Whenever one of my Souls-loving peers recommends some latest indie sensation, throwing in comparisons to Souls games, I almost immediately disregard their recommendation. Why? Well, I’m not into the Souls School of Punishment. While I enjoy punishing games, layered mechanics, and an absence of player handholding, I rage quit a few hours into my time with the original Dark Souls because I felt was punished for exploring.
A particular enemy killed me, and when I was relaying the story to a Souls aficionado, I was laughed at and told I had no way of fighting, let alone killing, that particular foe with the equipment I had. I’m all for digital death being an educator but that sort of punishment for curiosity, or the requirement to immerse myself in a Wiki before attempting exploration, just isn’t my jam. Full respect to those that persevere, but with limited gaming hours and so many games to play, I have little desire to make time for that kind of punishment.
Now, before you stop reading and write “git gud” in the comments, let’s get on to the point of this article. I’ve been playing a bunch of Dead Cells of late. Initially, there was that familiar comparison—a Souls-like game (hell, even Motion Twins calls it “Souls-lite” on the official website)—and it really should have turned me off, more so because the last 2D Souls-like game I tried, Salt and Sanctuary, didn’t really grab me with its methodical pace. What inspired me to buy it was the price: Dead Cells was on special at a price point that made it impossible to ignore the rave reviews, both from friends and on Steam.
Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of fun with the first hour. But Dead Cells haunted me. For those unaware, Dead Cells is a 2D action-platformer with permadeath. When you die early on, and that will likely happen a bunch, you’re transported right back to the start. What stopped me from raging out, though, was the things that carry on after death. The first and most obvious is your understanding of the different unit types and how to best dispatch them.
Unlike 2D action games that use a fog of war, Dead Cells lets you see threats up ahead, behind, below, and in front of you at all times. You can even use the right stick to take a peek around the proximity of your character and plan your next attack. And you should absolutely do this when you’re starting out. Part of why I didn’t enjoy my first hour was picking the wrong equipment. I say “wrong” because it’s obviously not wrong for everyone, but depending on your preferred play style and how apt you are at perfectly timing your blocks, you should definitely pick the bow over the shield.
With an ill-timed block, you’ll still take damage, whereas a perfectly timed block will parry. It’s the kind of risk/reward thing that permeates throughout Dead Cells. I’m told the controls are closely mirrored to Dark Souls—and you should absolutely use a controller over mouse and keyboard—but part of my problem with the shield was the default button placement. I’m one of those gamers who tends to fastidiously stick to default controls on the assumption that the developer knows best (you can remap them, though).
Having the shield, and dodge for that matter, mapped to face buttons felt off for me, even if I’m a lot more used to it now that I’ve persevered for a handful of hours. Starting off, you’ll learn as I did that there’s nothing dishonourable in discovering cheesy tactics. A boss that flattened me on my first attempt I bested on my next try without manually hitting them once. I used a combination of bear traps and turrets to stop and damage them while I avoided their attacks. The second time I beat the same boss, it was with those same bear traps and freeze grenades. On one hand, I felt incredibly cheap; on the other, it was satisfying to manually smash the shit out of the boss that had previously decimated me.
This is all in pursuit of cells (not to be confused with souls, of course) that you’ll lose if you die. You can get unlocks that allow you to keep a certain amount of your gold (very handy), and you should absolutely invest your cells in gaining essential things like a health potion. You can’t purely focus on just health, though, as developer Motion Twin forces you to unlock other things before you can unlock too many swigs of the health potion.
Not only does this force you to try new equipment and unlocks, it also encourages you to learn more micro tactics to complement your meta plan. For instance, you can get in-level unlocks that grant a smidgeon of health per kill. These can mean the difference of making it to the end of a level with single-digit health or respawning and having to slog through it all again. Alternatively, the cockier you get, especially with the familiarity of replaying those earlier stages, even if they’re procedurally generated (also in terms of equipment drops and locations, but not enemy types), you’ll find yourself trying new tactics, which is great.
For instance, you may discover those extra-damage upgrades you were avoiding because you were favouring health actually make a whole lot of sense. Part of what pushes you on to discover more is the tug of the metroidvania that’s expertly weaved into the game. While initially you might scratch your head at why you’re pressing right bumper to pat a pile of sludge or rub a statically charged statue, you’ll soon get unlocks that convert these totems into additional exploration paths.
Initially, whenever I died, I’d tend to blame the game. But what keeps me coming back is the knowledge that it was almost always my fault. Even though Dead Cells is in Early Access, it plays like a full release. There are little things that frustrate me—like times when I can’t see a still-alive enemy because of the stacks of colour on screen from an explosive attack—but every death drives me on to come back better-equipped and smarter for the next fight. I’m told that Souls fans love it because of the challenging combat and the glorious tension of permadeath. I’m telling you that Dead Cells is just as fun and addictive for players like me who aren’t Souls devotees but love a rewarding challenge.