By Andres C. – Amongst a sea of games using the phrase “like Dark Souls” as a substitute for creativity, Dead Cells is an emergent gem: a side-scrolling roguelike that borrows from the Metroidvania genre while establishing fresh, new ideas.
It’s not just a good game, it’s quite possibly a new genre.
Dead Cells uses [procedural generation] in a way I’ve never seen before: creating interconnected Metroid-like maps that require backtracking through multiple playthroughs.
You’re a headless corpse trying to reclaim your body. Yeah, that’s all the plot you get before Dead Cells pushes you from its nest.
Your goal is to collect cells for your body, and to do that you must fight your way through an enormous prison island. Goons, monsters, knights, prisoners, bats, mages, the whole nine yards.
IT’S LIKE DARK SOULS, I GUESS
Dark Souls players will understand when I say the game explains the controls but not the mechanics. Your first few hours will most definitely feel daunting. Enemies will devour you whole if you don’t know how to deal with them. After a few runs (and several deaths) under your belt, you’ll get a feel for the combat, the timing, and the speed of the game. Dead Cells challenges you to master its nuances, and after fifteen runs I could safely power through the first level in under 90 seconds.
The controls are absolutely fluid. You can double jump, grab ledges, roll, as well as carry two weapons and two secondary gadgets. The game gives you every opportunity to run and hide, but pulls no punches during combat. Enemies telegraph their attacks with a Metal Gear Solid EXCLAMATION POINT above their head, so you’ll never be killed by accident. Timing your attacks and evades are crucial to surviving the first map, let alone making it to a boss.
The game operates on a run-based system similar to Binding of Isaac, and if you die your death is permanent, you lose everything, and you start from scratch.
Well, not from scratch. This is where Dead Cells gets good.
In Dark Souls, dying several times in a row feels like a waste of time and resources. To avoid this, Dead Cells lets you invest in future runs through a currency called “cells”. Enemies drop these blue orbs. Granted you don’t die before the end of a map, you can spend cells on upgrades for future runs. With enough cells, you can allow cash to carry over from old runs; you can upgrade your starter weapons, carry more health potions, or even spawn weapons you’ve unlocked before. It’s a genius way to turn permadeath from an annoying mechanic into a useful helping hand.
The game is brim with content, too. I’ve found 18 weapons so far – grenades, traps, swords, shields, magic spells, whips – all usable in tandem. You’ll need it too: without a good set of weapons, enemies can overcrowd you and send you spiraling back to the beginning of the game.
The game also generates weapon stats and status effects unique to your playthrough. Early on, I found a powerful freezing-variant grenade and unfortunately died later in the level. I’ve yet to see that grenade again, and I still want to cry.
NOT ANOTHER NO MAN’S SKY
Here lies the rub: procedural generation. We’ve seen an influx of developers use this technique to pad out the content of their games. No Man’s Sky, the most infamous example of procedural generation, ended up being a resource collectathon on a universal scale. The game was a financial success but a critical mess, forcing the developers to spend two years updating the game until it had enough genuine content to feel fresh.
Dead Cells doesn’t have this problem because, impressively, Dead Cells uses procedural generation in a way I’ve never seen before: creating interconnected Metroid-like maps that require backtracking through multiple playthroughs. These aren’t random empty lots, but underground labyrinths with secrets to discover and NPCs to interact with.
Furthermore, beating a boss unlocks a new, permanent ability that allows you to interact with the world. Interactable objects, like the green blobs you can only “tickle” at first , can later grow vines, leading to new areas. Defeat enough bosses, and you’ll find yourself able to climb and explore where you previously couldn’t. I still don’t know what half of these objects due, and that means I have a lot more runs to attempt.
Dead Cells is the fun kind of difficult. It seeks to break the weak-willed while never feeling unfair to the player. Developer Motion Twin understand the appeal of a game with depth, and they’ve successfully streamlined the conventions of the Metroidvania genre into something infinitely rewarding.