Dead Cells Review – Punishing Roguelike Nirvana

Dead Cells Hits 1.0 In Glorious Undead Fashion

When games are released into Early Access, I’m usually skeptical. There are  a lot of horror stories out there. Grandiose promises have too often given way to slippery timelines and half-baked mechanics. That’s not what happened with Motion Twin’s Dead Cells. Immediately intriguing because of its roguelite structure, souls-lite combat, and pixel, uh, lite(?) style, Dead Cells had me collared from day one.

Miraculously, I held off playing it. I wanted the full Dead Cells 1.0 experience, and felt like I could wait the 12 or so months Motion Twin needed to hit that milestone. I’m not going to lie, the wait has been murder. I almost broke down a few times, but boy oh boy, am I glad I waited. Dead Cells’ official release is utterly rad.

Now you may be wondering: what makes this particular roguelite game so good? Is it better than its zillions of competitors? We’ll address those things as we move along here, but the short answers are 1) almost everything, and 2) pretty much, yeah.

By definition, roguelike games are repetitive. At some point you’ll run into a situation you aren’t equipped to handle, and you’ll get viciously slaughtered. To offset that disappointment and avoid making the player feel like they’ve wasted their time, there needs to be dangling carrot. A pot of gold if you will. In Dead Cells, that thing is mystery.

Dead Cells doesn’t directly tell you much. At the start, all you’ll know for sure is that you’re dead, and there’s an ever changing labyrinth of beasties you’ll need to conquer. Not much to go on, but the combat will immediately hook you. It’s direct and responsive, and punishes overconfidence with little warning. But it feels. So. Good. Attacks are visceral and devastating, and pulling off a perfectly timed parry or dodge roll is truly sublime. In my mind the gold standard for games with souls-y combat is that they never feel cheap. If you die in Dead Cells, it’s because you goofed. And when your soul is returned to to start of the prison, it’s mighty tough to put the controller down.

dead cells sewers

As Charming As An Underworld Can Be

The rabbit hole is deep and dark in this one. Not just because the actual gameplay is super fun, but because of the aforementioned mystery. We’re talking hidden runes, secret areas, time locked doors, a spooky metanarrative, and one of the most motivational shrug animations in gaming history. Yeah, if you haven’t found the right things, your character just shrugs at you.

For a game with very little direct storytelling or writing to speak of, Dead Cells is charming as hell. The writing that is in the game is clever, and the supporting cast is bizarrely intriguing. The main character oversells every action like a newscaster, rubbing the beard of the head he doesn’t have, and hammering on locked doors like Fred Flintstone. Though infuriating at times, the primary outcome was redoubling my efforts. After all, how the f*** DO you get in there?

dead cells

Not knowing for a while is totally fine. Dead Cells looks freakin’ great on all platforms, but let’s be honest, this is a game built for the Nintendo Switch. My time with the game on that system was a dream. Sharp as hell pixel art, fantastically varied enemies and environments, and the aforementioned flair in the animation department held up great in both portable and docked modes. I’m no pixel counter, but I’d be surprised if this isn’t running at 1080/60 docked and 720/60 in portable (you know, the native screen size). Pixel art is old news right now, but Dead Cells looks fresh and delicious.

Over time you’ll stack the deck in your favor by unlocking permanent upgrades. You can spend cells dropped by enemies on these upgrades, which include health potions and gold retention among other things. I’m hesitant to say much more about it — uncovering the mechanics on your own terms is gosh darn satisfying.

What I’m saying is if you can approach Dead Cells knowing nothing, you’ll have a thrilling time discovering it.

dead cells collector

What I will gush about is the variety of weapons in the game. You’ll start each run with a sword and a choice of a basic bow or shield (until you unlock some things), but things go totally crazy from there. Sub Zero ice blasts, electric whips, traps, fire grenades, each run is made completely unique by what you run across. An ice blast/broadsword combo became a personal favorite, but Dead Cells requires you to be flexible. If you run across a badass shield, you might suddenly be a sword and board type of player. Or if you find the Firebrands, you might be more of a magic based character.

Therein lies the real beauty of Dead Cells. Every run feels special and memorable, which is something I can’t even say about Rogue Legacy (which is the best — don’t make me fight you). Will you find a bunch of upgrade scrolls and have a huge health bar? Maybe. Will you be stuck with the shitty rusty sword the whole time? Also maybe. Planning isn’t a thing here. You just roll with the punches, and hope you find the right gear to handle the next area.

By this point, you should know whether this is your kind of game or not. If tight, challenging combat, and infinite replayability in a charmingly depressing setting is your cup of tea, Dead Cells is the game for you.

The Good

  • Stylish as hell
  • Fluid, challenging combat
  • Can’t-put-it-down loop

The Bad

  • Punishing difficulty
  • Not universally appealing