You ever play a Roguelite game like Binding of Isaac, think to yourself how cool a potential build you had going was, but you never got to see it to the end? And does it annoy you to no end how long it may be until you get to try that build again?
Then readers, have I got a game for you.
ALSO AVAILABLE ON: Android, PlayStation 4, iOS, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, macOS, and Linux…Yeah it’s on a lot of things.
Dead Cells is described as a “Roguevania.” A bit of an odd choice since I don’t consider it a true Metroidvania type Roguelite in the vein of Robot Named Fight, but it’s still a darned good time and thus something I will happily recommend. Motion Twin came up with a real winner here that they have kept improving since its May 2017 Early Access launch, with 1.0 happening August 2018. Since then, they have added more content via a free DLC release, as well as 3 paid DLCs at $5 USD each. The game itself is around $25 USD, so you’re looking at $40 USD for the full experience at this point, which I’m still going to say right now is absolutely worth your money. So now that I’ve already told you it’s good, I suppose it would be a good idea to go into why it’s so good.
Dead Cells has you play the role of the Prisoner, a strange mass of slimy, mucus like material that can bond with dead bodies to take them over. Thankfully for you, a fresh corpse awaits you in the prison that acts as your starting hub each time you begin a new run. The Prisoner’s ultimate goal? Try to find a way off the island he’s stuck on. Unfortunately for him, almost everything else on the island wants him dead, meaning you’ll be fighting every step of the way, wouldn’t be a roguelite otherwise.
The way Dead Cells shakes up the roguelite formula is that each level tends to have branching paths that lead to other levels, and not all of these paths can be accessed immediately. While the majority of the items you find are only good for your current run attempt, Runes are permanent upgrades that the Prisoner will keep between your runs, win or lose. As for what they do, Runes allow you to interact with certain objects that open new paths in levels, such as teleporters, growable vines, and breakable floors. So the more Runes you find, the more options you have for exploring a level and finding new branching paths out of it.
Each level is filled with the usual things you would expect in a Roguelite: Enemies, traps, shops, secrets containing healing or gold, but what makes Dead Cells so fun is how you go through these areas. As it is a sidescroller, you run and jump your way through these areas while fighting with a variety of melee, ranged, and magic weapons, as well as various tools and special skills. You’re allowed two weapons, and two tool/skill slots, with the latter being cooldown based. This means builds are quite varied, as there’s numerous items of each category, with various subcategories based on which of your three primary stats they scale off of: Brutality, Tactics, and Survival. And on top of that, each of these stats also affect Mutations, bonuses you gain each run that can greatly augment your build, such as getting life on kill if your health is low, or bonus damage after a kill, or bonus damage if no enemy is close to you to name a few starters. So with three stats, a lot of weapons, and a lot of items, and all these mutations, build possibilities are vast, meaning every run will definitely feel quite different.
And that’s where we get into why I love this game so much: The fact build experimentation is much easier than most roguelites thanks to Custom Mode.
Custom Mode allows you to choose your starting equipment, what can show up in the item pools, and all kinds of other things that modify or affect the run, effectively letting you tailor your runs to your liking. If you found a build in a previous run you really liked and want to try it again, it’s as simple as putting the items that made up that build into your starting equipment, and limiting what shows up in the item pool. While you can’t unlock achievements in most cases during a custom run, you can still unlock new items, areas, and Runes, meaning this mode is basically a theorycrafter’s paradise.
Unlocks themselves are handled in a somewhat grindy, but effective method via the titular “Cells” that are the game’s unlock and upgrade currency, which you’ll use at the resting points between levels. Cells are used to unlock new items after you’ve found the Diagrams for those items, as well as unlock new permanent bonuses that last between runs such as healing potion charges, and the ability to salvage unwanted items for gold. Even if you don’t have enough cells to buy the upgrade or unlock you’re looking at, you can still put what you’ve earned so far towards the thing you’re looking to purchase, effectively doing multiple payments towards it, finally getting the item/upgrade in question once you pay it off in full.
I do like that you don’t need to have enough cells to buy something right then and there and can gradually pay for it over runs, because some of the upgrades get really expensive, so paying for them all at once is absolutely out of the question. Though there is sometimes incentive to not use your cells and hold onto them, as some of the resting points have a second merchant who will permanently upgrade loot quality the more Cells you give them, meaning hoarding a whole pile to spend after a boss fight can result in permanently better loot that much sooner. So there is still some thought to give about what you spend and when, and if you want to risk all your cells rather than immediately spending them at every rest point.
And then there’s the combat that makes up the meat of this game. It’s fast, it’s fun, simple yet challenging. You have two weapon slots, two tool/skill slots that are cooldown based, and a button for each of them. Combined with this you have your dodge roll, a quick evasive move you can use at almost any time, even midair, that makes you briefly invincible in order to avoid attacks. This means you have a lot of options at your disposal, and mixing and matching them is absolutely in your best interest. Trying to focus your build around only one weapon in Dead Cells is rarely a good idea, as many weapons can play well with others. Got a really slow swinging weapon that hits hard but takes more time to land a hit with? Pair it with the Ice Blast spell as your other weapon, and you can freeze foes solid to ensure they won’t be hitting you or avoiding the swing of your big melee weapon as you wind up said swing. Got a weapon that does more damage to bleeding foes? Throwing knives or trap tools that inflict bleed will absolutely be to your benefit then. And every piece of gear can roll with random modifiers like extra damage vs certain status effects, or spreading a status effect when that weapon/tool/skill kills an enemy. Sadly, these bonuses are something you cannot change or set in Custom Mode, so there’s still some RNG involved there. But in the end, Dead Cells’ combat is so fun because it’s all about using a combination of tools, rather than focusing your build entirely around one thing. Even if a particular weapon is the build’s focus, you’ll always benefit from finding things that play well or synergize with it, which only helps add to the fun of the game’s build and run variety.
Dead Cells is very much a game you are expected to learn and get better at as you play, since some of the rewards you can earn between levels are only available to you if you complete a level really fast, or by landing a certain number of kills in the level and not getting hit prior to the exit. This can include bonus loot, bonus cells, and bonus money, all of which can help you on a run, be it the current one or a future one. The game takes some influence from the Souls genre, expecting you to learn each enemy’s tells and be able to react to them accordingly. And this of course includes the bosses that make up the game’s roster of foes.
Boss variety is plentiful, with some foes being giant bosses that can take up a good portion of the screen, to opponents around your size or bigger who you 1v1 duel with…Until they call in help in some cases. Learning them is important, as many can deal significant damage if they land a hit, and healing while being attacked can often be quite difficult. Yes, you have healing potions that renew at each rest between levels, but getting the window to drink one in a boss battle can prove difficult sometimes. But what fun would a boss be if it was that easy? Although with the right builds, you’ll find it is indeed quite possible to shred bosses’ healthbars to bits in record time, so again: Good builds are important, and Custom Mode is great for finding them.
So, yeah, gameplay wise, Dead Cells is solid. But it’s hardly good just because of how it plays (even though that’s definitely the most important factor). It also looks great thanks to its unique pixel art style that uses an almost psuedo 3D look for its characters that gives them a very smooth, fluid animation style, as well as the great looking 2D artwork that makes up each area of the game, with plenty of variety to be found. You’ve got the dark, moldy prisons, the slimy, muddy swamps, colorful yet deadly gardens, elegant yet dilapidated castle halls, every place has had plenty of effort put into its design, even with the procedural level layouts. As such, this game is absolutely a joy to look at.
I also absolutely love how much personality the Prisoner has for a “silent” protagonist. I say “silent” because while they can’t talk, we DO get to see what he’s thinking, and he’s got plenty of colorful commentary in his head. For the times he has to communicate with others, the Prisoner instead relies on expressive gesturing that does a great job of getting his personality across. Despite being stuck in a loop of not being able to die since his “head” seems to survive every death no matter what, the Prisoner does not let this loop get to him. He relies on humor and wit to keep himself going, which does somewhat clash with the lore of the game painting a bleak picture, but I think it’s good to have a character that somehow stays positive in all this: It explains why they keep trying instead of giving up in the face of a hopeless, endless loop. Like the player, they’re probably thinking “Oh yeah, this’ll be the time I win. This’ll be the one!”
If you do find yourself having a hard time winning a run, another thing that can help you are Aspects. These are extremely powerful buffs, with one being usable per run, but at the cost of not being able to do certain progression elements. The game has a difficulty system in the form of Boss Stem Cells. Beating the game on the current Stem Cell difficulty unlocks the next tier…Unless you have an Aspect equipped. Custom Runs are allowed, but not Aspects, so consider Aspects something to use for unlocking non difficulty related items or perks, but not something to rely on when you’re ready to make things tougher. But if you’re just trying to get some wins under your belt by learning the entirety of your run’s route, an Aspect is certainly something that can help with that while you experiment and try to find the ideal build for future runs. Thankfully achievements and unlocks are separate elements to Dead Cells for the most part, with a good chunk of the game’s content being unlockable even if you aren’t getting achievments. So Custom Run away!
And then there’s the music. I know I tend to praise soundtracks a lot, probably because I just enjoy a good soundtrack, but Dead Cells is absolutely up there. Its first level theme alone is a great tune that really gets your blood pumping whenever you start a new run. It’s something when you can not be entirely mad about losing a run, because you get to hear this song again: Courtesy of composer Yoann Laulan.
Video courtesy of Konstantinos Aravantinos on Youtube:
I can’t think of many Roguelites that have such a heart pumping, get you hyped for another feeling as this for their first level theme. The drumbeats, the chants, everything about this is just fantastic to listen to. And the entire soundtrack is this good, so yeah: You’ve got a treat for the ears coming each run. And it opens on a strong note that absolutely kept me wanting to play even when I was failing, because that first level song just gets me pumped to give it another go.
It’s hard not to love Dead Cells at the end of the day. It’s had a lot of work put into it by talented folks who took feedback seriously and used it to tune and improve an already solid game experience. Its variety of builds and the ease of trying them via Custom Mode is something I wish more roguelites offered, because nothing sucks like losing with a great build and wondering what you could have done with it. Fast, fun combat plus the amount of customization at your disposal (but not required by any means, you can always play by standard rules!) makes this a roguelite I’d argue anyone can enjoy regardless of skill level, though some amount of skill and improvement will be needed as you play for sure.
You definitely can’t go wrong at its base asking price, and if you enjoy it? Yes, the DLCs are absolute worth it, with each adding new areas, bosses, and loot to play with, adding even more variety to an already varied game. So if you want some fun, fast, satisfying combat with branching paths and ever changing items that keep each run feeling fresh? Go get Dead Cells already.