August 6, 2018
One of my favorite game genres is action platformers. Particularly ones with a sense of speed and fun combat. There is a flow to the really good ones that pulls you in and keeps you coming back for more. Dead Cells feels like the one of the best in class in this way. It mixes incredible gameplay with tight controls, a great soundtrack, and the “one more run” mentality of a good rogue-like game.
Dead Cells’ story is something unique. It’s told through a series of rooms you find in runs that drop small amounts of lore. From the outset, the only thing you know is that you are some sort of gloop blob dropped from the ceiling of a prisoners cell that inhabits the decapitated body of the prisoner. As you progress you start to learn there is something more going on here. Though some of it comes from the few NPCs you run across, there is also a lot of environmental things baked into the world. The corpse of a giant that is also in the prisoner’s cell, in between areas you will also find a large pile of the bodies of the soldier you inhabit every run. You also start to learn the story of a king who ordered a lot of killing and quarantines. It’s a plot that I almost wish was a bit more overt at times. The tiny bits you find here and there feel like breadcrumbs, but it doesn’t ever lead to any sort of satisfying meal.
The gameplay of Dead Cells I can only describe as buttery smooth. You will find yourself dodging and rolling around mobs of enemies throwing slashes and traps quickly and easily. Each weapon you find along your quest handles in a unique way. Even weapons of the same archetype can play so vastly different and change your playstyle so much on the fly. My greatest example of this was switching from the standard bow to a bow that makes close-up shots critical hit every time. I suddenly found myself go from sniping at a distance to roll dodging my way as close to enemies as I could before exploding them with extra powerful shots. My long-game weapon suddenly became more valuable than my standard melee attack. Even more important than the variety and feel of all the weapons and items is how well the game controls.
Fun and interesting weapons are only fun and interesting if it feels effortless to use them. This is another place Dead Cells nails the landing. Whether you are rushing in with twin daggers, lashing out with energy whips, or smashing enemies with a gigantic hammer you always feel fast and evasive. The rolling mechanic allows you to zip in and out of encounters with ease. This becomes incredibly important as enemies mob together to try to get you. Movement is fast and responsive, and there are a ton of places that the developers have put just the right spin on the mechanics. Normally falling a long distance stuns your character for a short moment, which could lead you to open yourself up to attack, but if you pre-empt the fall with a downward slam you can instead find yourself stunning and damaging enemies around you, and opening yourself up for quick attacks and movements right when you land. Enemies on the other side of a door could normally have to make you wait until their patrol route takes them away, but better yet roll through the door exploding it and stunning nearby enemies as you roll right next to them and start an attack. Every movement has a breakneck pace, but it never seems to feel like you are entirely out of control because of it.
Dead Cells is still a rogue-like game, and you will die often as you learn the game’s mechanics. After every run, you will find yourself back in a dungeon prison inhabiting another body. At the start of every run, you get a choice of either a bow or a shield as a secondary ability and a basic starting sword. Of course, you will run into NPCs along your playthroughs that will allow you to unlock progression options by spending Cells that you collect along your run. These include new weapons to the random pool that show up in the game, or even the option to have a random starting shield/bow show up instead of the weaker starting ones. As with most rogue-likes, there is also in-run progression.
While making a run through the world of Dead Cells you also can find scrolls that will boost one of three stats you have. These stats control the power of each item in the game. Some items are governed by only one color, some are split between two, and some rare ones are governed by whichever stat you have that is highest. So between stat points, you may use this to start to determine which items or traps you want to keep, or how you want to stat out based on what you are finding in a run. It’s a solid balance system that also rewards a balanced build type unless you can use it to leverage a very particular strategy. All of the progression options add up to make every playthrough incredibly unique. This is a talking point for a lot of rogue-like games, but for Dead Cells, it feels more like it is everything.
The look of Dead Cells is something unique as well. It feels like it is a game that could easily have existed in the original PlayStation days. The graphics feel heavily pixelated but are actually low-rez 3D graphics that give a very retro feel, while also having incredibly smooth animation. The only complaint I can lodge against this game really is that while there are a lot of enemy types, all of the bosses and enemies feel very samey. It may be because of the lower resolution jagged look to the graphics but everything feels just like a pile of samey polygons of varying sizes. Even the first boss, after finally working your way there, doesn’t feel like it has any personality to it. The environments, however, work to make up the difference by each being incredibly unique and different. With branching paths and new areas to explore as you go the places all give the sense of a real world that has seen some sort of incredible tragedy.
All in all Dead Cells feels like the pinnacle of a rogue-like platformer. The combat is quick and smooth, there are tons of weapons that all feel unique and change up the gameplay. You can spend countless hours trying to unlock everything in the robust progression system, and every run feels unique as you balance your stat upgrades and your gear loadout. I can’t recommend this game enough and would recommend this to anyone looking for a solid action platformer.
Smooth feel and tight controls
Deep progression system
Unique and fun weapon set
Enemies feel flat and generic