Dead Cells Preview: The Best Roguelite of 2017

You won't know what hit you, but you'll like it.

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Dead Cells is a wonderful blend of Hyper Light Drifter, Dark Souls, and Metroidvania that I didn’t know I wanted. No, the blend I didn’t know I needed.

Developed by Motion Twin, Dead Cells’ 2D action platforming is some of the best I’ve ever played. The best part? It will only get better. The game has just released in early access and it already feels like a full version.

Like any rogue-lite, your first few hours of Dead Cells will have you getting your in-game ass kicked to the point of real rage. “The enemies are cheap.” “This sword is underpowered.” You will get creative with the excuses. But, with each death comes new knowledge, new equipment, and new stage design, and you’ll soon realize it’s not the game that sucks, it’s you. Combat is fast, and quick reflexes are required for success.

Enemies drop blueprints on an RNG system as well as cells. Turn these in at the end of each stage to upgrade your health and skills and to unlock weapon blueprints.

The steady trickle of blueprints leads to a welcome variety of weapons. From whips to bows to throwing knives, combat stays fresh as you pick your favorite combination for each stage. One of Dead Cells’ strengths is its absence of limitation.

Tired of getting up and close? Choose two different ranged weapons. One that freezes combined with a high damage output makes for a deadly combination. While some weapons are noticeably weaker than others, all get their situation to shine.

Enemies have significant tells. As a result, getting hit takes a depressing chunk out of your health bar. Fortunately, the game has a forgiving dodge-roll that’ll help you out of any tough situation.

Dead Cells has a creative skill system to complement your weapons. Skills are found randomly throughout stages, and they run on 4-6 second cooldowns. I’d almost go as far to say some are overpowered. Then a group of enemies gets the jump on me and I’m dead before I can defend myself. So maybe they are balanced.

Death in Dead Cells is punishing. There are no checkpoints, and you lose all blueprints and cells you’ve collected. It becomes a balancing act between ending the stage once you find an exit, or risking your life to clear it all for extra upgrades.

Stages have different exits that scale in difficulty. RNG plays a large factor here. If it wasn’t nice to you, you’ll want to pick an easier stage to keep from starting over again.

Don’t get me started on the boss fights. You’ll finally make it past the three stages, feel all confident in yourself, and then you’ll get floored in one hit by the boss. The bosses are where the Dark Souls inspiration shows most. Dodge-roll is your best friend and upgrade your damn health vials if you want the slightest chance of surviving. These are drawn out interactions that test everything you know about Dead Cells. They are some of the tensest gaming moments I’ve experienced in a while.

There are little touches of personality sprinkled throughout Dead Cells you can’t help but appreciate. Even if they all contribute to making your life harder. Secret rooms pit you against heaps of enemies in a short time frame AND you must avoid being hit. I still haven’t beaten one of these in my 13 hours, but I will one day.

NPCs will bully you, even if they aren’t fleshed out yet. Cursed chests literally call out to you, enticing you with their unknown treasures. Every time you die, you watch your head roll back onto a new body in a charming, yet dark, opening cutscene. It’s the little touches that add to the high level of polish.

For all its difficulties, Dead Cells wants you to succeed. If you look for them, the game has hidden runes to attack for health items. It’s a low chance, but defeating enemies yields them as well. Teleporters are everywhere. Use them when you can finally afford items you had to pass up on.

It’s also great to look at. I’m a sucker for pixel art, and Dead Cells looks like a Souls game thrown into the 16-bit era. It has the eerie castles, the dreadful depths, the horrific feeling of exploring gorgeous places that were once populated. If you can find the time to stop, you’ll notice all the little touches put into the backgrounds and enemies.

Enemies consist of your typical humanoids and gross takes on some already less-than-desirable real life creatures. They all sound equally gruesome. I can’t wait to see what other ones monsters get added in.

Now, you’ll notice I have said nothing bad about the Dead Cells. Well, that’s because there’s very little bad to say. The environments lose a bit of their charm once exploring them for the twentieth time, but if I stopped sucking and actually made it through the game, I wouldn’t be seeing them as much. I wish the music was louder. It’s hard to hear over the combat. That’s just me being nitpicky.

Again, the game is only halfway done. It has a huge variety of enemies, weapons, and items. The combat is fluid as can be. I didn’t experience bugs or anything like that. If nobody told you, you wouldn’t guess it’s early access. It’s that good.

If you’re into rogue-lites, challenging games, or ones that treat you with respect, pick up Dead Cells. Even if you aren’t, pick up Dead Cells. Do yourself a favor and buy it while it’s cheap.

Dead Cells is currently available on Steam Early Access. It is found here. This page will be updated as updates for the game come out, with a final review coming with the final release.

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Max Moeller Editor
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