Dead Cells Review
Dead Cells delivers one of the most satisfying and well-designed action roguelite experiences you can currently play.
Dead Cells is one of the most satisfying action games I’ve ever played. It takes the progression system of a Metroidvania and transforms it into a procedurally generated action roguelite with a steep but conquerable difficulty curve. Dead Cells delivers on everything from its fast and intensely gratifying, free-flowing combat to its wide variety of interesting weapons and upgrades.
In Dead Cells, you fight your way through an ever-changing labyrinth of levels, all of which are accompanied by tense but rewarding boss fights. Its world starts off somewhat linear, but eventually opens up with multiple branching paths of different areas you can explore, all while you progress towards unlocking new weapons and abilities. You’re almost guaranteed to not make it all the way through on every run. You will die. But as your efforts lead you to blueprints for new gear or a permanent ability rune, it makes it all worth your while — even if you’re sure that death is waiting just around the corner.
Fallen enemies drop cells that you can use as a resource to buying those blueprints, giving you a sense of solace as you collect them after emerging from the depths of each stage. The trick with retrieving those dead cells, though, is that they’re only useful if you can make it to the hub area at the end of each level, which is where you invest those cells into the blueprints you need for new gear.
When your hero dies, all of your gear disappears along with you. Although you can technically reach the final boss on a single run, there’s a good chance that you won’t, and a good chance you’ll oscillate between the victory of discovering and crafting new items and the draining sense of loss after all your work is lost on dying again and again.
There were plenty of times where I died and lost all my dead cells just steps away from a hub area. But even those narrow calls just inspired me to keep playing and trying for a better run. That continuous leveling up through the acquisition of new blueprints and ability runes makes the RPG-like progression system in Dead Cells so compelling.
The combat seems simple at first blush — you have two weapon slots and two ability slots, all of which you can customize choosing from your list of what you’ve unlocked. But it didn’t take long before I realized how well thought out this design really is. All of the equipment and ability sets feel like they were built to be complementary to one another, and while certain combinations are more natural fits than others, I found strengths to each of the permutations that the four weapon/ability slots afford you.
Some pairings are genuinely diabolical, like a turret that poisons enemies alongside a sword that conveniently disseminates bonus damage to poisoned enemies. If you find a good match, it can quickly change the course of any run. You can try a technical build with a high-powered bow and a set of deadly traps, or you can brute force your way through with a sword and shield to parry. You’re never locked into any specific build — you can even change up your play-style in the middle of a run.
Fights are fast, fluid, responsive, and one of the most gratifying representations of combat I’ve ever experienced.
Gear like grenades, traps, and even spells can also go into your two ability slots, which may be my favorite design decision in Dead Cells’ combat construction. Most games limit your most useful skills with long cooldown timers or a limited mana system, but Dead Cells encourages you to use your deadliest gadgets with a fast recharge timer. It never punishes you for using your best tactics. Fights are fast, fluid, responsive, and hands-down one of the most gratifying representations of video game combat I’ve ever experienced.
There’s also the mutation system, which adds another layer of diversity to how you can play. This is where you can choose from various buffs that enhance and alter your abilities. You have to choose carefully, though, because you can only carry up to three at a time and you can only change mutations between levels. The mutations you pick can ultimately be the determining factor between a victorious run or a one-way ticket back to the beginning.
The Combo mutation, for example, significantly raises your DPS for 15 seconds after killing an enemy, which is perfect for tearing through crowds quickly. The Ripper mutation, on the other hand, is excellent for a sword-and-bow combo. It gives you the option to tear out arrows stuck in enemies when you attack them with a melee weapon, granting you additional damage to the melee attack. Or, if you’re going for a speedrun, the Velocity mutation multiplies your running speed duration bonus by three, so you virtually never have to stop moving.
Mutations can also be expanded and enhanced with blueprints. This gives you the opportunity to focus on unlocking or ignoring what blueprints you decide you need or don’t need, respectively.
One Death At a Time
Dead Cells does falter slightly with some repetition, but only in its early areas and during extended play sessions. While early level enemies are a good introduction and make for fun and interesting fights early on, you can only kill so many zombies before it starts feeling a little stale. For a game that’s all about randomized, procedural generation and repeatable fun, it would have been nice to see a bit more variety with enemy types. Dead Cells meets the standard Metroidvania quota for enemy variants but goes no further.
Speed running, a staple in the metroidvania genre, is not only encouraged, but it’s embedded as its own game mechanic. Every level after the starting area has a door that will unlock after a certain amount of time elapses. If you can make it to them before the timer expires, you’ll be rewarded with bonus cells, upgrades, and a powerful weapon. It’s an incredibly self-aware addition to the challenges in Dead Cells that capitalizes on the difficulty and expectations you’d have of this kind of game.
Dead Cells is all about setting your own personal goals and being satisfied with your lateral progression. Though enemy types could have seen more variety and the story is minimal (but, at the very least, also optional) it’s not nearly enough to detract from an overwhelmingly solid design that’s equal parts forgiving to your style as a player as it is unforgivingly challenging in the way you’d hope for in this genre.