Dead Cells: A Future Rogue-Lite Classic – Review

One of the core virtues of Buddhism is of non-attachment: the idea that one can attain a heightened perspective on life when they transcend their attachment to the things around them.
In video games, we’re told that it’s okay to be attached to what we’ve achieved because barring a corrupt save, our progress is linear and predictable. And whether you explode into wisps of plasma, fall off the game map, or meet a far more gruesome and graphic demise, death is usually treated in video games as a temporary if unequivocal fail state. Your progression is halted and rewound, but never truly destroyed.
But in roguelikes, death is final, and each “run” is punctuated either by your ultimate victory, or your ignominious defeat. No half measures here. Each step into the unknown ratchets up the tension not just in terms of what stands before you, but what you stand to lose should it go wrong: and when you step on that particularly nasty trap, or fall face first into that frost giant with the huge club, well, let’s just say that you’re going to want to hope you’ve reached your moment of zen.

On the surface, it seems like a frustrating — if exciting — formula whose steep penalties would wear thin on all but the most ardent, and perhaps masochistic fans of the concept. However, there are just enough tangible steps forward in each loop of Dead Cells, by French developers Motion Twin, that your time spent feels meaningful, and what’s more, the game itself is so precisely tuned that it’s impossible not to enjoy the journey.
You play as a sentient ball of mucus known only as The Prisoner, who has subsumed a headless corpse and called it his body. The game offers little else in terms of exposition, making vague allusions to something called The Malaise, which may or may not hint at your origins, and presenting smatterings of lore in the form of setpiece interludes that are built into most maps. They are, for all intents and purposes, vehicles for random item drops presented under the guise of worldbuilding, but ultimately bring little more than flavour. In short, while Dead Cells offers an interesting concept and world, it’s largely in service of the gameplay and aesthetic (which, it should be noted, is stunning, with the whole experience dipped in layers of atmosphere and screen shake).

From the outset, the titles that make up the sum of Dead Cells’ parts are readily apparent. It’s a mishmash of different influences that blend together to form a seamless whole, with no one element being overly emphasised so as to be derivative.
Its nods to both the Metroid and Castlevania series are clear from the outset. In terms of presentation and perspective, it should feel familiar to any fan of Metroidvania-style games, with precise platforming sequences, sprawling non-linear maps to uncover, and teleporters that expedite your inevitable backtracking.
Then there’s Dark Souls, which arguably serves as Dead Cells’ other primary influence. While combat feels much more frenetic than its forebear, its reliance on precise timing for effective blocking, iFrames on dodge rolls, and its often fiendish difficulty add a welcome complexity to combat.
And it’s here that Dead Cells truly shines. Yes, the game eases up on its roguelike trappings to offer a more rogue-lite experience, with unlockable abilities and equipment that remain persistent through subsequent runs, but the high ceiling that the game presents offers up the possibility for some tremendously satisfying sequences. Initially, your weapons seem ill-equipped to handle the task ahead, and your feeble attempts to best your enemies frequently see you coming off second best. It can be a confronting first impression.
Fortunately, with such a wealth of offensive and defensive options at your disposal from the very outset, Dead Cells invites you to experiment. From cancelling recovery frames with dodge rolls to stay nimble and elusive, to utilising the myriad of ways in which you can start your offence such as door breaches, downward smashes and traps, Dead Cells is full of “a-ha” moments that are deeply satisfying. And as the game progresses, you unlock persistent upgrades to your character such as wall-running, teleportation and, well, using your head as a weapon, that only enhance your capacity to traverse the maps in increasingly effective and creative ways.
Given enough time, energy, and frustrating deaths, you reach a sort of flow state where enemies that once presented a clear and present danger are now little more than a trail of points and gold to be spent at the next juncture.
It’s a game that asks you to master it in earnest, not because the game itself is so unconquerable that anything less than virtuosity would not appease it, but because skillful play is its own reward: fast-paced, satisfying, and with a nearly peerless feel as far as 2D platformers go.
In saying that, the amount of unlocks the game teases in its otherwise empty glass jars can seem a little overbearing, especially since the game eventually presents a random assortment of starting gear at the commencement of each run pulled from your pool of unlocks that is ultimately diluted by less useful items. Being poorly outfitted from the outset does make the game drag a little in the middle as said unlocks become less and less frequent, and it’s not uncommon to look at the road ahead and sigh.
It’s a feeling wholly absent from, for instance, fellow indie darling The Binding of Isaac, where the core action may not be as elegant, but the sheer variety of useful items on offer from the get go means that every new beginning is bursting with opportunity. Sadly, this is likely the one sore point that may frustrate some people out of Dead Cells: its roguelike trappings, combined with its smaller scope compared to most of its peers mean that there’s a predictability to its opening moments in the least that may weary even the most adept player.
However, players who persevere through this mid-game sag will be rewarded not so much with a mountain of unlocks, but rather insight into how to best utilise the tools on offer: at that point, you’re more willing to experiment with mad-cap combinations of items and item types, if only because you’re determined to make them work. While the game openly encourages either a melee/ranged setup or a melee/shield setup, there’s no reason why you can’t branch out and go way off the deep end with some truly strange loadouts.
In terms of potency, Dead Cells offers no pretense of balance: some items are clearly better than others, though specific synergies can often render otherwise terrible items usable in the least, and item affixes (which can upgraded or re-rolled for a fee) can create some interesting strategies on the fly. In fact, the affixes are so central to the overall effectiveness of some gameplans that I found myself anguishing more over the oddball builds I’d fallen into rather than the tried and tested ones, specifically because they drastically altered the way I viewed otherwise rote encounters.
While it’s fiendishly difficult at the worst of times, Dead Cells never comes off as brutalising, and the drip feed of progress gives you just enough incentive to dust yourself off and jump back in. The way in which it incentivises creativity and ingenuity in the face of increasingly difficult circumstances is a pleasure. Dead Cells is a joy to play that feels like a love letter to its contemporaries, and with Motion Twin having already shown commitment to providing content updates, it is primed to be an essential addition to anyone’s game library.