Dead Cells: A Smash-Hit in the Making

Metroidvania with a dash of Souls

Dead Cells is what I'd call a brilliant amalgamation of various genres and styles. It's one of the latest (released on May 10th) games to hit the Steam Early-Access page and is already rocketing off to high acclaim with the store's customers. Currently the game is sporting a 96% approval rating at the time of this article's creation, however, that is bound to ebb and flow throughout the development cycle in which French developer/publisher Motion Twin has stated will take roughly "8 - 12 months" before the full release. That said, as it currently stands, Dead Cells has some of the best polish in both design and function among its Indie Game peers.

The main focus of the game is centralized around the highly repeatable formula of a roguelite game. You start, you collect, you progress, you die. Rinse and repeat. That's what makes the roguelites and roguelikes, it's a very old-school type of genre with an emphasis on difficulty and very-high replay value. A typical approach to instill the desire to continue playing after constantly dying in these types of games is to allow consistent rewards that carry over from playthough to playthrough. Dead Cells has a system in place that allows you to do just that. Similar to the idea of Souls in the Dark Souls franchise, your character carries Cells which are dropped when you die. You can use your Cells to level up various aspects of your character by talking to a rather mysterious NPC named "The Collector", and it is important to note that these are permanent upgrades. These upgrades range from health vials, money recovery on death, weapon proficiency, or even unlocking new weapons that will drop randomly in your world or that you can buy from your local merchant (a randomly spawning NPC that is on each map).


"You start, you collect, you progress, you die. Rinse and repeat."

After a while, your character starts to get stronger and stronger in each of your various play cycles. Which if you haven't noticed already is almost completely random each time. While it's not truly random, as each time you start in the same dungeon and it only leads to specific biomes and areas; the layout will be different as well as enemy placements. This is enough to keep things fresh without feeling like you're romping through the same tired old areas. Also the game encourages exploring instead of blazing from one area to the next, there's money to grind out as well as upgrades along the way. If you're lucky, you might stumble into a mini-boss/elite enemy which spawns from a specific monolith with an engraving on it.

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Upon defeating the enemy they are likely to drop a new permanent item that allows you to go back and take new paths that you previously couldn't in a different life cycle of your character. Two of the abilities I've got with my character allows him to traverse ivy as if it was a rope and climb into new levels and the other is utilizing a teleportation stone that looks something like a Sarcophagus, however that's not to be confused with the other method of teleportation that your character has right out of the starting gate.

When traveling through the world you may come across something that looks similar to a Stargate. There's likely quite a few of these dispersed on a single map, they become a method of travel once you have discovered two or more. You can warp between them as well as any of the other teleporters that you've discovered in that network. However, they will disappear once you leave a map, because once you decide to leave you cannot go back. This is why I mentioned that exploring a map to it's fullest potential is highly recommended if you leave you're essentially throwing away any of the items and loot that was still there.

Now that we've pretty much nailed down the core fundamentals of the game, lets talk about the combat. I can tell you one thing, it's bloody fantastic. Ask any fan of Dark Souls what their favorite part of the series is, I can guarantee that most would say it's the combat. The combat in the Soulsborne series is immensely satisfying and I think that Motion Twin did a pretty good job of translating that into a 2D Platformer. A lot of Dead Cell's various minions are heavily telegraphed and based around patterns. This requires players to study their moves and avoid being punished by the enemy. By recognizing these patterns you can roll on past them and capitalize on those sweet iframes (invincibility frames) to avoid taking damage. Fans of Souls games will immediately recognize this as an integral part of the basic combat strategy in these games.

That's about it really for how it functions on a fundamental level. But for how you want to play, that's up to you. Players can get different weapons to suit your playstyle, ranged weapons like throwing knifes and bows, or close up with sword and shield. Prefer to stun enemies or freeze them? There's abilities for that. Want to just do pure damage and blast the baddies to hell? They've got that too. In true fashion to roguelites/roguelikes, there is no peace just kill and destroy with whatever resources you have at your disposal. All your inventory items (save for potions and gold depending on if you invested points into a loot bag) are gone once you die, so make your life count.

After battling through the many enemies of Dead Cells, be sure to take a moment to just enjoy your surroundings because the art of the game also has a nice level of polish with the classic, but still fresh pixel art look. As a frequent visitor of the /r/PixelArt Subreddit, I ended up stumbling into this post which gave me my first introduction to the game and I was immediately hooked on it upon researching it more. This game looks great and has a variety of subtle nuances that remind me of Castlevania and Souls, which is great considering those series are considered a masterclass in game design.

For a developer studio that doesn't have any really notable titles, Dead Cells is a step in the right direction to putting them on a fast-track to becoming a more prominent and notable indie developer in the industry. The game has a boatload of potential and succeeded in putting out a very respectable product in the Early Access Phase of development, hopefully they can continue to live up to the hype and keep pushing for a game that is still rich in content and doesn't drop of the face of the earth like other EA Titles:

This is just to name a few.

What MotionTwin has here is something pretty special and so far they seem to be confident in making it into the game that it deserves to be; only time will tell if they can succeed on it. But at the very least, they've got my support and money. I'll be revisiting this as updates drop and giving more fleshed out review details as they hit.

Tentative Early Access Score: 10/10

Full Release Score: N/A




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