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Dead Cells

Dead Cells - Early Access Impressions

We took a closer look at Motion Twin's so-called roguevania.

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Dead Cells is a fast-paced action platformer from Motion Twin that randomises its themed levels fairly effectively, putting together a map that feels purposeful and not too jumbled, filled with well-animated, detailed sprites to kill, and a wide variety of weapons, abilities, and currency to grab. The initial beauty of the game's gothic backgrounds and characters is a bit overwhelming, but once you've played through levels enough, that impression may become more clinical, which we'll go over below.

Even the starting level is randomised, but not too extensively, as you can crawl through fairly easily, providing a good place to practice basic skills with whatever weapons you find. You also get a preview of two rune abilities that allow you to skip levels and uncover secret items. Killing a creature will usually net a smidgen of gold, which can be used to purchase items within the levels or open optional doors, and sometimes a cell. Cells unlock weapons and strengthen items you already have between levels, and the first time you unlock an item blueprint in between levels you get it as a drop, and can try it out to see if you like it. But now the item is forever in the random drop tables, so even if you wind up rejecting it outright it'll still have a chance of showing up for the rest of the game. Dead Cells allows multiple save slots, so you could go through the game again and make sure you only unlock the stuff you want, though, if you're up for that.

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Controls are by and large smooth, though at this stage in the beta there are certain fiddly interactions at times, sending you in unexpected directions. Also, rolling doesn't seem quite as good a dodge as you'd expect, leaving you vulnerable when you thought you would clear an enemy, and hitbox distances aren't always the easiest to judge. There is usually a sense that you deserved to die, though, often because you were risking too much at once, or had been too casual early on and now have too little health to get through.

Another resource is, interestingly, your ranged shots. If you happen to have a ranged weapon with a limited amount of shots, which is most of them, until the creature you hit dies or you move on to the next level, you don't recover the shots, forcing you to use the better ranged weapons wisely, and making all-ranged builds harder to pull off. Melee weapons do the most reliable damage and often have the most interesting quirks, giving the player critical damage if they're wounded, at half health, attacking from the back, or hitting multiple targets at once. The third type is shields, perhaps the hardest to master, which give you a second of directed protection, and often an effect when an enemy's attack is effectively countered. Skill items usually allow for bursts of damage on a cooldown, with little slugs biting at the heels of enemies, various grenades, damaging floors, or turrets.

Many of these things you may have seen in other games, but what's surprising here is that the player is forced to use multiple approaches to expand their skillset. You are often put into a position of taking the weapon with the higher stats that isn't the one you're most familiar with, and while frantic flailing may kill off a roomful of enemies, sneaking past a patrol seems like the better option, as would cheesing them from a distance using a combination of strategies, or manipulating environmental objects to kill off even optional mini-bosses. Speeding through is sometimes rewarded with timed doors that open if your overall level time is beneath a certain limit, but exploring thoroughly can reveal chests that give advanced items, secret time trials that yield an advanced item if you complete them without getting hit, and cursed chests with plenty of gold and an advanced item. Be warned though, as if you get hit once before you kill ten enemies, your character is instantly dead.

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Dying before you cash in your blueprints and cells means they're lost for good, as well as a portion of your gold. You retain your runes, though, which allow you to skip to other levels, though these seem to lose their overall utility the deeper into the game you get. Any items you've unlocked will still be available in the world, and after unlocking a basic ability you'll get a random melee weapon, ranged weapon, and shield to start (of which you can have two in total). Then it's back through the levels again, choosing which to go through, killing the boss at the Black Bridge again, on to increasingly labyrinthine levels that take longer to beat and are more likely to kill you, which will send you back to the start. The difficulty spike is steep - you can choose to hit every level you can before it gets much tougher to make sure you have enough ability to kill enemies more easily, but there are no guarantees. Impatience is rewarded with death, an improper build in the face of certain enemies will lead to desperate moments, and despite the randomised levels and the different available weapons and other items, you may find yourself dying because you're a bit tired of the particular area you're in, as the longer levels are sometimes stretched too thin.

The initial impression of Dead Cells is tremendous, and even as the shine fades you'll still find that the combinations of items and unexpected situations exhilarating, but despite the many design kindnesses (like teleporters, a map that shows all items left behind that are available until you leave the level, ways to unlock multiple health charges, up to 85 percent of gold retention upon death, sensible mouse and keyboard controls despite the gamepad being recommended, among others), a lot of your pleasure from the game will be derived from whether or not the challenge spikes, the frequent deaths, dwindling blueprints, unwelcome items, and dungeon-crawly later levels don't dampen your enthusiasm. It's a good thing that the levels and loot are randomised because it reduces the burn of having to do things all over again.


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REVIEW. Written by Leevi Rantala

"Simply put, Dead Cells blew us away with its bleak world and relentless combat."

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