It didn’t take long for Dead Cells’ colorful and hilarious intro to suck me in. And, as a fan of Metroidvania archetypes, I knew the gameplay had a good shot at keeping me entertained.
What I didn’t know, several months later and with the Hand of the King laid to rest at Dead Cells’ end for the very first time after 25-or-so unsuccessful runs…is that Dead Cells demands of you skill and a level of patience that I didn’t initially want or ask for.
I’m not a completionist, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs. I don’t need to see my games capped out at 100%, with all secrets found and all enemies defeated – I generally just want to beat the game. I fully expected to be done with Dead Cells inside a week, but now I’m glad I wasn’t. Dead Cells is a unique experience in indie gaming and one that’s been continually supported (mostly for free, I might add) by developer Motion Twin, since its release back in 2018.
The beating heart of Dead Cells is its ability to bring you back for more, again and again, all while continually punishing you in your panicked drive to complete levels as fast as possible. Fast is the way you’re encouraged to play, due to doorways that exist between levels that constantly tease you with a target time (and a promise of reward for beating it) that you either needed to complete the previous level under or the entirety of your run to that point.
But going fast continually led to my quick demise, and it was only when I slowed down, dealt with each set of enemies strategically and collected every power scroll and upgraded weapon I could find, that I really began to make progress deeper into Dead Cells’ 45-minute-long core experience.
Despite my best efforts to slow the game down, the upbeat, yet melancholic soundtrack always served to inspire a more frenetic pace. This is no Final Fantasy-level (or, for an indie example, Child of Light) all-time soundtrack, but the music in Dead Cells does more than just serve as background noise: it’s lively, tonally-appropriate, well-timed, and encouraging.
As for the story…
In Dead Cells, you are an unnamed, and headless, soldier (actually, you are many unnamed soldiers, as upon each death, you reanimate as a new one) wielding sword, whip, lance, shield, and a number of secondary tools such as grenades and traps. There is little backstory to the reason why you’ve been beheaded and what your ultimate goal is. But, your body has been reanimated and given purpose nonetheless. The Alchemist, your creator, provides you with a new head (basically, a comet with an eyeball attached), and sets you out to unleash Hell on those who would stand in your way. You’ll slash, dance, dive and jump your way through one to three levels at a time, with each set being broken up along the way by a major boss fight.
Dead Cells is a classic side scroller with well-complemented classic graphics. But it’s a side scroller that’s been injected with speed-inducing green syrup (think Octane in Apex Legends). The visuals rest somewhere between the NES and SNES graphics range while leaning a bit more to the NES side in terms of pixelation. But the game is colorful, fresh, and fun to take in at every turn.
Runs through Dead Cells are never the exact same experience as before. The levels and locations of chest, doors, and other elements shift from one playthrough to the next. And not even that, the corridors and overall stages shift as a whole. This serves to keep the experience somewhat fresh each time, but mostly to prevent you from easily mapping out the best or quickest paths, and routes to epic loot.
Once you unlock the ability, you’ll be given a random set of starter weapons each turn, but you’ll certainly upgrade from those along the way, whether by purchased upgrades found within the stages, at checkpoints between levels, or general drops.
Dead Cells has a lot more replayability than its surface suggests. There have been many free updates over the course of its lifetime, which includes secret bosses and other enemies to seek out that can only be reached after you’ve successfully completed a playthrough (or several). There are also daily time trials that place you in unique stages against a larger variety of enemies. I repeatedly failed at these and failed at them HARD. The challenge only increases once you ‘beat’ the game, and you’ll spend a lot of time trying to run out of fresh content to explore, so Dead Cells certainly justifies its slim price tag from a playtime perspective. But, as you may have gleaned from this blog, I certainly believe it justifies those costs in many, many other ways.
Dead Cells is available now on all major platforms, and this is actually the best time to jump in as Motion Twin just dropped its first-ever paid expansion, The Bad Seed. This DLC adds a few brand new early stages that open up the possibilities for exploration in the early stages of the game.