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Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania (NS)

Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania (NS) - Review

by Evan Norris , posted on 31 March 2023 / 2,303 Views

For a game called Dead Cells, it sure has a lot of life in it. What was already a fascinating, polished experience when it launched in 2018 has grown over the years to include five pieces of DLC, which have built upon the game's mythology and enlarged its register of weapons, enemies, and mechanics. The latest DLC — and perhaps the most exciting, due to its crossover nature — is Return to Castlevania, a love letter to Konami's gothic action-platforming series. Dead Cells has always had a fair dose of Castlevania blood in its veins, so this new collaboration makes a whole lot of sense.

The developers at Motion Twin and Evil Empire didn't just cram a bunch of Castlevania content into the Dead Cells universe unthinkingly, of course. In fact, the studio blended everything together quite beautifully — starting with the premise. In the opening prison area of the game, a gateway to a dark, foreboding castle has suddenly appeared, watched over by Richter Belmont of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. "Evil is making its way back into the world," says Richter, "you must come with me into its heart and banish it once more." After arriving at the outskirts of the castle, the game's protagonist, the Beheaded, runs into Alucard of Symphony of the Night fame, who asks the unlikely hero to destroy Dracula and rid the land of evil.

All of this could feel very forced and staged, but it doesn't. Dead Cells shares a mechanical and atmospheric affinity with Castlevania, and already plays fast and loose with the laws of physics, so it's not hard to believe an ancient evil from another reality would collide with its own. It all seems downright natural, in fact.

The environments, monsters, and trappings of Castlevania also fit naturally into the established world of Dead Cells. In this DLC, you'll find two brand new biomes — Castle's Outskirts and Dracula's Castle — plus three bosses, ten monsters, and over a dozen weapons carried over from the Konami series. And while two biomes don't represent a huge amount of content, the DLC feels longer than it is because of how the levels are woven into the base adventure.

Simply put, you can't boot up the game, play straight through the Castlevania content in order, face off against Dracula, and claim victory. Rather, you must access the new biomes through designated entry points in the main campaign, meaning you have to play through several existing levels to enjoy the new stuff. This is both good and bad. The good news, as mentioned above, is that this flow helps the Castlevania stages seem organically linked to the original stuff and makes them feel meatier than they really are. The bad news is that you'll have to visit and revisit a lot of familiar territory to experience the full extent of this add-on. If it takes you 45 minutes to get to Dracula's throne room and you die, you'll have to start a new run and venture through the Sewers, Ramparts, Stilt Village, etc. to get another chance at him. But that's just the double-edged sword of Dead Cells, and Rogue-lites in general — the thrilling specter of permanent death mixed with the tedium of repetition.

Make no mistake: Return to Castlevania, despite its name, it still very much a Rogue-lite experience. It is, at its core, Dead Cells. That means buttery smooth movement, visceral combat, tense risk-versus-reward enemy encounters, lots of random generation, and that lovely rotoscope-ish visual style. If you already own and love Dead Cells, this DLC is a no-brainer — especially at $10. If you're a Castlevania fanatic turned off by the RNG and permadeath of Rogue-lite games, though, it won't grant the fix you're looking for.

If you love both Dead Cells and Castlevania, however, you're in for a treat. Not only will you face off against familiar foes from the Castlevania universe, but you'll find and wield classic weapons like the Vampire Killer, the Cross, and the Alucard Shield, among many others. You'll also be treated to several fun cameos and Easter eggs, and 20 unlockable outfits based on legendary characters Alucard, Richter Belmont, Simon Belmont, Maria Renard, Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades, etc. Finally, if you're clever enough to discover it, you'll get to experience "Richter Mode", which is the closest approximation to classic Castlevania gameplay you'll find in the DLC. In this mode, you play as Richter in a remixed version of Dracula's Castle. Thanks to Richter's reined-in move set and limited sub-weapon use, this feels very much like its own thing. Regrettably, just like everything in Dead Cells, you'll need to trudge through a lot of recognizable territory to experience it.

When you account for everything in Return to Castlevania — Richter mode, two original biomes, three boss battles, and a few dozen weapons and outfits — you're looking at about three to four hours worth of content, or, counted differently, five to six 45-minute runs of varying success. To be fair, though, the final number depends greatly on your skill, the luck of the draw, and if you want to unlock each and every weapon and outfit. Dead Cells has near-limitless replay value, and the Castlevania DLC has only expanded upon that.

Just as they did with the base game, developers Motion Twin and Evil Empire have nailed the audiovisual component of Return to Castlevania. All the Castlevania mainstays have been lovingly converted into the Dead Cells graphics engine, resulting in monsters, items, and NPCs that are simultaneously familiar and different. Animations, backgrounds, and special effects remain spectacular. On the audio side of things, the studios took 12 of the series' most iconic tracks — "Vampire Killer"  and "Bloody Tears" among them — and reimagined them. The resulting soundtrack, courtesy of Yoann Laulan, is both rocking and nostalgic. After listening to the new rendition of "Vampire Killer", with its choir, drums, and aggressive guitar, it will be hard to go back to the NES original.

The long life of Dead Cells continues with the Return to Castlevania DLC. It isn't a replacement for a brand new Castlevania experience, but it's certainly a worthwhile expansion to the beloved base game. Dead Cells fans will find a lot of value in the add-on, as will any Castlevania followers willing to tolerate a considerable amount of repetition and randomness.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania for the NS, provided by the publisher.

Read more about our Review Methodology here

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