The first time I saw Dead Cells was at the PC Gamer event in London early last year. I played a few games that weekend but Dead Cells really stuck in my memory. A few months later it appeared on Steam as an early access title and it was an instant buy for me. Jump to present day and Dead Cells has now been officially kicked out of the oven. This isn’t just metaphorically because it also leaves our own oven where early access games loiter until they are finally ready to fly the nest.
So what is this platform scrolling action game all about? The developers describe their game as a ‘rogue-lite, Metroidvania action platformer’ and I think that is a pretty fair description. Using the portmanteau Metroidvania will instantly attract gamers who have a burning nostalgia for titles that come with a district retro feel. You start out as pulsating ball of green goop but rest assured your situation does improve because you have the ability to animated dead bodies. Unfortunately, your body donor had lost his head, so that leaves you at a slight loss for words.
As you might expect Dead Cells is not front-loaded with story elements and nor should it be: this is a fast-paced action game after all. However, what did surprise me was that there are some very interesting (and sometimes hilarious) hints at what might be going on within the island you are battling to escape.
I’ll be right back
Like its heritage, you must set out across various themed levels that are (mostly) procedurally generated and this really helps when replaying the same area multiple times. This game has permadeath (as you might expect from a Roguelike) so when you croak it's back to the start for you. However, as you battle across the assortment of chambers you will collect (dead) cells from fallen enemies which can then, in turn, be spent at the junctions between levels. Any unspent cells you are carrying when you die are lost as well as any gear you have acquired. Most Roguelike games have some residual progress system in place that lets you keep the vestiges of your efforts. In Dead Cells this works in a few important ways. Firstly, as you play you will come across item blueprints and if you make it to the end of an area these will become unlockable by spending cells. Once unlocked these items will be added to the game permanently and can appear as drops in your next run. At the start of each run, you will notice these new items being added to the many jars above the starting chamber, a nice touch. You can also improve some abilities, like how many health pots you can carry and if you want to beat the later levels this is essential.
Another more common gameplay mechanic that comes right from the beating heart of a Metroid game, is the way some areas are barricaded off until you have acquired the correct item/skill to pass it. In Dead Cells, there are many of these progression door-stops, such as vines, breakable runes and more. What makes this system work so well is the pacing of these unlocks, in that just as you feel like you’re starting to get a bead on things you will gain access to previously inaccessible areas. As you start each new run you become a little bit better prepared to face the games later challenges and in this sense each death feels like a step closer to your ultimate goal.
Pixel-art games are making a huge comeback these last few years and now Steam seems awash with new quirky pixel infused combat games. So it can be hard to stand out among the chaff: but stand out Dead Cells does. The animation and fluidity of movement on offer here are one of the games many strengths. I absolutely love the way body parts, debris and many other pieces of the level furniture react to your presence. Enemies can be gibbed, burned, stabbed, frozen, poisoned and dropped from a great height. The dance of death you perform with your headless friend is very satisfying and often leaves a huge smile on your face. Your character also has a great feeling of speed and agility which makes moving around the levels fun in itself. You can climb, duck, jump, roll and so on. There are ‘elite’ enemies roaming around and these do provide a good challenge but admittedly they are based on normal mobs. Each area will also conclude with a boss fight which starts out fairly simple but they can get very tricky.
As you might expect, combat is the bread and butter of the game: luckily this is where Dead Cells shines brightest. You have two slots for main weapons and two more for utilities such as bombs/traps. So for example, you could carry a sword and shield or maybe a hammer and bow: it really is open to experimental play. Utilities come in many forms: bombs, for example, have various elemental flavours and the meat grinder is especially fun. My favourite combination so far is using a magnetic grenade to suck all the enemies into one place: then torch the lot with a fire grenade. What makes this system even more interesting is items come with additional perks, so corpses can explode or spawn ravenous insects which fight for you. Each weapon feels like it has its own personality and this makes hunting for loot a very satisfying part of the game. As you dig a little deeper you will also gain the ability to spend Cells on a rarity meter, which increases the chances of rare loot dropping.
We’ve seen some truly fantastic platform games in these last few years and it’s great to see the genre looking so healthy. Games like Ori and Hollow Knight offer a more conventionality pretty game world but there is a messy and organic beauty to how Dead Cells looks and plays. The developers of this game have shown exactly how early access games should be handled, with a clear direction for the game but also listening to player feedback without going over the top. Dead Cells offers a tonne of replay value and even now, no matter what game I’m reviewing, I usually start my day with a cheeky go on Dead Cells.
I hope you enjoyed my review of Dead Cells on PC, if you like my content and would like to keep up to date please follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic where I post all my reviews and content.