When it comes to genres that the indie scene is absolutely enamoured with, few would rank higher than the roguelike and Metroidvania genres. It’d be easy to dismiss Dead Cells, then, as low-effort pandering to a current industry trend, another forgettable release in a marketplace rife with better options. Such a judgment would be wrong, however. Dead Cells manages to fuse these two genres together in a meaningful way, creating an addictive, difficult, and fun experience that will keep players engaged for hours on end.
The story in Dead Cells is kept to a minimum, largely acting as a subtle context for the strong gameplay. You play as a nameless, undead hero who reanimates in a grimy prison cell, and your task is simply to escape the prison. As you explore the diverse environments, occasional rooms will contain notes or other clues that gradually introduce a threat called ‘The Malaise’ that ravaged the prison. Couple these notes with the short vignettes that are included on the loading screens when you enter a new area, and there’s just enough information provided to keep you asking questions and wanting more, even if there isn’t strictly a coherent plot to the events. For this sort of game, this storytelling style works well, even if it feels a bit thin, and we appreciate the masterful air of mystery that’s so intricately woven.
The gameplay acts as the main star of the show here, and what a bright star it is. After picking a starter weapon and a secondary at the outset of each run, you plumb the depths of procedurally-generated dungeons chock full of all sorts of ghouls and monsters that want to tear you limb from limb. And tear you up they will; it only takes a few hits from most enemies to kill you outright or bring you to death’s door. If you can manage to rise above the odds, your character will be rewarded with Cells and gold — both of which are critical to progression — and you might even get a nice weapon drop out of it, too.
Combat is fast-paced and fluid, favouring aggressive tactics, but careful play. Your character swipes quick and deadly with most weapons and has a dodge roll that can get you out of trouble in a pinch, and these abilities mean that most skirmishes are over in a blink of an eye. There’s a certain rhythm one gets into once combat ‘clicks’, as you wait for the tells that an attack is incoming and punish the weaknesses that are subsequently exposed, and this rhythm can be utterly intoxicating. While the enemies may have the upper hand those first few times you’re coming to grips with things, it doesn’t take long until your character becomes a diving and dancing scourge of death, rinsing the dungeon corridors of monsters while making a tidy profit off of their spoils.
The weapons you use are ultimately divided into three sub-classes: Brutality, Tactics, and Survival, and it’s through wise mixtures of different weapon types and stats that you stand the best chance of survival. Some weapons can freeze enemies while others can ignore shields, and each weapon can have any number of attributes to further distinguish them, like upping damage percentages against enemies afflicted with certain status conditions. It’s safe to say that you will never use the same weapon twice in this game, but that’s part of the charm; you make do with what you’ve got until you find something better.
To help soften the blow of having to start a run with sub-par weaponry, there are power scrolls randomly scattered through each level that allow you to boost your stats in one of the three different sub-classes, increasing your damage with those weapons while also upping your overall maximum health. Each time you bump a stat higher, it’ll be a little less effective to invest the next power scroll into that stat, encouraging diversification, but not mandating it. Dead Cells is a game that’s all about player choice, making both victories and defeats feel rightfully earned, and this system of levelling your character does a great job of giving a balanced set of pros and cons to the choices you make.
Every time you reach the end of an area, you’ll be treated to a brief safe room where you can take a minute to gather yourself and plan out the next confrontation. Exploration and enemy drops will sometimes lead to you receiving blueprints, which can be handed over to a shop to be banked. To use the item in the blueprint (or at least to have the option of it appearing in a run), you must invest enough cells into the item to buy it. This system helps to ensure that the player always feels like they’re progressing, as better weapon blueprints are always being dropped and unlocked at a relatively consistent rate. This means that subsequent runs seem easier in comparison, as you’re more likely to find better equipment that can carry you much further. It’s a satisfying loop, one which softens the bite of a roguelike resetting you on every death without completely defanging it.
Feeding more into the permanent progression of Dead Cells are the Metroidvania elements, which mostly manifest in permanent traversal abilities that you gain from defeating very tough bosses in certain areas. There’s not really much backtracking to speak of here — you’re not able to go back to an area once you leave it — but a new ability you obtain may be able to unlock a shortcut to a later area from earlier in the game or open a brand new path entirely. Much like a typical Metroidvania, acquiring new abilities leads to more and more of the game being opened up to you, which helps to make the player feel all the more empowered as they deepen their understanding. Some may be a bit miffed that the exploration elements aren’t nearly as strong as they first seem, but they’re still done in such a way that few other roguelikes have tried.
One point that bears mentioning is the light sense of repetition that can set in upon playing extended hours of Dead Cells. For all its flawless combat and gorgeous locales, the overall gameplay structure largely remains the same throughout the experience, which may be a sticking point for some. Aside from some rather thin gimmicks, like a level that has you running between safe zones in a poisonous fog, every new level feels rather like a reskinned version of the level that came before it, just with a new set of enemies. The fun of the moment to moment gameplay makes this something that you won’t be paying too much attention to for most of the time, but we did have a few too many moments of déjà vu where progress felt almost artificial in light of how little things seemed to change over an extended run. The weapon and enemy variety help to trivialize this matter, we just wish there were a bit more to make each new level feel truly unique.
On the presentation side of things, Dead Cells absolutely astounds, showcasing intricately detailed and well-animated pixel art that looks fantastic in motion. Each area you visit looks almost entirely different than the last, from misty fishing towns to castle spires silhouetted against a setting sun; they all utilize a distinct atmosphere that helps to make each place forge its own identity. This is only further backed by the broad colour palette used, with each area using a whole new range of colours for all the backgrounds, traps, and enemies that you encounter. Animations are extremely well detailed and distinct, too, moreso than you would expect, and the detail is something which helps considerably in making combat feel that extra bit more fluid and responsive. Woven through all of this is smartly directed sound design that layers in brooding gothic music where it fits, setting the tone and the mood without overwhelming the player or distracting them from the battles at hand.
Dead Cells is a masterclass in excellent roguelike design, mixing together nonstop intense action sequences, gorgeous vistas, and an addictive loop of unlocks and rewards into a beautiful experience that no Switch owner will want to go without. There’s dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of content available here, and though some sense of repetition can creep in every now and then, it’s remarkable how fresh Dead Cells can stay through all those hours. This game is a blast to play, full of visual splendor, and packed with things to do; don’t miss out on this one, it’s a must-buy.