. While these are undoubtedly flaws and may be deal breakers for some, many will find them easy to overlook as they aren’t exclusive to Dead Cells.
The fact that Dead Cells is an early access project almost baffles me. I need to constantly remind myself that this game came out of the same early access program as the still unfinished DayZ, Rust, and Ark: Survival Evolved. PUBG supposedly “made it” out of early access, but it still runs incredibly poorly on competently-constructed PC’s. As someone who waited until the official 1.0 release to play Dead Cells, there is no indication that this was ever an unfinished product. Bugs are incredibly rare, performance is rock-solid, and the visuals are supremely well polished. While I didn’t get the opportunity to play Dead Cells early like thousands of others, what I did get was a wonderfully polished and completely finished product. It saddens me that such a thing is becoming increasingly rare.
Long story short, Dead Cells is great. It's the little things that make it so. There's a light-hearted personality that emerges from your character whenever he emotes. Fast travel teleporters are perfectly placed to bring you immediately back into the action. The lack of collision damage requires you to approach encounters differently. Secondary weapons are on a cooldown rather than being consumable which incentivizes you to use them frequently and to experiment. The developers even included a wonderful option to change what the food looks like, so you can make the dropped recovery items reflect your meat-eating tendencies. But Dead Cells also nails the big things. Just playing it is extremely entertaining and it's so incredibly easy to find yourself sucked in and playing again and again. The few flaws here are so easily overlooked while admiring Dead Cells' magnificent whole. As the years pass, many games will come and go, but I can confidently say that Dead Cells will remain part of my life for a long time to come.