This nightmarish fantasy is dead good.
It’s debatable whether Metroid, Dark Souls or Rogue has had the biggest influence on the indie scene in the last few years. Well, here’s a game that blends together all three: a rogue-like, Souls-lite, Metroidvania. Phew.
With Dead Cells, developer Motion Twin has created a game full of death and tension, lonely exploration through labyrinthine biomes, and lots and lots of upgradeable pick-ups. And did we mention… death?
You begin as a squelching mass of pulsing, fleshy cells that morph into our hero in the depths of a terrifying prison. From there it’s a journey through seventeen different levels and boss battles – if, of course, you can avoid dying.
Dead Cells is a game that’s all about keeping you on your toes. As with Dark Souls, you learn from each repeated cycle of death but where Miyazaki’s games are about consistency here the levels are procedurally generated with random enemy placement. That feeling of pervasive dread from never knowing what’s ahead doesn’t leave you.
What’s more, you collect cells used to unlock new weapons and abilities, but die and they’re lost forever. There’s real tension in edging your way to the end of a level to finally bank your collectibles, relief then turning to anxiousness at what’s yet to come.
Rather than the carefully-crafted static levels of most Metroidvanias, here a different sort of care has been employed to ensure that the random levels make sense. There are still plenty of hallmarks of the genre, though, from their complex maze-like design to the secret passages.
The distinct areas cover different fantasy clichés like prisons, sewers, castle barricades and clocktowers, but each is a colourful yet nightmarish vision with its own frightening enemies and some incredibly tough boss battles. There are even small areas that subtly nod to the history of this grim realm: disused prison cells, empty guardrooms, and apothecaries strewn with potion vials.
Throughout the levels you’ll pick up a number of upgrades, both temporary and permanent. A variety of weapons (melee, projectiles, grenades) are discovered along the way. Scrolls upgrade your health and weapon proficiency, while money can be spent on new items in secret shops. Mutations chosen between levels also provide perks like increased health and reduced cooldown times on abilities. These are all lost upon death, however, sending you back to that squishy mass.
The titular cells, meanwhile, are spent on unlocking new items and mutations permanently to increase your chances of success in the next run. Other abilities also provide shortcuts for multiple paths through the game’s levels.
The usual sorts of frustrations arise with this sort of rogue-like game. Reaching later levels only to die and return back to the very beginning can feel punishing, and success is somewhat down to luck.
Yet Dead Cells is so much more than the sum of its influences. Its pixel style is surprisingly beautiful, conveying evocative moods and atmospheres. The electronic music and gothic style bring a touch of Castlevania flair; its various systems and upgrades cleverly interweave to ensure that even in death you’re still progressing.
The game’s risk-reward loop is utterly compelling and it constantly throws surprises at you, not just in its level design but in secret zones, elite enemies, and cursed treasures that could help or hinder your progress. And with tonnes of upgrades available to unlock and tricky daily challenges to play through, this is a game that’s overflowing with replay value.
Most of all, it’s one of those rare games that just feels right. Soon enough you’ll find your smoothly animated hero swooping through levels at speed, double jumping and dodge rolling around enemies, and crushing bosses into a shower of particles with ease. It’s this that makes Dead Cells so consistently satisfying. Even if you die, you’ll soon be back for more.