The oxymoronic nature of a rogue-lite metroidvania is hard to ignore. The inherent chaos of a rogue-lite just doesn’t mesh with the idea of a handcrafted and lovingly created order that a metroidvania embodies. It seems nobody told Motion Twin, the developers of Dead Cells, that this was the case, or if they were warned, they just went ahead and did it anyway.
It seems that the way to overcome this illogical mash up is to change the way that both of these genres work just enough to make them fit together. So, each biome is randomly generated as per a rogue-lite, but the path from one to the next is predetermined based on abilities you permanently unlock in the form of runes, as in metroidvania games. These runes are guaranteed to appear in certain levels and it is here that the metroidvania aspect of the game is at its peak. Each rune will give you a brand new ability, soyou might be able to climb walls, or tickle a group of cells in order to get them to form a new path.
In addition to this small level of certainty, you have the paths through the game itself. Each level only has a singular beginning and a singular end, but lies between them is dictated by which exits you take at any given point. Each level with have its own horrific challenges and combinations of enemy types, so the Ramparts will often have you falling off and taking damage in that way, whereas the Toxic Sewers will slowly drain the life from you with poisonous sludge throughout the level.
Peppered throughout these paths are various bosses that will be the toughest challenge you have faced up until that point. Naturally the most important thing you acquire while battling through the plethora of enemies and traps is your own skill level as a player and an understanding of how to defeat the various opponents that will stand in your way. The bosses are the pinnacle of this, each one testing your reflexes and your ability to learn the tells that each attack has. You’re going to die a lot in this game, but the most important thing is that you manage to learn from each death and slowly claw yourself forwards.
The good news is that you also unlock better weapons as your progress, which you can then find in subsequent attempts. Each enemy type has a small pool of blueprints they can drop, and if you can get these to the collector who lives between levels then you can work on unlocking these. You use cells that enemies drop in order to permanently unlock these items and abilities and your progress in each is a constant in this ever changing world. While enemies have a chance to drop a cell when they die, you can also get a large amount of them by speeding through levels in order to get to timed doors which hold behind them a large collection of cells, some gold to upgrade your weapons or buy new ones, and a Scroll of Power.
You have character stats in each run that you can upgrade with a Scroll of Power, each one tying to various different weapons and skills, as well as giving you a health boost. Brutality is all about pure unbridled damage output and contains weapons like daggers, broadswords, and grenades. Tactics is notably more complex, opting for lower DPS, but giving you lots of debuffs and status effects – think lightning bolts shot from the hands, long range bows, and automated turrets. The final category is Survival which comes with the largest health boost and is exactly what you’d expect. Shields and slow lumbering weapons are a mainstay in this group.
Building up your own preferences is much easier the more you unlock, but many items straddle two of these archetypes and will scale with the higher of the two. Each time you fight through you might have different stats but the same weapons, or you can aim for a completely different play style entirely if you like one weapon in particular.
It’s here that Dead Cells is at its best; the sheer number of variables is mind boggling. Every single run will be different based on whether you opt for a speed run approach or you meticulously go through the levels slaughtering every single thing you come across. Will you take a harder route in the hope of greater rewards, or would you rather take the easier path and actually survive? Each decision will impact the fate of your body, but you have no way of knowing how well it will go until you either die or succeed. Thankfully you are not your body, you are just a collection of cells that inhabits a deceased body in order to try and escape the island and thus you can live forever.
Possibly the most satisfying thing is the movement that this offers you. You can double jump, roll, and slam down into the ground. If you combine all of these aspects you end up flowing around levels like an undead house cat, only stopping to knock enemies about or pick up the sweet loot that they drop. The combat is just as fluid; the dodge ability gives you the invincibility frames you deserve for all the effort you put in mastering every attack pattern. The feeling of having a perfect character set-up is unparalleled, and becoming the master of each level is an incredibly rewarding experience and one that will eventually lead you to beating the final boss and breathing an incredibly sigh of relief, or letting out a stream of expletives because you finally killed the damned thing.
All of this is wrapped up in a dank and infected world. It’s one that is not just trying to kill you, but will succeed multiple times. The mystery behind the story is kept just out of reach as you interact with empty prison cells, hidden areas, and doomed NPCs. When you cover this in gorgeous pixel art and add in the immersive sound design and music then you a nigh on perfect example of what gaming can be.
With incredibly satisfying gameplay, a constant stream of unlocks, and a world that challenge every cell of your being, Dead Cells is a must own for anyone who likes even one aspect of what has been mentioned here. Every success will fill you with endorphins, every failure will inspire you to get better. When you finally take out the final boss you will be elated. It is here that Dead Cells lets you know that it is just the beginning, there are a few more go around yet, and each one gets harder and harder. This is the kind of game that can last you forever, you just have to let it beat you in the head a few times.
Version tested: Switch – Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One & PC