There’s no way I should like Dead Cells as much as I do. When it was originally pitched to me, it was as a Dark Souls-lite experience. As a non-fan of Dark Souls and, generally, the philosophy that masochistic difficulty is somehow enticing, Dead Cells didn’t seem at all my cup of tea.
But I was lured in with amazing pixel art, Metroidvania design philosophies, the promise of tight combat and, if we’re being honest, a Steam sale. And I’m so glad I was. Initially, it seemed as though my gut instinct was correct: this isn’t the game for me. After all, like Dark Souls, you should expect to die—a lot—in Dead Cells.
But this pixel-art dungeon crawler has more in common with the Souls games than two-word, two-syllable titles that start with ‘D’ and have an ‘s’ sound for the second part of the title. In the words of the greatest Mummy, death is only the beginning. After your first death, likely at the hands of an enemy or trap you’d only just encountered for the first time, the word “bullshit” will likely be close to your lips.
That’s an emotional reaction, though, because developer Motion Twin ensures Dead Cells is a game where every death feels deserved and, more importantly, is a future-life-preserving lesson for what not to do. The list of positives I rattled off above, the ones that originally got me interested in Dead Cells, are the ones that are also consistently rewarding.
What’s even more addictive is the allure of the overarching metagame in the form of permanent progression that transcends those painful deaths. Those first few deaths don’t mean much beyond learning the attack patterns and vulnerabilities of level-specific monsters. After that, though, you start unlocking all manner of stuff. There are the basic unlocks—the kind of things that help make your run last longer—but then there are things that make death feel a little less painful, like keeping some of your hard-plundered bullion.
As a Souls-lite game, the primary currency is collected from your victims. In Dead Cells, these so-called Cells (geddit?) drop randomly, in single doses sporadically from the lowliest of beasts to a veritable payday of unlock currency from a hard-fought battle against a boss. Well, to be fair, those battles aren’t always hard-fought. It really depends on how you build your run in terms of weapons, equipment, and the kind of passive perks that incentivise particular play styles.
You’ll soon find yourself ranking things in terms of favourites and also in terms of cheese potential. I’ve had a few turret runs, where I spend a lot of time dangling from a chain as two deployed turrets make short of any enemies foolish enough to get close. Couple a turret with a trap that slows or holds an enemy in place, and combat can become even more automated.
The thing is, while Motion Twin lets you do this, it’s not like you should do it… unless you’re incredibly low on health and really want to get to the end of the stage. At the end of each level lies the promise of investing your collected Cells, buying new mutations that impact your current run, and refilling your health.
If you’ve invested in multiple swigs from your health flask, these are reset, too. It means that you’re constantly breaking down seemingly impossible tasks into smaller pieces, making tactical decisions based on your gear and abilities (which you unlock over subsequent runs) and, sometimes, inching your way through fights to survive a level with 1HP. Understandably, there’s a great sense of achievement involved with these victories.
The more you play, the more health and damage buffs you dig up, but the longer you play, the tougher the enemies become. Suddenly, enemies that were once laughably easy can get hits in on you that deal significant damage. Dealing damage and, terrifyingly, receiving damage both carry the weight of an id Software-forged shotgun blast.
It means that turning enemies into explosive gibs (with the right passive perks) is equal in terms of intensity to the pain of taking successive hits. Disrespect your enemy and you’ll be lucky to escape with half your health. Despite the familiarity of the oft-visited locales (which are randomised each time you play them), a certain degree of patience is required to ensure your survivability.
Again, the drops will determine your overall confidence and limit your tactical options, and because this is dictated by RNG—granted, RNG that you have influence over the more you play—Dead Cells is constantly forcing you to try new combinations in an organic and exciting way. It doesn’t mean you’ll love everything you’re forced to use. I certainly don’t. But I’ve also discovered new tactics and new ways to play by being on what initially felt like the shit end of an RNG curse.
Forget the Dark Souls comparisons for a moment. Dead Cells appeals to the Prince of Persia-loving (the original, that is) old-school gamer who adores Metroidvania game systems and the delicate balance of a superhero power fantasy expertly balanced with a very fragile sense of mortality.
Granted, there are cons spliced in with this stack of pros. There are sporadic frame drops, even on high-end systems, and they have the potential to cause heart attacks mid-fight. Sometimes RNGesus is too kind and incentivises cheesy play-throughs. AI occasionally shits the bed in tension-destroying ways. The procedurally generated level layouts are sometimes stacked with boring dead ends. The game really doesn’t seem to like flick-shots with the sticks (they don’t work). And jumping near chains, especially ones that blend into the background, can prove to be a frustrating affair in the middle of a frantic fight.
Sure, Dead Cells isn’t perfect. But it’s so damn close to perfection, so addictive, and offers so much satisfying bang for your buck that it demands to be played.