Dead Cells is a first of its kind roguevania, and while the idea of mashing up these genres seems a bit strange, it works incredibly well. If you didn’t know, this has been on Steam Early Access for the past year and change. When I previewed this last year, I knew it was something special. Now with the “1.0” build, I’m confident in saying that it’s still special, a prime example of Early Access done right, and one of the finest games of the year.
Making a new game out of two worn genres like Metroidvanias and roguelikes is no easy task. Thankfully, Motion Twin has made this possible with an excellent gameplay loop: fight, collect orbs (known as cells), and survive as long as you can so that you can cash in your cells towards upgrades, die, repeat. It is possible to beat the game, but except for respites in-between levels, there are no saves or checkpoints to cradle you. This is a skill-based game, and finally one where RNG isn’t the biggest enemy. For those new to roguelikes, or ones that don’t like them do their reliance on death: death is not a setback if you at least can complete one area and deposit cells into a perk or upgrade. And this is rather easy to do after a few short runs. It’s important to know that the level layout and item placement are the most random and procedural elements of the game. Dead Cells has three bosses carefully spaced between its three acts, and their order is all the same. Levels have branching paths, but you’ll always end up in some of the same areas.
Dead Cells has combat and flow down to a science. The first weapon is one you don’t realize right away, and that’s a downward slam from a jump that can devastate enemies later in the game. The weapon variety of what drops keeps things fresh, and there’s rarely something you don’t want to try out or use unless it is somehow inferior. Most of the game is melee focused, but for things like bows, they have ammo you need to concern yourself with. Grenades have cool down timers, but are in infinite supply. The way all the weapons are handled is so well done. The back and forth of combat is something you learn over a (short) period of time. For enemies that are about to attack, they have an exclamation point tell over their heads. You’ll have a lot at your disposal: At first you’ll only have a rusty sword and your choice of a bow or a shield. It’s not long after that you’ll have a newer, better sword, and be throwing ice grenades alongside a wolf trap that holds enemies in place while you hit them with your crossbow that’s part bow and part shotgun. As enemies litter the level, you can use the right stick on the controller to look in all four directions around you, to see what dangers lie ahead, or hopefully secrets. Sometimes you’ll encounter an elite enemy, which is a buffed normal enemy that’s able to summon more of its kind. With the right set of patience, skill, and weapons; elites are not as big of a problem as they seem. Depending on the action or enemy, there’s a chance for legendary loot drops, which are to be treated as special, as it rare for it to happen. The rewards from them early on can help get you through a run much easier.
Dead Cells has a story, but like a Dark Souls or other games of this style, the lore is built into the world rather than having exposition given to you by NPCs. Your nameless character who is a prisoner that’s a heap of cells fused together, doesn’t talk. As he interacts with the world, he shrugs and nods. And boy does he shrug a lot. I’d appreciate some more expressive responses for someone who can’t talk, but he does have thoughts that are put into words that help. There’s many pieces of world building, and awestruck visuals in these environments. There’s a thick atmosphere to these biomes. This is a dark world with supernatural goings on that just oozes style with each new level you visit. The levels are so well made and visually stunning that you want to see all of them, and is how the art influences exploration among other ways. Places like the Toxic Sewers, Stilt Village, Insufferable Crypt, and Ossuary are incredible, and seem like it’s been painted in colorful macabre.
As you explore this rich and detailed world, levels are littered with little surprises. Inside levels are doorways and teleporters to other places. Challenge Rifts are a place to obtain great amounts of money and weapon drops. Here, you must get through a room that’s outfitted with traps designed to kill you in order to receive your loot. It’s a high risk, high reward situation. Sometimes you’ll come across doors that you must pay gold to enter. If you break these doors, you become cursed. An example would be to kill 10 enemies to lift the curse, but it’ll also make it so enemies do extra damage. Similarly, there’s chests that have faces on them that are also cursed. Leave them alone, and you’re fine. But open or break them open and you become cursed as well. You’re probably not a speed runner, but Dead Cells finds a way to encourage that play style a bit more by having timed doors. If you reach an hourglass door before the time runs out, you can open it and reap the rewards the room holds in it. Dead Cells‘ variety of risk vs reward rooms and items are just a part of what makes it all so great.
As you work your way through a level, you’ll find scrolls which imbue upgrades to one of three stats: brutality, tactics, and survival. Brutality buffs red weapons, tactics buffs purple weapons, and survival buffs green weapons. Selecting one is pure a decision of yours based on the weapons you have on you. You shouldn’t pick something because you think you’ll find something of that color. No matter which option you choose, the choice will also give you more HP. Though, as you choose more of the same type, the health bonus it gives continues to decrease. So there’s an element of wanting to spread the points around to get the most health that you can. This system has seen the most changes across its Early Access lifespan, and the final version is easily the best.
Between levels, not only do you get a breath, but you also get a chance to make permanent upgrades to the way you’ll play the game in future runs whether you die along the way, or beat the game. The first vendor you talk to is The Collector. He is the one who will help you unlock weapons from blueprints. This can be making it so you get a random starting bow, melee weapon, or shield. Then there’s the mutations vendor, who lets you pick one at a time, up to three total. My usual running order is necromancy which gives you 2hp per enemy kill – this can be upgraded with the scrolls system to be 3hp and eventually 4hp per kill. Next, I choose combo which boosts dps for a period of time after killing enemy. Finally, I go with either fireworks technician or efficiency which reduces the cool downs on grenades or things like traps. This kind of build works really well for me. The best part of this, is that there are no downsides or trade-offs to using mutations are than you are limited to three. If you manage to make it to bosses, beating them will unlock more vendors. The first of which is the blacksmith. The blacksmith will have a minor forge for between levels with his apprentice running the show, and himself at the legendary forge which appears between acts. The minor forge will let you pay to upgrade your standard items to a + version, increasing the stats and bonuses. The legendary forge lets you invest cells into finding items already of + quality, without having to use the minor forge to upgrade them. This has a total of 1000 points you can invest, so it’s definitely for long-term gains. There are other upgrades you can make, but that’s better left unspoiled. This is where all that money comes into play, aside from shops. The economy of the game is evenly split between money and cells, and gets you thinking about how to use them, and when.
An upgrade you unlock is the ability to recycle weapons you’ve found or bought the moment you find something better. This feeds your economy as recycling is not only great for the planet, but for your wallet. An item you can’t buy or find elsewhere are collars. You are a prisoner, but at few spots, you’ll find a new collar accessory that will make you wanting to part with very quickly. These new collars can make it so when you slam, fire spreads across the ground, burning all enemies that get near. You can then compound fire with other weapons. Collars are an underutilized element, but can prove very useful once swapped out.
Runes play a powerful part of the game in terms of progression and power. There’s a rune that unlocks the daily challenge, this is normally something unlocked in every other game. Motion Twin wants the daily challenge leaderboard to be full of people who’ve earned it, and keep fresh players out from being killed by what are more advanced levels than the Normal Difficulty gives you in a run. There’s a rune that lets you teleport to secret rooms via a sarcophagus. Later runes let you wall jump and ram walls that are otherwise protected. Runes are a permanent upgrades that fulfill the Metroid aspect where you need to find something that gives you access to a room otherwise inaccessible.
A neat little aside is a setting to control your diet, or appearance of food in the game. Normally a game just picks a style, and runs with it. But here you can choose between seeing a carnivore, Castlevaniaesque, vegetarian, fruitarian, monster, or baguette diet. Motion Twin is made-up of developers from France, so baguettes isn’t much of a surprise. It’s a clever thing that goes a long way since you see food often in-game. Dead Cells is full of little details like this in its levels, design, and menu options like this.
What Dead Cells does well that other roguelikes don’t, is the ability to save during a run. The developers realize you have a life, and sometimes you have to stop playing for whatever reason. You can save and quit anywhere, and you’ll be put back to where you left off – or you can just start over when you pick it back up. Motion Twin has just thought of everything.
Dead Cells supports mods, via a toggle you enable in the settings. Through the Steam Workshop, you can download mods like a Boss Rush Mode, running through the game with a cursed sword, or even higher difficulties if you want to be a masochist about it. The mods you can create have restrictions imposed by Motion Twin, but nothing that seems egregious. The mods should be for cosmetic changes, balancing, and encouraging translations that they weren’t able to do themselves. Some mods seem like things the developers themselves might make an official part of the game, like the aforementioned. It’s unclear if this affects the ability to earn achievements, but it’ll be interesting to see how this grows.
A recent addition to the game leading up to release, is now support for an integration with Twitch streaming. Your viewers can be in charge of your health, someone can be the boss and cast attacks, a viewer can choose your next modifier and scrolls, they can even open special chests for you, suggest hints where the secrets are, and what level you should go to next. This is some stuff that’s not really new, but exciting for a game like this. This is a level of interactivity with your audience and the broadcaster that works more together than as adversaries.
Dead Cells is equal parts roguelike and Metroidvania, and plays in a beautiful symphony with one another, never feeling unfair or too gated. Motion Twin has delivered on the game that was promised. Fluid combat, fast action, and swift restarts means you’ll be playing for hours and seeing and feeling the progress more than most games of the genre. The game is full of so many nuances, secrets, and mysteries that you’ll really have a hard time putting this down. Motion Twin have molded Dead Cells in its time during Early Access into something that I say is damn near perfection.
A pre-release Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes