The mixing of exploration and solid 2D platforming paired with roguelike randomness and challenge can make an interesting and fun combination. That’s the best way to describe the experience you get when playing through Dead Cells, a roguelike-metroidvania game from Motion Twin that is equal parts weird and enthralling with its fast-paced action. The crazy amount of enemies you can battle using a wide range of over-the-top abilities can tread a thin line between being incredible awesome and very frustrating, but no matter how things turn out you’ll always want to come back for more. And that’s the absolute best part of Dead Cells overall experience.
You play as a slimy cell that drops from a shaft and possess a dead body on the ground. From there everything gets wild as you encounter weirdly dark and humorous characters in-between well-designed stages. Everything in Dead Cells has a similar dark and horrific look with a funny undertone that strangely works together rather well. Some characters look absolutely grotesque with their 2D pixel art look, but have some cheeky and witty lines when you interact with them. Even the slimy character you play as, named the Prisoner, has a lot of goofy thoughts on the world around it as you progress through each stage. It’s not comedy gold, but will definitely get a laugh out of you at some point.
Visuals and dialogue aside, the plot of Dead Cells is very minimal and doesn’t give a lot of details. There is a conclusion, but some might find it to be underwhelming after struggling through the game’s tougher moments. There is an additional piece of downloadable content, called “Rise of the Giant”, that gives alternate endings and some additional plot details. Unfortunately, it can also be confusing if you don’t remember much of what the game shows you beforehand, leading to another underwhelming conclusion.
Gameplay is what Dead Cells does best. While inspired by games like Castlevania and even Dark Souls, Dead Cells can be a joy to play through. Moving around at an incredibly fast-paced while taking out enemies with your various weapons and abilities can be incredible, leading to some truly awesome moments as you explore each stage you’re thrown in. You don’t have to just fall normally; you can crash straight into the ground or break through walls to keep your momentum going. You can feel like you have control of the stage as you move around demolishing enemies and obstacles that block your path.
The levels themselves are procedurally generated in different orders, but you’ll always have similar layouts for what is located within them, including portals and other key points of interest. Each time you die you’re brought back to the beginning area and given the chance to gather new weapons and abilities, as well as find other secrets to aid you throughout the game. This still allows you to plan out and even speed run certain sections of the game, but still have an element of that roguelike randomness to keep things feeling different each time you start a new run.
The randomness of the weapons and abilities you gather is both fair and open-ended. It might not always be smart to stick with one kind of weapon, since you’ll more than likely find an even better version of it or something else close by. But it’s not just the weapons and abilities you attack with that can make you a force to be reckoned with. Being able to parry attacks with a shield, lay down traps, and even items and creatures that attack alongside you give a ton of defensive options that mesh incredibly well with everything else you can do in-game. Taking on a boss fight doesn’t always have to play out the same way each time you encounter it, especially when you have so many options at your disposal. Some may be better choices or easier methods than others, but having so many choices available to you is part of the fun.
In addition to all of this, you also have the ability to gather mutations that give you passive abilities that stack upon everything else. These can be a bit more infrequent than the weapons and abilities you find in stages, but they do affect how you move and approach most situations. Like the weapons, they’re divided into three categories (Red, Purple, and Green) that each have their own specific effect on your character.
Finding upgrades placed in the stages can help boost the effectiveness of these and make your already strong load out of attacks even better. This definitely makes exploring each stage fully very rewarding since you can gather a lot of upgrades, but it also remains fair even if you don’t do so. You’ll never run into a situation where you’ll be overpowered or underprepared for not having enough upgrades in previous stages. You can still topple anything within Dead Cells by playing smart and being clever with your tactics in any part of the game.
The sections in-between stages allow you to upgrade what you’ve gathered even further, but also give access to a few extra things outside the main game. Gathering cells from dead enemies allows you to unlock new weapons and abilities for future runs, as well as new mutations and even bonus skins for your character. At the very start of the game you can access a Time Trial mode that keeps track of your progress in each stage, with leaderboards and stats from those on your friend list and others around the world.
This can be fun to get into if you’re someone who likes to speed through games and obtain a place on the world leaderboards, but offers little to anyone else. The bonus outfits can be great to find and unlock, most of which are based on the bosses you destroy, but they can take a while to unlock. They offer no perks or bonuses of any kind and solely there for aesthetic, which makes the effort needed to get them seem a little off balanced.
Dead Cells is very fun and addicting. It can be challenging and even frustrating in some moments with how it can test your skills for 2D platformers, but it always manages to pull you back in for just one more run. The visuals are great, the controls are solid, and the freedom you have to approach the same situations is both varied and interesting. The story might not be much to stick with, but it’s more about the fluid and constantly exciting gameplay. You’ll simply want to keep going and see how you do again.
This review was based on a digital review code for Dead Cells for the Nintendo Switch, provided by Motion Twin.