Preview: Dead Cells - the headless, horseless man

Samus it ever was.

Preview: Dead Cells - the headless, horseless man

Developer Motion Twin
Publisher Motion Twin
DUE Early Access'

Steam, and indie development as a whole seems to run in cycles, with the style of games under development switching every six or so months. About two years ago everything being released seemed to be some kind of Rogue-like or Rogue-lite with permadeath, then the mood seemed to switch to everything appearing to be a survival sandbox of one kind or other. At the moment, the major thrust of development seems to be Metroidvania style games. The fact that development in the indie space follows certain themes isn’t that surprising – the same happens with AAA development. What is surprising, especially in the case of the two Metroidvania style games we’re looking at this month, is how exceptionally good they are.

Dead Cells developer, Motion Twin has been around since 2001 making mobile and browser games. The company works as a collective, with no formal hierarchy or boss, and everyone receives the same pay. It may be a somewhat odd corporate structure but Motion Twin is obviously doing something right – even in early access, Dead Cells, the first PC game from Motion Twin, has all the hallmarks of being a masterpiece.

The story may not be in the early access code, or may be absent from the game entirely, but it doesn’t really matter. You play a headless man in a nightmare world trying to harvest dead cells to stop his body from decaying. That’s all there is to it and that’s all that’s needed to spur you into action, fighting across numerous stages, exploring the depths and breadth of the world to find better equipment, blueprints for gear and special abilities to make it further to harvest more cells to spend on upgrading or unlocking new equipment that is added to the drop list. 

Levels are procedurally generated but follow a unifying design. Progress can be made by moving from left to right – the end of the level will always be to the right, but that skips a lot of content. Most of the harder, more interesting areas can be found by going down when possible. If you’re a fan of speed-running games, there is also incentive in the form of doors that can only be opened if you reach them under a certain time threshold. Traps, spikes and ever-present enemies of various types ranging from simple lumbering melee mobs through to grenadiers, archers and forcefield casters stand in your way. 

Don’t even think of trying to play Dead Cells without a controller, as the combat and movement are almost entirely unsuited to keyboard and mouse. Two face buttons on the controller trigger the left and right equipped weapons, like a whip and a shield, and the triggers control two secondary weapons like grenades or deployable turrets. These secondary weapons have a cooldown imposed so they can’t be spammed. Each weapon, of which there are many, change the way combat plays out. The whip, for instance, is fast but fairly weak unless you hit enemies with the very tip. Do that and the whip deals critical damage. A sword offers faster slashing but you need to be closer to the enemy for it to hit. A shield can block attacks or deflect a missile but slows you down. On top of these basic weapons, various magic weapons also change up how the game plays. An electric whip that throws a grenade on the first strike, or a grenade that covers enemies in oil making them more vulnerable to fire being but two. 

Death is permanent in Dead Cells. You lose all of your accumulated gear and cells and start back at the beginning, but progress is permanent. Any gear or special ability you have unlocked in previous runs remains, allowing players to entirely skip some areas by taking shortcuts triggered by abilities learned later in the game. Of course, skipping all that content can leave you underpowered when you reach the stage in which you died before, but fighting through all those stages could be just as hazardous to your health. What should you do? 

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