The first thing that caught my eye in Dead Cells was just how gorgeous and fluid the pixel art animations are. The way your headless character shrugs his shoulders, and the way the grim environments drip with intricate detail – it’s all so pleasing to look at.
At its core, Dead Cells is a roguelike action game with Metroidvania elements. The more you play, the more unique abilities and skills you’ll unlock. You can then use these skills to traverse to previously inaccessible areas in the game, except the levels are all randomly generated each time you die. You’ll still keep your skills, though, and this opens up a whole new set of possibilities each time you begin a fresh run. Like all roguelike games, your item pickups are completely random as well, allowing you to experiment with a good variety of spells and weaponry, of which there are many.
Players will always start out with a Rusty Sword at the beginning, but I quickly discovered an even more powerful Blood Sword at the end of the game’s first stage. The Blood Sword was a lot slower, but it dealt bleed damage to my enemies. Later on, just as I had grown used to my ‘mash X to melee’ play style, I discovered a frost spell that allowed me to freeze my enemies temporarily, opening them up for attacks. Not ten minutes later, I was able to get my hands on an electric whip that deals a lot less damage than my swords, but if you time it just right and hit your foes with the tip of the whip, you’ll score a critical attack.
Dead Cells lets you carry a primary and secondary weapon at any given time, and these are mapped to two face buttons on your controller. Thanks to the vast arsenal of weapons at your disposal, combat never felt stale, and each death was just the beginning of yet another exciting adventure to see what other crazy tools I could try out next. For the most part, combat feels smooth and responsive. It’s also very fast-paced, and encourages a more aggressive play style. There are shields that allow you to block attacks, but you can’t block indefinitely. They’re more for parrying attacks, which means that you can’t just turtle up for extended periods of time as you wait for enemies to open themselves up to you. Aside from a couple of minor frame rate dips as I jumped from area to area, I never experienced any major issues with gameplay and combat in general.
Because it’s a roguelike game, you’ll lose all of your cells and gold when you die. However, Dead Cells does offer a bit of concession if you can make it to the end of a level. Before the start of each area, you’ll run into an NPC who lets you bank your cells and invest them into blueprints for equipment and items. Even if you die, you’ll always be able to come back and purchase whatever gear you’d previously unlocked. There’s always a steady sense of progression when playing Dead Cells, and I hardly ever felt like I’d wasted much time by dying during a run. Death is very frequent in Dead Cells, and most of the time it’ll hurt, especially if you’ve picked up a ton of gear that you really like. But just remember that every fresh run is an opportunity to pick up new tools and find fresh, innovative ways to tackle older challenges.
Though the levels are randomly generated, each separate area follows a certain set of rules. The starting level, for example, is always a relatively straightforward underground sewer stage with few branching paths. And the second level is a brighter, more open forested area with locked doors and various downward pathways. The layouts may be ever-changing, but the overall level design stays the same, allowing players to coast through early areas more quickly as they grow accustomed to the game’s rhythm.
If there’s one complaint to be had, it’s that the bosses I’ve encountered so far are simply elite versions of regular mob enemies I’ve already been fighting the entire time. They might have a few new moves, and they certainly do a ton more damage than their mob counterparts, but it would’ve been nice if we could get more unique and distinct bosses rather than powered up versions of normal enemies. Granted, I haven’t quite made my way to the end of the game in this Early Access build just yet, but from what I’ve seen so far, powered up enemies seem to be a regular thing in Dead Cells.
All in all, though, it’s hard not to get completely sucked into the roguelike nature of Dead Cells. Developer Motion Twin has done a stellar job with the pixel art design, the sheer amount of gear and weapons you can make use of in the game, and the simple, yet fluid and responsive gameplay.
Dead Cells is now available on Steam as an Early Access title.