Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania Review – Sword or Whip?

Are we even still on the island?
dead cells: return to castlevania

Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania on PC

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I know it’s cliched to call something “the gift that keeps on giving”, but there truly is no other way to describe Dead Cells. The game originally launched via Steam Early Access in 2017 before getting its full release in 2018, and since then, developing studio Motion Twin has been pumping out new content and updates for it non-stop. We’ve gotten multiple new biomes, along with plenty of other small crossover updates with popular IPs like Skul, Shovel Knight, Hollow Knight, and Hyper Light Drifter. These smaller content updates have been nice, but Dead Cells’ latest add-on is its most exciting one yet.

From day one, it’s been clear that Dead Cells was heavily inspired by the Castlevania series. While it is a rogue-lite at its core, it also incorporates various Metroidvania elements into its gameplay loop. They come in the form of little elements like the slow reveal of the sprawling map as you explore a level, the carnivorous meat diet that serves as your healing items, and of course, learning new permanent abilities that let you access previously closed off areas in a biome.

With that in mind, Dead Cells’ new Return to Castlevania add-on feels like the ultimate love letter to its main source of inspiration. With a handful of new levels and weapons, cameos by Simon, Richter, and Alucard, and a rearranged soundtrack, Return to Castlevania is peak Dead Cells. Even as someone who’s never so much as touched a Castlevania game (does Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night count? No? I’ll see myself out then), I found myself swept away by all the love and care that’s gone into making this little expansion.

dead cells: return to castlevania
Image Source: Motion Twin via Twinfinite

The good news is, even if this is your first foray into Dead Cells, the Return to Castlevania content is available right from the very start. From your third run onward, you’ll be able to access the Castle’s Outskirts biome from the Prisoner’s Quarters, so there’s no need to worry about having to obtain all abilities before you’re able to check out the new stuff.

Difficulty-wise, as an ex-Dead Cells addict who hasn’t touched the game in almost three years, I found the new content to be fairly accessible. Aside from a few instances where you’ll need to be able to recognize hidden pathways that you can roll into, or understanding how door switches work, the enemies themselves were pretty manageable in the first couple of biomes. I’d started a completely fresh run to take on Return to Castlevania, and was able to beat it before I’d even unlocked all available health flasks.

This isn’t to say that there’s no challenge for more experienced players of course. All throughout the new levels, you’ll find various cell doors and other hidden routes that can only be accessed after you’ve cleared the game at least once, and have obtained all abilities. I’ve yet to beat the Hand of the King in this file so I can’t speak to the level of difficulty that awaits you behind those cell doors, but if Motion Twin’s track record is anything to go by, you can expect a good challenge to keep you occupied for a while.

Past that, there are quite a few new outfits and blueprints to unlock. The Bible and Cross have been added to Dead Cells’ already ridiculously expansive repertoire, offering up even more variance in your runs if you’ve been looking for an excuse to come back to the island. The bosses themselves are also a sight to behold; I won’t spoil too much here, but the first encounter with one of the DLC bosses is nothing short of an exciting and epic affair. It’s both mechanically challenging and satisfying, and quickly becomes an incredibly fun fight once you’ve learned its patterns and are able to adopt different strategies to take it down each time.

alucard in dead cells
Image Source: Motion Twin via Twinfinite

Castlevania fans will surely find plenty to love here as well, as there are so many little easter eggs and callbacks to the series to discover. As a Castlevania plebeian myself, I especially enjoyed having to figure out a way to lower the drawbridge to Dracula’s castle and recognizing the carriage that Richter rode and ended up crashing in Rondo of Blood. And speaking of Richter: Return to Castlevania even offers up a new way to experience Dead Cells by letting you play as the vampire hunter himself. Provided you can figure out how to access it, of course.

Then there’s the soundtrack, which brings back plenty of iconic musical themes from Castlevania and reimagines them in that signature Dead Cells style. Again, I’m the newbie-est of newbies when it comes to Castlevania, and even I couldn’t help but be impressed by just how much content has been stuffed into this little add-on, as well as how detailed everything is. If anything, I find myself champing at the bit, hoping for Motion Twin to do more fleshed-out crossover add-ons like these with other IPs. When’s that Hades crossover gonna happen, Motion Twin? There’s so much potential here. Make it happen!

Return to Castlevania is, hands down, Dead Cells’ best expansion yet, and it’s not even close. This isn’t to say that its previous add-ons have been lackluster, as every update to the game has only served to help flesh it out even further. Dead Cells continues to be one of the very best rogue-lite games that have released in the past decade, and this just further cements its place as an outstanding entry in the saturated genre.

4.5
Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania
Dead Cells continues to be one of the very best rogue-lite games that have released in the past decade, and this just further cements its place as an outstanding entry in the saturated genre.
Pros
  • The new levels and bosses are easily accessible for newbies, but still challenging enough for veterans.
  • The remixed soundtrack is awesome.
  • Quite a few new blueprints to help keep your runs fresh.
  • Richter Mode. Enough said.
Cons
  • The bosses are a bit more challenging than the ones you'd get in a 'normal' run, which can make it a bit newbie-unfriendly, but I'm nitpicking at this point.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review. Reviewed on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC.
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Author
Zhiqing Wan
Zhiqing is the Reviews Editor for Twinfinite, and a History graduate from Singapore. She's been in the games media industry for nine years, trawling through showfloors, conferences, and spending a ridiculous amount of time making in-depth spreadsheets for min-max-y RPGs. When she's not singing the praises of Amazon's Kindle as the greatest technological invention of the past two decades, you can probably find her in a FromSoft rabbit hole.