Dead Cells is a frenetic, well-balanced, and at times a crushingly difficult game. It has been praised as a testament to the power of the independent developer scene, and it even allows you to Save and Quit then reload mid-run! Developer Motion Twin has spent the past 5 years (1 in early access and 4 post 1.0 release) fine-tuning and adding content. After 23(!) updates and 2 DLC’s there is a lot to talk about. Here is the review of one of my favorite games of the past generation. (guess that was a spoiler)
It’s a Roguevolution
You are the prisoner, and you are a head made from a pile of green sludge. You awaken falling down a pipe into the basement of a castle and roll your way over into a body to possess. While you and your head are immortal the body you possess is not. This is how each run of Dead Cells begins, as you make your way to the right you’ll pass by any weapons and items you’ve collected throughout your previous runs. You then choose your starter gear, which like most of the game is randomly generated and you are off. Combat is quick, the graphics are a beautiful mix of 2d sprites and 3d models, and the music never grows old even after listening to it for many dozens of hours.
Each run will take you through a procedurally generated maze full of secrets, a wide variety of enemies, and an even wider array of random loot. You are given two weapon slots, two tool slots, and a pendant slot. A backpack was added in to the game after release that allows you to carry an extra weapon with you as well. Along with these are three mutation slots, these can be accessed after clearing a stage in the intermission zone. They offer up a wide variety of useful buffs and along with the rest help you make what this game and genre are best known for, your build.
Also, this game is on Xbox Game Pass! It was added in late 2019 and is still on the service at the time of this review.
The Better Builders Deathshop
The main draw for the rogue-lite/rogue-like genre for me is the focus on creating a build. This is a set of bonuses or weapon types that compliment each other so well that you end up becoming an in-game God capable of easily defeating foes that have murdered you dozens of times before. With Dead Cells the way you can achieve this is varied and excellently balanced. Whether you enjoy using melee, range, a focus on shield parrying, or building things entirely around a pair of turrets the choice is (randomly) up to you. To gain these options though you will need to find blueprints hidden inside the corpses of your foes throughout each level. Taking these back to the collector in the intermission area between levels permanently unlocks the ability to then buy the item (as a future random possibility) with the currency the game is named after, Cells! These are blue orbs that have a chance to drop from any enemy you kill or can be collected from various (mostly time-based) containers found throughout your run.
There is obvious thought put into the balancing act of permanent upgrades vs. run-based random chance. Through the games (current as the time of this review) 23 updates there have been many new items, outfits, and tools added into the game that have helped keep things fresh for its fast-paced and highly acrobatic combat.
The Dance of Death
The name of the game is combat. You are one hell of a gymnast, with an unstoppable roll that gives you enough invincibility frames to survive the constant deluge of undead monsters that are coming for your rotting husk of a body. Your two weapons are bound to the X and Y buttons respectively, B is for dodging, A is for jumping, and the triggers are for your tools. Right Bumper is your interact button, and LB is for your limited use potions. All this works in service of an incredibly responsive movement system that is the star of the game. This game is hard, and you will die often, but rarely will it be because you felt cheated by the controls. Using the excellent d-pad on the Xbox Series controller and the Elite Series 2 worked beautifully, and even after months away from the game I felt back in sync with it after a few seconds of coming back.
Variety abounds as within the two-slot weapon system. Daggers, Swords, Hammers, Banjos, Guitars, Frying Pans, Bows, Crossbows, Whips, Fire Bombs, Lances, Spears, Rapiers, Gauntlets, Boots, Staves, Axes…. There’s a lot of variety and then adding on top of that the random bonuses you can get on them it is a system of seemingly never-ending possibilities. Learning the rhythm of each weapon as you rush through the maps is exhilarating and finding the best combo of gear and bonuses is something I doubt I will ever tire of.
After your first successful run just know that things are not over. Each successful run allows you to try a harder version of the game by activating a “Boss Cell”. You can do this up to 4 times and it adds in not only tougher enemies but things such as less healing refreshes, or even “get hit 10 times and you’re dead” mechanics into things. The DLC helps flesh out the story more as well, adding in new areas and even a new end-of-game boss fight.
Visual and Auditory Bliss
Graphically the game is simply stunning, though it can be a bit busy at times. Enemies for the most part have excellent visual cues for their attacks so you can deal with them. There can be an issue though with certain items causing too much chaos, and more than a few times I’ve found myself a bit lost and mashing the dodge button to try and compensate. There are a total of 17 areas in the game (increased by DLC which is fairly priced) and six different Keepers in the game along with the final boss. Each run starts in the Prisoner’s Quarters but can quickly branch off into a few distinct paths. Most of these are locked off until you’ve found and unlocked the various abilities such as using vines, running up walls, breaking through specially marked floors, and using teleportation tombs. This all lends a great sense of progression as you travel through the beautiful vistas of this decrepit castle.
This could grow a bit tiring though if the music and sound effects weren’t up to par, but thankfully they are both fantastic. The soundtrack sets a mood that matches the looks and story well. This is a kingdom destroyed by a plague known as “The Malaise” and there is a quiet, sad beauty to most of it, despite the horror that has come to it and its people.
Another key to the game is its sense of humor. The writing is routinely funny, both through its own sense of wit and the numerous references to other games. Multiple lore rooms are there to give you some backstory or something funny to see, and they can be turned off when you’re focused entirely on perfecting your run times. The options in the game are numerous and allow you to tailor things to best suit how you want to play.
Dead Cells is an all-time classic. As part of Xbox Game Pass it is one of the easiest recommendations I’ve ever made on this site/channel. It is tough but fair. It finds that perfect balance of teaching you as you fail, and you will find yourself thinking “Just one more run” time and time again as the hours pass by.