It wasn’t that long ago that zombie games were all the rage. You couldn’t fire up a video game system without tripping over the undead menace. Now, it seems like the industry has latched onto the freight train that is rogue-likes. So how do you stand out from the crowd when you are one of the titles comprising the flavor of the month? Well, you aim to be the best amongst your peers and that is exactly what Dead Cells by Motion Twin is aiming for.
Almost like a nod to the aforementioned zombie game or an attempt to show where the baton was truly passed, this title revolves around the theme of the undead. Unlike most rogue-like games that don’t really try to explain how the character has just respawned at the beginning with some over arching progress intact, this one explains to the player that they are controlling the essence or the soul of the protagonist that is being transferred to a new corpse every time they die. Beyond the theme, this also does a decent job of explaining why a lot of the progress is on a per run basis.
Let’s dive into the progress of the game, as it is one of the main components in balancing a good rogue-like. During any run you can defeat enemies for money and dead cells, pick up items or weapons as well as find a number of attribute scrolls or blueprints. The important thing to keep in mind is that every one of these can be lost; depending on if you can use them before facing defeat.
Learn to never grow attached to the money that you obtain from killing enemies. The currency itself as well as any benefits purchased from it, as they are always related to physical weapons and items, is never retained. Clearly they must still be on the last husk you embodied before dying and being transported into a new corpse. That’s not to say it isn’t invaluable to the success of your run. You will come across shops in your travels that will sell you new gear and that always comes at a price. Also, between levels you will find two NPCs in particular that won’t do anything for you without some gold changing hands. One will allow you to upgrade your current weapons or reroll their secondary attributes while the other will allow you to buy mutations to your current body that will provide passive boosts like increased HP or reduced cooldown for skills for example. It’s probably possible to get through the whole game with your starting items but that’s going to be a challenge so don’t shy away from looting as much money as possible even if it is a per run currency.
Another per run increase is the scrolls of power which is this games form of ‘leveling up’ and will heavily influence your play build. Picking one up will allow you to allocate one attribute point into your choice of brutality, tactics, or survival. All three of which will provide an increase to your overall HP however not in the same amount. Most importantly, all of the weapons, items and mutations are colour coded to match one of these three stats. So if you are a loving the sword you picked up that does bleed damage and its icon on the UI has a red background, you will want to pump points into brutality to increase its potency. You can always change your gear or pay to reset your mutations, unlike your stats which are set for that run, so if you have been playing a survival heavy run consider not swapping out that trap with corrosive damage for an ice grenade until next time around.
So at this point you must be wondering, with so many different enemies throwing out different attacks and having changing resistances constantly growing stronger as you progress, how can you give yourself an advantage if you keep leaving everything on your corpse when you die? The answer is by using outside help. There is another NPC at the rest shrines known as the collector who will take the blueprints you’ve found, which can range from weapons to mutations, and add them to his formula list. Then to create said items as well as some general upgrades he will require a set amount of dead cells. You can’t leave the rest shrine without spending all of your dead cells so if you have 12 left on you and it takes 300 to upgrade your heal flask to allow you to use it 3 times between recharges then you have to pump them in there and be just that much closer until your next visit. Since the collector is unscathed upon your defeat, that progress stays.
The one thing that doesn’t seem to fit into the body vs. essence progression is the runes which seem to revolve around world traversal. One might grant you the ability to sprout vines from the ground at set locations to climb or to interact with a statue to teleport to its match in a pair in order to access otherwise unreachable areas. These can only be obtained upon killing an elite enemy in a zone and honestly I give them a pass because they contribute to the world traversal, which is outstanding in this game.
The environments are procedurally generated but they always come in a set order with their own stock of enemies to face. There is the small exception with some secret areas and time gated rooms usually being in same general area but otherwise you won’t see the same map layout twice. In most titles this usually results in a lack of character as the game is just tossing new structures into the same skins but Dead Cells provides a lot of little interactivities with the environment to give each run its own character. It might be your 10th time through the ramparts and yet you will come across what looks like an archers target practice range that you haven’t seen before. Interacting with the various items there will provide some insight from your character and maybe even a new bow that can be looted from a pile.
Also, a mention has to go to the ability to exit the game and upon booting it back up being able to continue where they left off. The genre as a whole has always been about the more pick up and play experience and as runs can end up taking a substantial amount of time, it is nice not having to worry about losing progress because life happened and you had to step away from the game instead of because you were faced with defeat. It means a lot to a genre built on repetitive gameplay.
That’s not to say that there are any complaints with the gameplay either though. Everything runs so smoothly from the framerate to the controls. So when you are rolling under that incoming arrow from an undead archer or trying to climb a tower while avoiding a fireball blast from a mage the game will always be gracefully complying with your every button press whether that’s for a dodge, a double jump or just the basic swing of a sword. By limiting any frustrations with the controls you will always be free to focus on the atmosphere and experience taking place in this retro graphics world.
As long as you enjoy the retro art style you will find so much to love in this game. Actions are always well animated, enemies are diverse in look and style and there is no situation where the developers grow stingy with their use of the colour spectrum. That being said the presentation goes well above and beyond even those aspects. Little subtle detail can be found all over the place that simply adds to the overall experience. Break through the door into a dungeon cell and you will find notches carved into the wall where the presumed former denizen of this hold was counting the days of their captivity, pick up a weapon that says it generates little slugs to attack enemies and you will see them pulsing on the ground as they follow their prey and ultimately latching onto them to absorb from their health reserves or use an ice grenade on a pack of enemies and you will easily know which have been stopped in their tracks due to freezing. Everything you see will be flirting with breaking passed the idea of imagery into the concept of an experience.
Is Dead Cells the best rogue-like available? From a mechanics stand point it very well could be for many people. I’m not sure if I am ready to give it the nod over Rogue Legacy personally but that is admittedly my own opinion and someone else could easily look at the less cartoony presentation, the smooth gameplay and diversity of the weapons and enemies of Dead Cells and give it the moniker of “the best”. Regardless, any fan should be adding it to their game library.