PREVIEW: Dead Cells

Dead Cells is barely about to reach Early Access, and I already have a crush on it.

Steam: Early Access
Type: Single-player
Genre: Action, Metroidvania, Roguelite
Developer: Motion Twin
Publisher: Motion Twin
Release date: 10th of May, 2017


I have a deep love/hate relationship with Roguelites. Yes, Roguelites, if you call them Roguelikes you also mean turn-based top-down dungeon crawlers. The term Roguelites represents games with procedurally generated levels and permanent death, and The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky belong to that category. The same goes for Dead Cells. Why do I hate them? Their difficulty can mean that you do the same thing over and over again, and they have a tendency to obfuscate the relevant information for you to play them. Take the Binding of Isaac for instance, I would not consider playing it without a wiki to find what each item does what. Another issue that I have with the genre, is that the lacklustre beginning depends heavily on the random items to find at the start. Finally, a lack of good direction on the level design can make the experience quite inconsistent, and a sudden spike in difficulty can ruin hours invested in a good run. Now why do I love them? The stakes are really high, and a single death can be felt deeply. Yet when they are well designed, the player immediately wants to try again. In those games there is also an awesome feeling of getting more and more powerful, but the game is still a hard beast to tame.

Gameplay Video

Dead Cells proposes to mix the Roguelite genre to Metroidvanias (the grand-children of Super Metroid and Castlevania Symphony of The Night), and if you follow my reviews it has not escaped your notice that I also have a deep affection for games in that vein. And if you follow my reviews, you also know that I am very critical and I would pan a game on a single feature, such as the lack of directions or real-time map in Hollow Knight. If this was a criminal investigation, Dead Cells would be under insane scrutiny right now.

Hollow Knight bothered me with its lack of a real-time map? Dead Cells has an amazing mini-map in the corner of the screen. Alwa’s Awakening lacked teleporters? Dead Cells has several teleporters in a single dungeon, and their map displays the name of items the player has not picked up yet. The Binding of Isaac obfuscated too much information? Dead Cells shows what every single item does without evening needing to pick it up. Most Roguelites and Metroidvanias have a draggy beginning before you can pick up movement upgrades? Dead Cells lets you start with the roll, the double jump and the dive. Rogue Legacy had a neat permanent progression but its combat was terrible and was closer to a bullet hell? Dead Cells has typical Castlevania combat, with extra features and a feel closer to Dark Souls. Hell, the game seduced me with this paragraph alone. Give a medal to the game designer of Motion Twin.
And then also give a medal to the graphic artists, because the game is gorgeous. Those animations… That pseudo-pixel art… The particle effects… Only the blood could be done better. Graphically, this is a feast. We still have a few medals to give, let’s distribute it to the rest of the team because everything is great. Rebindable keys. Moody music. Nothing can be too perfect. I just had some frame drops until I deactivate Vsync, but these issues will be ironed out during Early Access.

The combat. Another medal. There is a main attack that can be upgraded to different playstyles according to the weapon (best whip I have ever seen – critical damage at the optimal distance, less damage than other weapons if too close). There is a real weight to the attacks, very satisfying to use. There is a shield to block attacks and arrows with perfect timing, with different types of shields (charge, stun and so on). The dive allows to take enemies by surprise. Rolls allow to dodge in style. Bows or throwing knives can replace the aforementioned slots, and they reload fast enough. Even better, there are two additional slots for grenades and other sorts of elliptic spells such as bear traps or freeze bombs. No limited ammo, just a short reload time. Health potions that can be refilled in between levels. Equipping all of this happens very quickly, and it’s a pure joy.

I guess it is finally time to mention what I liked less. Enemies can shoot through walls, which can sometimes become unmanageable. Especially when encountering Elite version of the enemies, which attack with much more strength and have way too much health. Those are quite a shame, and they are just the same enemies as the rest but stronger. And already, most enemies are the same from one level to the next, but stronger. I don’t really like this, since the brain associates a certain strength with each enemy and it’s not good to mess with the learning. Better to use new skins at least. Thankfully there are also a lot of enemies unique to each level. Since I mentioned the levels, each one has two different exits to two wholly different levels which allows to avoid the fatigue of seeing the same environments over and over again that a lot of Roguelites are guilty of.

Finally, so far there is a slight level of obfuscation with the progression system. For instance, in between levels I could spend enemy souls (cells here) in health potions, gold retention or weapons, but those weapons were not yet available at the start, I had to unlock something else to allow my pool of unlockables to be picked. And yet, I could see those weapons in glass jars that I wanted to smash, which was confusing. There are hidden passages that I encountered and wasted time trying to activate, I just could not know that what I needed was an ability not unlocked yet in my progression. The criticism in this last paragraph disappears as the player understands the game better, so it’s only a small issue in teaching rather than a problem in game design.

In conclusion, my biggest issues with this game are quite trivial and very likely to be ironed out during Early Access. Dead Cells has an incredible potential, and it avoids all the pitfalls that plague other Roguelites and other Metroidvanias with quality of life improvements and smart design decisions that I am glad to see. From its fantastic atmosphere to its superb combat, Dead Cells is on a good way to become a resounding success. I definitely want to see more of it, so far I am quite enthused. Verdict: Dead Cells might be charged with being a great game, but the investigation is still pending for the duration of the Early Access.

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