America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 07th Aug 2018 | 3,500 views
What do you get when you sample Dark Souls' deadly combat, Rogue Legacy's rogue-like mechanics, and Metroid's sprawling 2D maps? Dead Cells. It's a smart, addictive rogue-like action-platformer that offers up huge weapon diversity, support for a wide variety of play-styles, and extraordinary pixel-craft worlds — provided you can tolerate some repetition and stomach the pain of permadeath.
Dead Cells relies almost exclusively on nonverbal, environmental storytelling; it doesn't tell you what's happening, but rather invites you to deduce for yourself. The title screen alone says so much. An abandoned sailboat rocks gently next to a crumbling castle atop a lonely island. As the game starts we see our hero — or what's left of him. He's a decapitated body slumped beside an executioner's axe. When a wriggling, sentient jumble of vines rolls over and attaches itself to his severed neck, our hero is reanimated. But for how long?
As the nameless hero fights his way out of the dungeon, through the sewers, across the ramparts, and into the clock tower and beyond, he'll discover more information about the cursed island, its mysterious master, and the deadly "malaise" that turned thriving fishing villages into rotten swamps and hallowed halls into haunted hellholes. Although there are lots of visual clues and several randomly-generated "story" rooms which offer glimpses into life on the island pre-pestilence, Dead Cells is mostly unconcerned with telling a gripping narrative; it's much more interested in killing you.
Dead Cells takes as its inspirations, among several others, Dark Souls and rogue-like games such as Rogue Legacy and Spelunky. It provides a satisfying rogue-like loop, where death is permanent but certain upgrades and unlockables persist, and some excellent risk-or-reward combat, in the style of From Software's signature series. All this is layered across several sprawling biomes, each with compartmentalized maps and platforming challenges, in the style of a Metroidvania.
The loops plays out like this: from the dungeon, the player character will pick up one of two low-level weapons and head out into the world. Enemies — even early on — strike hard. Attack and roll dodge to stay alive, hunt for items, collect gold and cells, search for shops, backtrack via portals, and find the level exit. Between each biome sits a safe zone, where the timer stops and players can spend gold to upgrade their weapons or trade cells to the Collector for persistent upgrades. These include new weapons, which will begin to appear in the game world once unlocked, perks, and permanent items like a drinkable health vial. Then it's off to the next level, the next boss, the next near-death experience.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Dead Cells is how attractive it is for fans of all the genres, mechanics, and series listed above. Followers of Metroid, Castlevania, Shadow Complex, and Guacamelee! will find plenty of room to explore and secrets to uncover, even as death comes early and often. Those addicted to Rogue Legacy and The Binding of Isaac will love its challenging levels and deadly enemies, and the opportunity to get a little better and a little further each subsequent run. Finally, fans of Dark Souls and its ilk will drool over the game's punishing-yet-fluid combat and vast catalog of unlockable weapons.
Despite all the ways in which the game fulfills the needs of each of its inspirations, there's one that's more disposable than the others: the rogue-like. Like so many of its kind, Dead Cells suffers a bit from repetition and dead-end level design. Yes, maps are randomly-generated (and thus somewhat different upon every visit) and some offer multiple exits, but ultimately a feeling of déjà vu envelops them. Likewise, fighting the same low-level monsters and bullet-sponge bosses again and again can get boring — no matter the strong moment-to-moment gameplay. Had developer Motion Twin deployed its superior fighting mechanics, enemy AI, and skill in environmental storytelling into a pre-determined action-platformer or even a rogue-like Metroidvania like Sundered, it would have found even greater success. There's a great action-adventure game in Dead Cells, masked somewhat by its roguish tendencies.
That said, Motion Twin, having gone all in on rogue-like mechanics, makes the most of it. By supporting persistent upgrades and frequent item drops, the developer makes the pain of death (and cell loss) more manageable. You will want to start over immediately after dying, in part because now your character is a little stronger and the likelihood of stronger weapons appearing a wee bit higher — and in part because the bread-and-butter gameplay is so much fun. You'll also want to experiment with dozens of swords, whips, bows, magical spells, grenades, and traps — and upgrade their effectiveness by investing points in one of three buckets (survival, brutality, and tactics) — to find the right combination for the job. Not every weapon combo is created equal, however; attacking from afar with throwable items like the sinew slicer and the flamethrower turret seems to be the safest and most effective method, particularly against boss monsters.
Featuring lovely pixel art, staggeringly-detailed backgrounds, and gorgeous animation reminiscent of the rotoscoped Prince of Persia, Dead Cells is a visual feast. The game's soundtrack, by Yoann Laulan, is similarly impressive, with heavy percussion and acoustic guitar (and occasionally a chanting chorus) creating tracks that are alternately morbid and rousing, and always in line with the game's grimdark setting.
Combining the mechanics of rogue-like titles, Metroidvanias, and Dark Souls might sound too messy or overly complicated, but Motion Twin has done it with style. While the production is held back from greatness because of some repetitive gameplay, there's no denying its mechanical, artistic, and thematic successes. Dead Cells doesn't match the best of Metroid, Castlevania, or Dark Souls, but it's a damn fine game.