Hitting Steam Early Access this week, Dead Cells itches a scratch that is surprisingly hard to reach: a difficult-but-fair platformer with smooth controls and animations, and a variety in combat that keeps the game fresh even through multiple playthroughs. Considering the 14 hours I’ve put into it over the past 2 days, I would say that my itch is most certainly well-scratched.
As I’ve already said, Dead Cells is a retro-style (at least visually) platformer. The pixel art is done in a very meticulous style, and is clearly inspired by the various Metroidvanias released over the years. Combined with static and more detailed backgrounds, the game achieves a beautiful feel despite not being a 3D game – it easily stands out among the other pixel art games by the sheer attention to small detail. This isn’t a game where pixel art is the escape of the incompetent; this is a game where pixel art actually deserves the title of “Art”.
The core of the gameplay is deceptively simple: you go through 2D sidescrolling levels, ranging from linear rampart watch towers to twisting and looping sewers, killing enemies and collecting “Cells”. After each level, you’ll arrive at a small rest stop where you can spend those cells on unlocking new weapons and items (found as blueprints in the levels), or upgrading your existing gear. Having done that, you will move on to the next level for another dose of hacky-slashy-rolly goodness.
While the above does indeed sound simple, the unique mechanic of Dead Cells comes when you die. The term “Souls-Like” is being tossed around too freely these days, but dying in Dead Cells is indeed VERY fatal. You lose all your equipped items, you lose all your carried cells, you lose all your accumulated gold and you drop any blueprints you’ve picked up but not “activated” at the rest stop. Did I mention the game doesn’t have any checkpoints? Harsh.
However, there is still hope: When you die, the one thing you do get to keep are all of your unlocks attained in all of your previous rest stops. Unlocked and upgraded weapons stay unlocked and upgraded, to be found within the levels. Permanent upgrades to your healing flask and post-death gold retention stay with you. Most crucial, certain “traversal” skills which can be used to access different levels and proceed via different routes are also yours to keep forever.
“Death is the new backtracking”, says the game’s description and I couldn’t agree more. In its non-linear progression, even in these Early Access stages that are roughly half of what the final game will be, the environment is rich enough to never feel like you’re trudging the same route and hitting the same wall. In fact, it’s never going to be the same wall anyway, because as a true roguelike should be, the levels are all procedurally generated. While the hip bone will always be connected to the leg bone, nobody guarantees they both belong to the same animal.
Enemy placement, loot, upgrades and secrets are all completely mixed up each time you die, shifting the emphasis from the typical “Souls” experience of remembering the levels, traps and ambushes, to a more arcade sense of adapting on the go, adjusting your tactics to the enemies and actually having fun reacting to the game as opposed to memorizing it. There’s also a strong emphasis on variety of approaches and “Right tool for the right job”, as the various levels are of course populated with different enemies.
With all the talk about dying, I should probably also mention that while it will happen a lot, you are most certainly well-equipped to delay the inevitable. Thanks to a mechanic inspired by Bloodborne, taking damage and actually losing health are two separate matters, with a “Strike Back” mechanic that allows a quick and aggressive player to regain almost all that was lost. There is also a staggering variety of weapons (up to two can be carried at a time) and utilities (again, up to two at a time) – with no limit on combination. You want to carry a spear and a whip? Go ahead. How about several types of swords? Rapier? Daggers? Flaming maces, oil-drenched sabers, throwing knives or any of the game’s many bows and shields? And how do you feel about multiple grenade types and deployable autonomous turrets? This is truly a “Something for everyone” game as you explore and unlock more ways to end your enemies.
Despite being in Early Access and nowhere near complete, Dead Cells has managed to impress me greatly – which is not an easy thing to do. It combines fluidity of animation with the visceral feel of combat, as a single whole that is an absolute blast to play and feels “right”. It also provides enough variety to easily sink tens of hours into in this yet-unfinished state, so I shudder at the thought of time that will be lost once the game is fully released.