Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
“The following is a contributor post by the Moronic Cheese Mage.”
There are loads of roguelike, Metroidvania games in the Steam-led era of indie games. There are a heaping great big pile of good ones, too, but some of them stand out – Dead Cells is one. It’s a hard-as-nails but thrilling romp that will challenge even the most hardy of gamers.
With its influence primarily coming from Castlevania, it may look like a familiar experience. But this is a tough, crunchy, wild, crazed, and frenzied take on the genre. It offers impressive graphics, a fantastic soundtrack, plus a hypnotic and relentless quality that’ll leave you pretty exhilarated.
It’s been in early access on Steam since May 2017, but it launched for good on every available games console and PC on August 7th, 2018. You’d be dead stupid to miss it. Yeah?
I’ve kept up with this one from its initial early access release. The trailer looked fantastic, the music was great, and the user reviews were through the roof. I downloaded it and promptly spent the next batch of hours transfixed. It’s incredibly absorbing – you’re dragged into it and just want to keep going.
But I’m not some kind of Hipster who’s upset as their special obscure band has suddenly become big. No, the release of Dead Cells across everything is to be celebrated. Here we have what was previously a hidden gem, one of those early access things that looks like a batch of other indie games. But this one is extra special.
A whole bunch of new gamers are about to get their hands on it. Since its early access release, it’s gone through various overhauls in content. For instance, some of the bad guys I was used to battling in the summer of 2017 have been replaced with better ones. Meanwhile, there have been upgrades to the graphical style and music. There are new stages, but its the list of items that have consistently received the most attention.
The end result is compelling and surprisingly complex. The focus is very much on intense combat, looking for ways to steal a march on your rivals, learning from your previous errors, and just enjoying the non-stop mayhem.
French developer Motion Twin, based in Bordeaux, has a heavy emphasis on death in Dead Cells. Be prepared to die a lot. As a gamer, you’ll be used to that anyway! But as with many roguelike games, it’s not a huge issue. The game has a rinse and repeat approach – get obliterated, then get back in there and start again.
If you’re wondering why I’ve not mentioned the plot yet it’s because, shock horror, there isn’t much of one. This is a truly traditional gaming experience – minimalistic interference from cutscenes and dialogue boxes, just straight out action. For someone like me, that’s bliss. Other gamers might not be so pleased with that side.
But when that title screen hovers into view, you’re going to struggle to be disappointed. The spectacle and sense of grandeur is there from the moment the game launches.
But there is a plot, with the castle where you spend your time considered something of a living organism – it mutates and grows inwardly, like in Howl’s Moving Castle.
So what’s going on here? Well, you’re on an unknown island and you take control of the Prisoner (a humanoid type thing). A silent anti-hero sort, the chap is also immortal. When you battle through the procedurally generated levels, you “die” and regenerate at the start.
The trick here is to collect dead cells from enemies you wipe out before your death. Over time, you can limit the chances of dying by upgrading to better weapons with those dead cells (the Metroidvania element to the game). You do this in a safe house at the end of each stage, so as you replay levels they’ll become easier as you have the ability to whoop everyone to a greater extent.
The emphasis is very much on wiping out enemies, but this isn’t for the faint of heart – Dead Cells is one almighty challenge. It offers a multilayered tapestry of delights you can unearth… so long as you’re determined.
Dead Cells lands the difficulty in there from the word go. You start off with a basic weapon, then it’s your chance to blast through levels, upgrade as and when you can (which is all rather strategic – you should experiment to find out what your preference for weapon combinations is), and take on new levels.
Sounds easy? After the first stage, which is a walk in some zombie-filled park, the difficulty ramps up big time and doesn’t stop. This is really down to player skill here and, my word, you’ll need some bravery. It’s a proper sweaty-palmed, grippy controller type game – your nerves will be on a razor’s edge.
But as you get better, you really can begin to soar around levels like a whirling dervish. This is when you start picking up on the little tricks that make the game so memorable.
You can power slam into the ground, damaging enemies slightly before wiping them out entirely. You’ll master the art of freezing enemies momentarily before smacking them up good. There’s also a glorious sense of achievement when you complete a level and pay some dead cells to unlock a new weapon.
There’s a fantastic and rousing soundtrack to go with the pain you’ll take. The compositions make you feel like you’re a gamer on a mission. Yoann Laulan of France is behind it. These days technology lets one person create something that sounds like 100 people were behind it, but full credit to Laulan for this magnificent piece of work. Emotive? Indeed!
The amazing thing about Dead Cells is, despite its deceptively simple surface, there’s hundreds of hours of gameplay here. What’s even more unusual is it doesn’t get repetitive – the elements of strategy, and the sheer satisfaction of taking out enemies, is enough to keep you coming back time and time again. I even found myself awaking early one morning for work and having a quick 30 minute run through, something I rarely do these days.
But if there is one flaw to pick up on, it’s that unfaltering difficulty level. It can be frustrating to die after what appears to be a solid run. In the blink of an eye, you can get yourself wiped out. After a lot of hard work and good progress, you can feel deflated.
Motion Twin has added in new features to ease the remorselessness, but you’re in for a rough time of it – there’s no escaping that. This is why you must be prepared.
Before I wrap up this post with some scores, I can recommend you get a few starter tips. The more you known before you delve on into Dead Cell’s ethereal depths the better. The above video guide is a nifty starting point.
It’s a complex game. Anyone heading in expecting to button mash their way through it will be left sorely frustrated. You’ll, as the AVGN once put it, get your arse handed to you.
My tips, as someone (smug mode) who’s put in 20+ hours into this one? Take advantage of the strategic elements of Dead Cells. You’ll get used to the ebbs and flows of gameplay, the various levels, the antagonists, and the many weapons on offer. But you’ll want to perfect your use of weapons, taking out specific enemies, and generally marauding your way through levels.
I’ve found the twin daggers are pretty epic in the early stages. You get a ranged weapon to go with this, for which I think the frost blast is brilliant. It stops everything in their tracks and lets you get some extra blows in.
You also get some traps or turrets to mess around with, but you’ll have to balance this out with power-ups that offer a chance to improve your power, support weapons, or health. It’s a tough old choice.
The solution is to keep playing, become better over time, and begin to master the experience. As each run is procedural, as with The Binding of Isaac (a major influence for Motion Twin), sometimes you’ll have a bad selection of items and levels. Other times good. but you’ll learn to maximise every opportunity to get everything out of this fantastic experience.
It’s more than worth it. Dead Cells has all the potential to reach classic status.
The 8-bit Review
A brilliant artistic style with a pixelated look matched with some spectacular 2D background designs. It’s such a vibrant looking experience with a tremendous use of colour throughout.
But Dead Cells is never dark and dingy. Whether you’re running through the sewers or out on the castle’s ramparts, all it takes is for an explosion, a random enemy, or one of the game’s stunning backgrounds to grab your attention.
An exceptional soundtrack that powers you along. With the music surging back and forth between intensity and melancholic restraints, you’ll get a boost of energy and be ready to take on the hordes of evil things. A perfect complement to the look and feel of the game.
It can also be the lift you need, given the sense of deflation you can have after one of your runs ends in disaster. Hearing the chamber music surging back in again, you really want to get back into the game and unlock more secrets.
It’s exhilarating – there’s a magnificent flow to it. The crunchy, fast-paced way of wiping out enemies, gaining dead cells, getting new features, and working your way through is immensely rewarding.
The difficulty can be frustrating, but on the whole it only really delights. It’s like the very best Metroidvania games, but jittery due to an underlying hyperactive disorder. Channel that to achieve greater things with each level.
I was concerned during its early access days Motion Twin would set the game to ultra-difficult. As much as I love indie games, a lot of the devs these days seem to kowtow to the belief NES-era difficulty is something to aspire to. The result is titles like Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight, a magnificent game also made intensely frustrating due to its sky high difficulty setting.
Motion Twin went for the Steam early access option, in part, to gauge user feedback. For the live launch, I’ve noticed amongst the raft of additional features that have been rolled out is… a slightly reduced difficulty rating. This will help some folks get into it, but you’re still going to hit trouble the moment the Concierge boss homes into view.
Yeah. It’s difficult. It can be a nightmare at times, which can leave you frustrated, but gamers looking for a big challenge, with potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay, really should do themselves a favour and get this immediately.
It’s a game I’ve been playing for over a year and haven’t tired of. At all. With its full release, I intend to fully immerse myself into the experience. There’s so much going on in Dead Cells, with so much to unlock, that I can’t foresee ever being able to complete this 100%. But I’m going to enjoy every moment I play it, not matter. That’s a given.
Its similarity to Castlevania is more than obvious. But what it does for the genre is ramp up the many levels of lunacy. Few Castlevania games played like this, with Symphony of the Night being the closest comparison.
But Dead Cells is a different type of beast. Whereas each new Castlevania game arrives expecting awe and reverence for the series’ stature, Motion Twin’s indie gem is raw, crazy, and all the more fun for it. Out went the rule book and in came a whole batch of new elements that could be enough to trigger off a new series.
My Grade: 9/10
At its best, Dead Cells is breathtaking and intense. At its worst, it’s brutal and frustrating. Going into this you’ll need patience and perseverance. The reward? An indie title of remarkable depth, but also one that I want to call a classic.
But stripping away the more analytical approach, it’s fantastic fun. Whether you want a quick 30 minute blast or a serious marathon session, you’re catered for. But it always up being a marathon run, simply as Motion Twin has devised an immensely addictive and enthralling adventure.
You can peel back the layers of complexity and make it a simple button mashing experience, or head off on a gung-ho rampage. I recommend you put the full effort in to drag everything kicking and screaming from the experience. Dead Cells is something special.
Aggregated Score: 9.1
The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.
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Categories: Game Review