Played on Xbox One, also for PS4, Switch & Windows.
By Ronald Gordon
Some dungeon crawler games feel repetitive with regard to theme and gameplay. Time and time again, we’ve all seen offerings that try to replicate the intensity of “Dark Souls” and after a while, these ideas get overused and boring. However, when it comes to a game like Dead Cells, nothing you experience in the game stays the same when you play through it more than once.
Dead Cells is a 2D Metroidvania-inspired action platformer game developed and published by Motion Twin. The game is about you, a nameless faceless body that’s taken over by a parasite as soon as the game starts. A tube on the ceiling of your prison cell releases a green blob of goo onto the floor. The blob rolls over to your headless body and takes it over, bringing you back to life. Your body is then used as a host by the parasite as it tries to escape the prison and the seemingly endless labyrinth of realms you travel through in your quest to find out why all the other prisoners are either dead, undead, still stuck in their cells, or turned into some kind of creature.
In the game, you travel through the dungeon and into myriad places inside and around the prison. Each zone has its own unique enemies who are all stronger than the ones you faced in the previous level. And each level gives you new weapons and abilities to use as you go along, in case you need an extra boost. Sometimes you’ll find better gear, or you might pick up a scroll, which is used to increase your health and makes the weapons and skills you use more effective. Dead Cells has a unique approach to the dungeon crawl scene, since every time you die, you have no choice but to start all over again. There are no checkpoints and no places to stop in the middle of a level. You can either fight your way to the safe space in between stages or die trying, and trust me when I say this: you will die…..a lot.
Seeing as how you play as a dead body taken over by a parasite, you can die as many times as you want because the parasite always comes back to the start of the game. Luckily, some of the enemies you kill give you a special resource called cells that can be used to gain new weapons and abilities, or increase the chances of finding high level gear at random places in a level.
There’s a plethora of weapons to find and unlock along with many traps and skills you can use to your advantage. However, the dungeon changes every time you die, so it’s good to have the mindset of take-what-you-can-get because you’re not always going to have another opportunity. While I was playing, my favorite weapon pairing was the Balanced Blade for fast and damage-dealing hits – with the Freeze Blast as my secondary weapon to immobilize the enemies that got in my way – that is, if I was able to find them. If not, then I took what I had and rolled with the punches, forming new strategies and attack methods just so I could survive to cash in my cells.
Dead Cells is a game that requires strategy and timing above the average level. Most of the enemies you fight have ‘tells’ to exploit when it comes to their attacks. For instance, the common zombie you run into has a lunge attack that causes it to pause for a short while before attacking. This gives you enough time to either roll towards it and have it fly straight past you, attack from a distance using a bow or a trap, or wait for the right moment to parry with a shield.
Although Dead Cells has a low polygon graphic style and is all crafted in 2D, the animators of the game were still able to create wonderful backgrounds and interesting characters. The animation for the main character is fluid and lifelike; its expressions and mannerisms in certain cutscenes make the character move and feel like a human. The level design is simply breathtaking as the stages are drawn beautifully and even have small details that catch the eye of someone who appreciates the little things, such as a giant bell in the background that actually rings if you hit it, or a clock tower with gears that turn. One of my favorite levels, The Promenade of The Condemned, is a stunning look at the world outside the prison walls, featuring overgrown vines, sparkling pools, and a forest of tall leafless trees in the background.
The music in the game is also orchestrated well and fits the scenes in which it’s played. In some stages, it can be low and ominous, causing you to realize that the level you’re exploring isn’t the best place to be. In other stages, such as a boss battle, it can be dramatic and exciting, getting your blood pumping and helping you focus.
All in all, I found Dead Cells to be an amazing game, and it’s one that I can’t stop myself from playing. No matter how many times I die, I want to keep going, and I want to keep trying to make it farther and farther into the game until I reach the end. Even when I do die, the game forces me to use those experiences to improve and get back to the fight. I’d strongly suggest Dead Cells to any gamers who want to spend a good amount of time strategizing and learning from the repeated deaths they go through to see if they can beat this game. If you want to take on the challenge yourself, I wish you good luck. You’re going to need it.
Writer Ronald Gordon is the founder of the City Tech College Videogame Critic Circle.