After more than a year battling through the dungeons of Early Access, Motion Twin's pixel-perfect action-platformer is out in the wild.
The old palms are starting to sweat. We know there's a dastardly boss just up ahead. We've already tried to beat it many times and every single time our efforts have ended in failure. But this time we're sure that it's going down because we've memorised all of the attack patterns and have a good gear set equipped. But things rarely turn out as planned. Our concentration slips just for a moment and we're dead again. However, there's already another corpse in the prison waiting to be reanimated, and next time we'll get that boss for sure.
For the most part, this is how we feel about Dead Cells, a game that even coins a new term: roguevania. It's a combination of roguelite mechanics and metroidvania design; the difficulty and permadeath come in via the "Rogue", whereas exploration and slowly building a larger arsenal of weapons and skills comes as part of the "vania".
The hook comes from the fact that you have to start the adventure over and over again. Nearly everything resets at this point, and you'll have to beat every level and boss monster again. Not everything is lost though, as one can build up an arsenal by acquiring blueprints and taking them to a creature called Collector. Unlocking weapons is done by using cells that act as a currency. Every weapon, gadget and skill is available for future runs, so over time your range of options grows and grows (although at some point there might be so many weapons unlocked that you don't see them all in one playthrough).
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The world in Dead Cells is alive, at least that's the reason why it's procedurally generated again after each death. That means you can't learn the layouts by heart, as the levels are always a bit different compared to the last run. Enemies, on the other hand, stay the same, so you know what to expect from each level. The world also contains locations that are inaccessible at the beginning. However, by discovering secrets and new abilities such as wall climbing, previously locked areas become available over time. This opens up new avenues and areas and offers more choices in terms of how to proceed. Eventually, all roads meet at one point, but the way there can be chosen to fit the mood of the player and the purpose of the run.
This pseudorandom level design is the game's single largest fault, as the level structure is quite uninspired. Sure the areas are challenging, but we'd still take carefully crafted environments over this generic collection of turns, traps and twists. But as mentioned earlier, there are several ways that you can proceed so that at least keeps the adventure interesting. Quite often there's a choice between two completely different paths, offering completely different enemies and bosses.
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The main meat of the game and it's biggest attractions can be found in the combat system and the pacing of the adventure. Every encounter requires focus and sloppy play just gets you killed. Our own experiences reflected a warning we once got when we were learning to drive: "at first you're careful - it's when you have accumulated a bit of skill and experience that the risk of an accident is highest". This happened to us, and at one point we even started to struggle when starting the levels. We had passed through them numerous times, so we thought there was no real challenge anymore. The game punished us immediately and forced us to pay attention. That's not to say that the game is unfair, it just requires your constant focus.
The combat is the best element, and it works very well. The control scheme is very tight, so jumps, dodges, attacks and parries happen at the precise moment one presses the button. The enemies give a small hint as to when they are about to attack by displaying a small exclamation mark on top of their heads, which helps to time dodge rolls and parrying attempts. There's a gratuitously large arsenal available, which opens up slowly over time. There's everything from large swords and hammers to rapiers, bear traps, grenades and even elemental spells. Some of these support each other beautifully, and finding these combinations is a real treat. One example is a sword that glazes enemies with oil, which by itself is nothing special. However, combine that with fire grenades and you have a potent combination.
The pacing of the adventure also is very good. The difficulty ramps up at a good pace without ever feeling overwhelming. At no point were there any areas that felt too easy or too hard. We think this balance is at least partly because of the long time the game spent in Steam Early Access. Player feedback has no doubt resulted in changes and tuning of the game's mechanics.
The world, while being pixelated, offers quite a lot of depth. There was some horrible event that caused the locals to warp into the monstrosities they are now. However, there's not a strict story to be followed, but rather the events unfold via small clues that are gradually revealed over numerous playthroughs. Why did the king make such harsh decrees? And what is the meaning of the word "Malaise" that keeps popping up every now and then? As the hours with the game ramp up, the more the player is drawn into the events behind the world crafted by Motion Twin.
Simply put, Dead Cells blew us away with its bleak world and relentless combat. The mechanics work very well together, and the whole package feels polished and balanced. Sure you have to start over time and time again, but for us, that wasn't a negative. Every new run might offer a blueprint to a new and exotic weapon or item, gear which can help during later tries. It's an addictive loop and we wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who likes challenging action games and roguelikes, and we expect that come the end of the year, we could well look back at this as one of the best indie and action releases of the whole of 2018.
9 / 10
Combat feels great, difficulty and pacing are just right, encourages exploration and retries by offering new gear and alternative paths to progress.