Games don’t excite me the same way they used to. I tend to be so cynical that I may as well have the title “of Rivia” because only Geralt and I see the world for the flat, emotionless husk that it is. Despite this ageing old man’s pointedly grim view of gaming, the occasional gem comes along that breaks down the walls of mediocrity to deliver something astounding. Dead Cells is one of those games that deserves as much praise as it gets, and while it’s not perfect, it’s pretty frikkin’ close.
Dead Cells places you in the cold, dead shoes of The Prisoner, a reanimated corpse who must escape a seemingly living island prison. The game is a mixture of Roguelike mechanics with Metroidvania level design, and if that doesn’t make you need to grab a towel, something’s very wrong with you. It’s a strange union of two seemingly competing design philosophies, one based upon randomised novelty and the other founded on exploring a set dungeon. However, the reason this game works so well is that these two philosophies don’t compete so much as complement one another.
The thing that stood out to me was that you could approach Dead Cells however you wanted. If you wanted to play the game like Enter The Gungeon and speed your way through levels, you’ll gain access to time-restricted areas. If you’re one of those people that can’t leave any corner of the map unchecked, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of loot and maybe even find a few secrets. Hell, you can focus on using this run to better your next run and reject both ways of playing to earn as much gold as possible. There’s no wrong way to play, and the robust yet straightforward progression system emphasises that in the game.
On any given run, you’ll be able to level up The Prisoner in one of three stats. Each stat affects many things, including the effectiveness of different weapons and items. You can run a Brutality-only build and focus on chucking grenades as you slice through enemies with an oily sword. Alternatively, you can balance Tactics and Survivability, wielding traps and bows to make sure you keep your distance and don’t die. Again, there are no wrong decisions here, and you can cater your stat distribution to what you hope to find or what you’re running with at the moment. There are also mutagens that provide passive buffs, like gaining health on killing enemies or dealing more DPS when near deployed items. There’s a nice amount of depth to be found here, and it helps counteract the surprising lack of depth in the game’s combat.
A fundamental problem with Roguelikes is that while they offer a tremendous amount of variety, their core gameplay tends to be quite simplistic. While you’ll come across plenty of different kinds of weapons in Dead Cells, all of them boil down to getting the enemy in front of you and hitting X, so there’s no finesse or detail in any of the weapons. Compared to Metroidvanias like Axiom Verge or Hollow Knight, there’s no ability to aim my gun or swing a sword above or below me. Creating builds from different combinations of stats and items offers a nice counterpoint to the simplistic combat, but the game is undoubtedly quantity over quality.
While the combat is nothing to write home about for any given weapon, you’re going to come across a lot of weapons. Swords, whips, daggers, bows, knives, grenades, turrets, and so much more are on offer for you to play around with. However, to stumble across them, you first need to find a blueprint of one and hold onto it until the end of the level. There, you’ll hand it over to The Collector and feed him cells (that you acquire from killing enemies) to unlock a given item. What’s interesting is that you don’t have to unlock any items you don’t want.
Despite the randomness of the game, you have a great deal of control over what items you’ll be finding throughout any given run. In games like Enter The Gungeon or Binding of Isaac, you’ll find all items the game has to offer from the get-go. In Dead Cells, you can choose what items to unlock from The Collector, which also means you can decide not to unlock them. If you don’t like using grenades, you don’t have to spend cells on them so that they won’t appear in your game. It’s a genius economy that subverts the issues of randomness that can plague the genre. Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Roguelike without pixel graphics, and these look… Bad?
I’m sure some people like the look of this game, but I initially hated the visual design. On the one hand, the game pays homage to old-school nostalgic vibes while maintaining a modern look. On the other hand, everything’s kind of a blurry mess where nothing stands out. I often found myself confusing platforms for the background, which isn’t great in a game that’s heavy on the platforming. It can also devolve into a chaotic mess relatively quickly, with particles and gore flying everywhere because of how flashy everything is. With all that said, I’ve come to love the look of the game.
While I had reservations when I first started, the aesthetic of the game slowly grew on me like a zombie infection on a corpse. Everything is still kind of blurry, but it’s all perfectly readable. You’ll learn exactly how far you have to be to hit someone with a sword, and the crisp animations go a long way in selling the look of the game. I don’t know if I’d go so far as calling the game ‘good-looking’, but it’s a unique visual style that I’ve come to appreciate after playing for this long. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome, maybe it’s secretly genius, but I could look at it all day.
Dead Cells is a fantastic melding of two seemingly contradictory design philosophies. A Roguelike at heart, the game utilises Metroidvania levels in a way that gives the player freedom of choice without making any style of play pointless. There’s plenty of opportunities to employ your brain cells in crafting different builds of stats and items, and even with the simplistic combat, the game is a blast to get through. I cannot recommend the game highly enough, and it may very well have cracked a gap through my cynicism for the first time since I saw Yennifer on a unicorn.