Anyone thinking about picking up Dead Cells should be ready to die. A lot. At some point, everything sort of clicks into place and runs through this satisfying action roguelite become almost zen; a tense dance of abilities and slashing through enemies as players run towards the end of each area. Dead Cells is on the Dark Souls level of satisfying during gameplay, each movement and attack must be purposeful, or death comes swiftly.
Dead Cells begins in a linear fashion. As players explore, more paths open up for exploration. However, don’t expect to know directly where you’re heading right off the bat. Every time you die, the level design changes, providing an extra challenge in an already difficult game. A handful of areas in Dead Cells feature a powerful subclass of enemies called “Elite” enemies that drop runes that unlock different areas.
Some enemies, when defeated, will drop cells that can be used to upgrade base abilities or unlock collected blueprints. These can range from additional uses of a health flask, all the way to new weapons. There are a wide variety of unlockables, but actually doing it is a little trickier than it sounds. Collecting cells is the easy part, but in order to actually put them to use, players have to get to the hub world between each area. Areas get harder and harder as the game continues, so it isn’t unlikely to gather a large number of cells just to die and lose all of them.
In addition to dropping cells, enemies can drop money or additional blueprints of different rarities to unlock new weapons and mutations (more on mutations later). When you die, this is where Dead Cells can be the most frustrating. Players won’t just lose the cells they’ve found. They lose everything. Blueprints, cells, weapons, skills, money. It’s all gone. Anything you’ve found between hubs is gone, and it makes for some rage inducing moments. That being said, it never feels unfair. Later levels my understanding of enemy movements plummeted and frustrated me, but I still knew it was my fault I died.
Each run through the labyrinthian stages of Dead Cells are different, not just in terms of level design, but also weapons and skills. One of the abilities I unlocked with my cells was to start each run with one of my available weapons. Just unlocking abilities and weapons in the hub doesn’t automatically allow you to choose between them. Instead, you must discover them in the world. This makes for some interesting decision making when trying to decide what to put your hard-earned cells into.
Different weapon combinations yield different results to varying degrees of success. It feels like every weapon and skill has its own unique place in Dead Cells. Every weapon and ability feels meticulously designed to play off another one. Bear traps work well to lock enemies into place, while a nearby sentry turret launches blades at them for extra damage, all while players hack them into pieces with a melee weapon. Each piece of equipment also has a modifier that can poison, burn, or bleed enemies. Which can deal tremendous amounts of damage when all pieces of equipment have modifiers that are working in unison. Additionally, modifiers can be re-rolled at the hub world with the help of an NPC. If a strong piece of equipment doesn’t have a modifier complementary to the rest of your loadout, gold can be used to re-roll them.
The last layer of combat are mutations. These serve as buffs for players to customize their runs through Dead Cells and depending on what has been found in a particular run can drastically effect how things turn out. I generally defaulted to a few different abilities, but once I started learning more of the intricacies of the combat and exploration systems, I branched out a little more. Some may seem less useful in the beginning, but turn out to be incredibly strong with a little more experience under players’ belt. Players can have three of these mutations stacked at any one time, and I cannot stress enough how important experimentation is. Mutations, like equipment, can be reforged, so players can select different mutations if they don’t like the ones they currently have on a run.
While everything does culminate into a package that does suffer from a little repetition, especially on runs that don’t work in the players favor and end in early deaths. Despite this, the addictive gameplay loop, and fast combat work in Dead Cells favor. Players can spend as little or as much time trying to survive the prison as they want. Dead Cells ultimately is as repetitive as you want to make it. Trying different paths helps alleviate some of this.
Dead Cells is perfectly stylized as well. I didn’t encounter any stutters or frame rate drops. The flashy equipment uses and fast combat system really shined because of it as well. Enemy variety was pretty decent as well. The first few areas were the only part that suffered in this department, as I ended up cutting down crowds of the same enemies until later levels.
After about 30 hours of gameplay, I still haven’t made it to the end of Dead Cells. I am perfectly content with increasing my abilities and skills for now though, because Dead Cells is the perfect balance of challenging and satisfying. Uncovering blueprints and finding new weapons and weapon combinations in one of the most engaging metroidvania/roguelites I’ve ever played is incredibly rewarding. Dead Cells deserves, and more than earns everyone’s attention, and is a strong contender for game of the year.