In Death, There's Plenty of Life (Dead Cells Review)
French Development Studio Motion Twin has decided to grace the gaming industry with yet another Roguelike offering that promises “unrivaled replayabilty, 2D souls-lite combat, and Metroidvania action platforming.” During the time that I spent with Motion Twin’s roguelike, it becomes incredibly clear that the studio understands what sets the Metroidvania genre apart from that of a traditional 3rd person action game. Dead Cells is a game that definitely wears its inspirations on its sleeve in the way its dynamic, unforgiving, and versatile combat serve as the player’s vehicle for exploration through sprawling areas filled with upgrades, challenges, and secret rooms.
Cast as the nameless “prisoner”, you are tasked with exploring the gorgeously rendered and procedurally generated areas of a sprawling gothic style island fortress. Offering just the perfect amount of guidance at the beginning, Dead Cells shows you how to run, jump, strike, and dodge while introducing the games various avenues of upgrading your loadouts, skills, and abilities in a simple and easy to understand way. At first glance, Dead Cells may seem like a typical third person Metroidvania game with stunning visuals, but to simply label it in such as way would be doing it a disservice. It is true that Dead Cells wears its inspiration on its sleeve with its gothic setting that would be right at home within a Castlevania game alongside fast paced combat that has a very Strider like feel to it but, the game’s unique visual style and innovative spins on some of the traditional conventions expected with the genre allow it to carve out its own identity.
In its beginning Moments, Dead Cells wastes no time in introducing you to its vibrant world, momentum driven action, and fluid traversal through its procedurally generated environments. This is all handled expertly through a masterfully crafted control scheme that allows you to chain together flurries of strikes, dodge rolls, jumps, parries, and counterattacks with almost no lag in responsiveness as you move through each level at breakneck speed. This fluidity holds up almost across all platforms except for when playing using a keyboard and mouse on the PC where some impressive dexterity would be needed to chain together the same series of actions as when playing on a gamepad. Motion Twin did in fact develop Dead Cells with this in mind and allows for full controller support on its PC versions as well as recommending to its players before beginning the game that Dead Cells is best played with a controller at the start menu. This attention to detail further shows the passion and care that Motion Twin put into development of Dead Cells as well as curating the best possible experience for their players.
Mechanically, Dead Cells follows the traditional gameplay cycle of most Metroidvania games in which you’re moving from level to level, slaying droves of diverse enemies that challenge you in different ways while dropping procedurally generated weapons, items, and of course Cells and Gold, the in-game currency of the game’s world. Progressing through the sprawling corridors of the island fortress and taking down the game’s sub-bosses and elite level enemies, you’re rewarded for your continuous progress with upgrades that include new traversal mechanics such as an ability to wall-run or create vines to access new areas and mutations that offer percentage based boons to one of the three different skills dependent on your play style.
Remarkably, Dead Cells executes this progression perfectly never simply throwing a slew of upgrades at you all at once nor withholding them, but perfectly allowing them to come into play right when you need them to further explore more of the island and uncover more of the world’s secrets. In addition to this however, Dead Cells is a game that rewards those individuals who seek to master the game’s mechanics and run through it as quickly as possible by presenting them with timed doors that can only be opened upon reaching them within a certain time limit. These small nuances and unique changes to the Metroidvania formula are where Dead Cell’s truly shines as its perfect loop of running, killing, looting, dying, and repeating is all contained within a framework that continues to surprise with each progressive run begging you to just do “one more” until the game’s satisfying conclusion without ever feeling unfair.
Ultimately, Dead Cells is a shining achievement from both a technical and visual standpoint. Motion Twin has definitely brought something incredibly original and innovative to the Metroidvania genre that still maintains the core concepts that made paragons of the genre such as Castlevania and Metroid the successes that they are today. Furthermore, Dead Cells is a game that provides even newcomers to the genre an incredibly accessible point of entry with its precise control scheme, visual style, and incredibly fun and varied moment to moment gameplay. It is due to all of this that I can’t recommend Dead Cells enough because as it turns out, across countless deaths, there’s plenty of life to be found.