Coming from developers Motion Twin is Dead Cells, a new old-style game, if you follow me. With a retro pixelated look, and promising proper old school difficulty, Dead Cells is touted as a rogue-lite, Castlevania inspired action platformer, with a twist of Dark Souls.
If you can imagine Dark Souls in 2D, then the comparison is actually a good one, as the threat of death in this game is strong, and if you die, you start again. So, facing this level of threat and also facing a castle that reconfigures itself for every attempt at the game, I went in… head first.
The first thing that strikes you when you fire up Dead Cells for the first time is how smoothly everything runs. The animation is silky, the camera never obstructs what you’re doing, and the responses to your button inputs is lightning fast. The next thing to hit you is that for a pile of pixels, the main character can emote like Kenneth Brannagh at his best, expressing more emotion in a slump of the shoulders or a simple thumbs up than most game characters can manage with their entire bodies and voice acting. The design of the castle and the enemies you meet are also top drawer, but I’ll come on to that later.
The controls are simple and easy to pick up. There’s a sword attack, a ranged attack, jump and double jump and a dodge. Grenades and throwable weapons are mapped to the two triggers, whilst the bumpers allow you to use the health potion (if its unlocked) and to interact with items or speak to the various NPCs you will meet. As I mentioned earlier, the responses to the controls are very good indeed, and you never feel that a death is unfair or blame the controls. I’m not saying the game isn’t pad bitingly frustrating sometimes, but it’s not the game’s fault; it’s usually because you’ll have pushed your luck and tried to kill an enemy that should have been avoided. With multiple levels and routes, there’s usually a way to avoid conflict if you try hard enough, and staying out of aggro distance soon becomes natural.
So, the game at its heart is fairly simple: explore a 2D castle, find secret areas and giant chests, all the while either avoiding or slaying the beasts and enemies in your way. Fighting your way through a level will eventually lead you to an exit, but it’s the journey that is the fun part here. Can you take on that enemy, or are you just too weak? Do you know the attack pattern well enough to beat it with confidence? Can you kill it with arrows from afar or will you need to get up close and personal? All these considerations run through your head as you assess each encounter.
Not since Dark Souls have I had to concentrate so much to kill even relatively low level baddies, as while you’re busy slicing up an archer, a zombie can leap from afar and ruin your entire day. Even with this level of difficulty, the controls inspire confidence, so dodge rolling away from a bomb that’s been thrown at you soon becomes second nature. Expanding your available weapons can be done at a shop, and having a grenade or a better sword soon becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. Luckily, enemies that you defeat drop gold, or if you are more fortunate, they drop the titular Dead Cells. These can be used in between the levels to purchase new things from a kind of shop keeper (I’m not too sure what he is, but he is very useful!), and you can buy useful things like a health potion from him, which can be upgraded by spending more Cells. The issue with hoarding Cells is that if you die, they are gone, which can be heartbreaking if you’ve managed to accrue a decent amount. The risk/reward mechanic is very real in this game.
Speaking of risk/reward, the bosses are very very tough, and tend to come at the end of a level when you’ve used up your health potions and are hanging on to life by your fingernails. If you do manage to take them down, they will drop runes that act as permanent power ups that persist after death. The first rune I got allowed me to grow vines from certain places in the levels, opening up new paths to new levels. These levels have lovely names too – like The Toxic Sewers or The Ramparts – and each loading screen gives a little bit of information about what to expect, in a humorous style. In fact, there’s a thread of dark humour running through, as one area had a sign saying “Live target Practice Range” and then a little bit further on a corpse with a single arrow through its head, to which my character responded with an enthusiastic thumbs up. These little touches show the thought that has gone into the levels and the background.
Each new level brings new enemies and new attack patterns to learn. One great example is an enemy that looks a bit like a car with teeth, and when I killed my first one, it dropped a lot of pink blobs. “A reward!” I thought and tried to pick them up, but instead they exploded and killed me. Lesson learned – from then on I killed them and ran away, but it goes to show how the game almost rewards failure. As long as you learn something from each death, the next run will last a little longer, and then before you know it it’s midnight and you have to get up for work in five hours! The urge to keep going, to keep pressing on, is very strong, and with each new level being different from the last there’s no shortage of things to see.
In addition, there are challenges to find and these open up portals to very challenging areas, with a nice reward to be collected. If you collect the reward you have to find your way out of the area, which usually enjoys some pinpoint platforming as you leap among spikes, but again, the forgiving jumping controls usually pull you up if you land near the edge of a platform, so the game does help a bit.
Normally at this point in any musings I’d go into the things that are wrong with the whole experience, but to be honest I’m really struggling to find any missteps that the developers have made. The difficulty and the controls are both spot on, the graphics are appealing and work very well, and even the sound of the enemies and the swish of the sword have both been nailed. Learning the attack patterns of the enemies and the bosses is its own reward, as while you can never really relax, each run gives you more confidence in your abilities and the mechanics in general. If you do die (and you will, make no mistake) you can always put your finger on why and adapt tactics accordingly.
For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I simply cannot think of anything that would make the Dead Cells game experience better. Its hard but not unfair, runs like a dream and plays like a lump of Teflon draped in silk. You need to play this game, and the retro graphics, while they may not be to everyone’s taste, really suit it, ensuring that it is just a pleasure to play.