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Review: Dead Cells is a Mechanically Sublime Evolution of Metroidvania

Screenshot: Dead Cells

The metroidvania genre has had a resurgence in recent years, though it was something that was never quite gone. Developers have been trying to shake up the familiar formula with randomization, procedural generation, roguelike/rogue-lite elements and other ways to mix-up the genre. I can’t say that these acts towards randomization have really helped any game that they’ve been applied to, but Dead Cells is the first time it has been put together in a particularly satisfying way. It doesn’t hurt that Dead Cells is absolutely mechanically sublime, and therefore a joy to play. Though not perfect, Dead Cells has come the closest to that metroidvania randomization I was always personally hoping for.

Screenshot: Dead Cells

In Dead Cells you play as a prisoner, recently reawakened to fight through labyrinthine structures full of enemies. Your motivations and goal aren’t exactly clear at first, but are revealed to you as you explore the cells, crypts, ramparts and other environs through lore tidbits, and the rare NPC interaction. The world of Dead Cells is extremely immersive and interesting, and there are occasional interactable elements that add flavor and context to the world around you.

Screenshot: Dead Cells

Dead Cells is an action platformer metroidvania with rogue-lite elements. It seems to take inspiration from the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne. There is a roll dodge that makes you invincible for the duration, and you can even regain some of your lost health by attacking enemies right after you take damage in a mechanic similar to that found in Bloodborne. The action is fast, and mechanically satisfying. It’s all about risk/reward, trial and error. But the randomness doesn’t allow you to memorize enemy locations, hazards, or shortcuts like you could in a more traditional metroidvania.

Screenshot: Dead Cells

Combat is fast and dangerous—you can potentially dish out loads of damage, but carelessness can get you killed very quickly, and with death meaning the end of a run, there is always high risk. Dead Cells allows for lots of variation in how you approach combat. There are melee weapons, ranged weapons, grenades, traps, etc. You can mix and match these in a number of varieties allowing you attack enemies directly or indirectly from a safe distance. Speed can help, as certain doors are locked behind literal time gates which encourage faster run-throughs, but slower more careful gameplay could potentially mean longer survival. Even so, level hazards and even different enemies can still get to those who want to try and play it safe. Not every weapon has its place, though. While most items feel super useful, grenades always failed to keep a place in my arsenal.

Screenshot: Dead Cells

There are lots of different enemies to run into in Dead Cells. There are a few staple enemy types, but there is a lot of variation between levels. Enemies run, shoot, teleport, reflect damage, spawn allies and use loads of other tricks to try to prematurely end your journey. There are elite enemy types which sometimes drop important items, or just pose as an extra difficult obstacle. Boss encounters in Dead Cells can be frustratingly difficult, but fun. Sometimes they feel like a “gear check”—just a test to ensure you have the right survivability or dish out the right amount of damage—but they are memorable encounters.

Screenshot: Dead Cells

One of the staples of the metroidvania genre is exploration until you’re blocked by an area that you can only proceed past with certain items. These items are the types that allow you to say, jump higher to get to unreachable areas, or, to use specific Dead Cells examples: break through certain marked patches of ground or teleport to otherwise unreachable areas. Dead Cells has these barriers, but it’s a variation on what you might expect. Unlike most metroidvanias, you can’t really go back to previous areas to use new items you acquired—not in your current playthrough, at least. That’s where the rogue-lite elements come in, as after you die you are forced to start from the beginning. All enemies respawn, and each area has changed in setup, but you retain any upgrades or power-ups you acquired and brought back to one of the safe areas at the end of the levels.

Screenshot: Dead Cells

Between zones there are sanctuaries that allow you to spend the various currencies you collect when you defeat enemies. When you kill something in Dead Cells, it usually drops money and sometimes drops a cell. Money can be used to purchase things during your run, open certain types of locked doors, and change weapon traits, among other uses. Cells, on the other hand, are usually spent on things that persist through death. These can vary between having extra health potion uses, to unlocking items for use now (and to potentially run across in later run-throughs.) During runs can also find scrolls that increase one of the three stats which dictate how much health you have, damage your weapons do, etc. These are also helpfully color-coded: red for brutality, purple for traps, green for survival. It did seem like increasing these stats made enemies more powerful—a hunch that seems to be confirmed by players testing for such on the internet. This makes the background mechanics strangely obfuscated despite seeming so straight forward.

Screenshot: Dead Cells

Dead Cells is a visually striking game at times. The environments are impressive, even though I wish there were a little bit more variations between them. Everything else looks appealing, and the animations all are well done, with enemies telegraphing attacks, explodables blinking before they go “boom”, etc. Even when everything is hectic, there are clues that can prevent you from taking damage.

Screenshot: Dead Cells

Dead Cells requires you to repeat a lot of early content before you are skilled enough, or your character is powerful enough, to proceed. In some games with rogue-lite elements this might feel a little tedious, but Dead Cells’ combat is so responsive and satisfying to encourage you to keep pressing forward to see if you can overcome whatever challenge it has next, and it offers so many different ways you can approach those challenges it constantly feels refreshing. With such a compelling world, and progression system that always seems to have something else you can work towards, it is addictively good.

Dead Cells is available now on Steam, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.

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