|RELEASE DATE||August 7th, 2018|
|PLATFORMS||Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Swich, PC/Steam|
Big thanks/shoutout to Jesse Radonski (formerly) of Evolve PR for the code – I’ve honestly been looking forward to this one quite a bit, and am glad to have gotten a chance to play it!
It’s easy to make comparisons to the Souls series with this game – even though it honestly isn’t that similar overall. However, if there’s one place where the comparison is just – it’s in the story, or rather the lack of one.
One of the main things about Souls games is that they have very little in the way of direct story – what lore you get is told either through the level design itself, item descriptions or very brief cutscenes before and after bosses.
In fact, I would say that a Souls game tends to have more of a plot than what’s on display in Dead Cells.
This is pretty much where the comparison to Souls, for me, ends. There is very little direct plot outside of loading screen information about your current area, and various notes/rooms you can find that also give some context to the world.
You barely even know what your character is or why they even exist. You just know that you’re some kind of formless…thing that takes possession of a corpse with no head. The game really wants to be as vague as possible. Whether that’s on purpose or not, I can’t really say – but it does lend itself well to player agency and letting the player come up with their own ideas on what happened and why this strange prison island is overrun with undead and other monstrosities.
I will say that I like the way some of the narrative elements work in tandem with why the game is what it is. The island itself is alive and constantly changes – explaining the roguelike nature of the levels and why they’re random. The Prisoner being an immortal slime that somehow manages to make its way back to the start after the body dies explains the respawn mechanic.
It’s honestly one of my favorite things that only games can do – the way Metal Gear has actual canon gameplay mechanics – like the Infinite Bandana or the Cardboard Box or battery recharging glowing mushrooms.
I wish more games would do it, honestly.
However – due to there being very minimal amounts of plot, there isn’t really anything that narratively drives you to keep going outside of possibly finding small bits of information here and there. There’s no MacGuffin™ that sparks your adventure. Your drive will come from just wanting to best the difficult adventure more than your want to save the world or finding the Thing™.
It’s a bit disappointing – but thankfully the game makes up for the lack of plot elsewhere, in places that are much more important.
The game looks and runs amazingly well. I’ve currently been playing for about 10-11 hours and have yet to run into any major problems. The framerate has never dropped, and the only bugs I’ve encountered were extremely minor things, like a small section of the map not filling out at the end of a biome.
Animations are top notch and the technique that the artists (There were only 2 handling all of the art assets in the game. And for a year, there actually was only one) used to create the sprites is actually quite clever – they’re 3D models rendered with a combination of cel shading and a low resolution without anti-aliasing, and then a few extra effects are added on top of them to give them their volume and some extra pop.
It works to create extremely fluid, gorgeous animations.
I’m not sure if the backgrounds are also 3D, but they also look great. They’re fairly highly detailed, with lots of small touches scattered about – tables, barrels, chains, etc. A lot of things to give the levels added life.
Colors pop, enemies and projectiles are easy to spot even amidst chaotic battles with lots of debris on the screen – and if you can’t see them, you can hear them. Sounds are punchy – hitting enemies feels good, and getting hit feels painful.
This is the place where the game shines brightest to me. The game just feels exquisite to play.
The core gameplay is much more Castlevania than it is Dark Souls. Specifically, it’s Symphony of the Night and those later 2D Castlevanias, fast, fluid combat, dodging, upgrades, etc. There are actually a lot of mechanics in the game – more than I can really go into in this review, so check that link for more information.
You start out with pretty much nothing – a basic rusty sword that does some decent damage to get you started – and a choice between a starter bow or a starter shield.
Actually playing the game is rather simple – you have a very small, limited inventory. You can only carry up to 4 weapons – 2 melee weapons and 2 “Skills”. Each weapon/skill is assigned its own button – Square & Triangle (X & Y on X1/PC) for the melee weapons, L2 & R2 (LT & RT on X1/PC) for the skills. You can switch what weapons are where at any time, so if you like having a Sword on Square and Freeze Blast on Triangle, you can. However, you can’t put your weapons on your Skill buttons or vice versa.
You can also carry one talisman, and item that usually grants various buffs like damage reduction. These are extremely rare and are usually only dropped by Elite enemies, or found in Challenge Room treasure chests.
The controls are super tight and responsive – every single death I’ve had, has 100% felt like my fault. I didn’t dodge in time. Jump in time. Attack in time. In 20 runs so far, the game has yet to feel unfair – even when it’s actively being unfair with curses – because you choose to get cursed of your own volition.
See a door that requires gold to get through with an item behind it that you really want? Choose to safely pay the gold and get it – or be greedy and break the door down to steal it. Just keep in mind that breaking the door will “enrage the gods” and you’ll be cursed with a one-hit death until you defeat 10 enemies. The curse can also stack – so if you’re already cursed, opening a cursed chest will add another 10 enemies that you need to kill.
The same goes for Cursed Chests – these are chests that you find that speak to you, beckoning you to come and open them up. Should you choose to do so, you will be cursed – but maybe the item you get is worth it.
Maybe it isn’t.
It’s up to you to decide if you want to take the risk.
Weapons can also be cursed – but this curse is a bit different. Rather than being something that causes you to die in one hit, but breakable, a cursed sword will have a special buff – increasing the amount of damage it deals by 100+%, recovering health 1+% per attack, etc. – but also increasing the amount of damage you receive by 100+%. It also cannot be removed from the weapon unless you choose to reforge its perks. Honestly, the buff is often worth it.
As the game goes on and you collect Cells (The game’s experience currency), you can spend them on various upgrades that are permanent and will help you to survive longer on the island.
Upgrades include things like a Health Flask (A lot like Estus in the Souls series) – in which upgrading this perk will allow you to get more uses out of the flask. Or you could get a Gold Pouch, which will save varying amounts of your gold upon death.
All of the perks are worth getting – but you’re going to have to do quite a few runs if you want to max them out. They start getting pretty pricey after the first upgrade, requiring more and more Cells – which aren’t always guaranteed to drop from enemies. Luckily, any points you put into an upgrade will carry over even if you die, so you can work on upgrades constantly without much worry.
This game is a Rogue-lite. It has the random elements, permadeath, and difficulty of a Rogue-like, but also features a progression system that carries over between deaths. When you die, you lose pretty much everything that you were carrying – gold, Cells, blueprints that weren’t transferred to the Collector, etc. It’s the kind of game that you can actively feel yourself getting better at as you play it – surviving longer and longer each run – at least until you get that one run where nothing goes right and you get nothing but terrible weapons.
Thus is the nature of RNG.
Alongside the perks are Mutations – temporary perks that you can activate between areas, up to a hard limit of 3. You can also choose to respec your mutations in exchange for gold.
You start with a few of these already available to you at the start of the game – and can unlock more by doing certain things, like killing a given boss a certain number of times, or finding them in secret areas.
They can range from giving you bonus damage to your attacks after killing enemies/taking damage, to flat-out stopping you from dying once.
There’s also a Daily Run, which is exactly what it sounds like. A run through a level that changes on a daily basis. However, unlike the main game, your goal in the daily run is to try and score as many points as you possibly can within the short time limit.
Kill enemies, collect bonus points and finally defeat the boss of the floor within a set time-limit. Doing it quickly is not what’s asked, however, running out of time is not a fail state – it’s just one of 2 ways to end the run. It’s better to go and take your time, killing as many enemies as you can. And if you unlock items in the Daily? They unlock in the main game as well.
Now, as far as the Rogue-like elements are concerned – they aren’t too heavy here. While no two runs will ever be the same thanks to randomly generated levels – they will often follow the same progression. Areas will always have the same features within them – but their locations will change. Certain areas will always lead to specific places – Ramparts will always lead to the Black Bridge or the Insufferable Crypt, Stilt City will always lead to the Clock Tower or the Forgotten Sepulcher.
The randomness is only in the level layouts, enemy positions, and weapon stats.
On the other hand – dying definitely sucks and you should avoid doing it whenever possible. As mentioned before, upon death, your run will end and everything you’ve earned that wasn’t permanent up to that point will be lost – gold, Cells, etc.
Upon completing a run and defeating the final boss, you’ll gain a Boss Stem Cell. These act as modifiers to the game, essentially granting you New Game+ and making the game much harder but also much more rewarding. There will be less health fountains for recharging your flask and enemies will be tougher, but the amount of Cells you earn will be multiplied – by 2, and then by 3 at the max level, which is 4 Boss Cells – and your Foundry will be able to help you craft higher quality gear.
Permanent upgrades – such as runes you unlock after beating bosses or finding them in the world – will persist even after death. And they’re useful for progressing – the runes are especially essential to reaching the other biomes as they offer abilities that will open up new paths – Metroid-style.
As I mentioned earlier in the review, Dead Cells is much less “Souls-like” than you might initially think. There are some minor similarities – but the game overall is much more of a Metroidvania than anything. And I’m honestly glad for that – especially since it leans more into the “-vania” half of things.
High. Extremely high. It’s a Rogue-like, so that’s to be expected – but that isn’t enough on its own.
The game is a lot of fun to actually play – it feels good to fight enemies and overcome the challenging bosses. It feels good to get through an area with your Cells and gold intact to upgrade your character. It feels good to feel yourself improving, getting through areas fast enough to reach a timed door and get the goodies behind it.
That’s the key takeaway here – it feels good. Dead Cells is a satisfying game to play. An excellent blend of random chance and skill.
Trophy/Achievement-wise, you may be in for a bit of a challenge – this list does feature a few entries that’ll test you. Overall though, it doesn’t seem too bad with practice.
The Boss Stem Cells also make for good replay incentive as they’ll make it easier to get upgrades by increasing the amount of Cells you receive – while keeping the game challenging at the same time.
Highly worth picking up. Its time in Steam Early access has certainly paid off – it’s one of the most polished indie games I’ve ever played. Beautiful visuals and music, stellar animation work and fun, borderline addictive gameplay.
The more I play it – the more I want to play it, and the closer it gets to being on the top of my list of favorite games this year.