Dead Cells

This is a game that has been in "Early Access" for a while, but was realeased in full early on this month...most notably (for me) on the Switch. It's been descibed a "Rogue-lite", "Metroid-vania" and "Dark Souls-esque". It's not the sort of game I normally gravitate to, however I'd seen a couple of reviews, and also some real-world gameplay footage (notably Eurogamers "Lets Play"), who tend to be on a skill/reaction level to myself. Lots of reviews stated that the Switch was the best platform for the game (partly as the pixel-art style suited the game, partly for the handheld nature, and partly as the Switch has a better game-state pause, which other platforms don't support as well), and I was convinced to pick it up.

To quickly cover the mechanics and game's a 2D platformer, with very sharp controls (it definitely rewards precision and timing). The actions you have (other than move) are;

  • Jump (+ double jump)
  • Roll/Dodge
  • Melee Weapon
  • Missile Weapon
  • 2 "Skills" (typically turret deployables or grenades)
  • Heal
  • Generic Interaction button

(I should note that you can have a shield instead of one of your 2 weapons, but I've not mastered them yet!)

You'll work your way through several procedurally-generated levels (though you work through the various level-types in a set order)...there are a good variety of mobs, and each has a very defined attack pattern. You'll occasionally meet mini-bosses (elite versions of the normal mobs), and there are set main bosses (4 in total I believe, I've met one so far). As you progress through each level you can pick up new weapons, skill items, and also level up your character (more damage to weapon types and more health). There are also permanant unlocks you can buy at the end of each level (more healing attempts, new weapon varieties etc), based on Blueprints you find through each level. As you progress further, more types of upgrade occur (you can re-forge weapons, and also improve drop rates globally). Finally, there are "runes" that are unlocked via set-sequences in certain levels...normally a mini-boss fight. These unlock the ability to open up different paths through the game, allowing you to go via different levels.

So, for a 2D platformer a surprising amount of depth and complexity...however all you know when you start is how hard and un-forgiving it is. When a mob is about to attack, it neatly telegraphs this with a small exclamation mark...this is normally your signal to jump or dodge, however until your reactions and muscle memory is locked in, you'll be dieing pretty quickly. Apart from your (very) limited health potion, refilling your life is a very rare thing, and I found the first hour or two of playing quite frustrating...however then something "clicked", and suddenly I found myself clearing the first level regularly, and getting to the second or third level...then I met the first boss (the Concierge), and had my butt well and truely handed to me, but at the same time I was well hooked in. I had the basic game mechanisms ingrained, and as a natural result you tend to start playing faster and more fluidly. This is when you really feel how well it works on the hardware. What's really good about it is that as you climb up the learning curve, more skills become available, and you start to really feel the pro's and con's of the different weapons you've found. I've had runs through where I've never found a decent melee weapon, so have had to rely on a bow and a turret, resulting in hit-and-run attacks. Another time I had a monster super-fast melee weapon, and would be dashing into rooms and slashing around rapidly. Importantly, it never feels unfair. The mobs react predictably and reliably, the movement and controls are sharp and when (it is when) you die, you know exactly why, and it's definitely your own fault.

It also adds pressure as you improve. As you go through a level you pickup the eponymous Cells, and these are what you use to buy global weapon and skill you can only use them if you survive to the end of the level (also, if you find an item blueprint in the level, you only get to keep it if you reach the end of the stage) when you're doing well, you have an added incentive to keep doing well. My lowest moment was beating a mini-boss elite, who dropped loads of Cells, and a Rare template (the battle had cost me my health potion), and then I was playing super-cautiously to try and reach the end of the level to bank these items, only to be dropped within touching distance of the end. It's exceptionally well-balanced, especially given the procedurally-generated nature of the game.

Finally, there are some nice touches to stop it feeling "grindy". While you can't Save (when you die, you die, and are back to the start) there are Teleport locations around the level you can unlock, and if you're going down a dead-end there is always a Teleport at the begining and end of the section, so once you've cleared it you can quickly jump back to where you were, and there is a map that quickly shows any areas you've not ransacked, any items you've seen, and any shops/chests etc...the end result is that you're never walking through cleared areas, and there is no dead-time. This is something I's a game that actually wants you to play, not just walk around dumbly. A typical run-through (once you are past the initial learning curve) can be 15-60 minutes (depending on how you play...a fast, aggressive run will obviously be faster (or shorter!), or you can cautiously step-through). I've found myself hitting a level where my equipment is letting me down, which probably means I need to more thoroughly rinse previous levels...but each play-through I get more confident in that.

The animation is really well done...your character (the "Prisoner") move fluidly, and has some really good personality movements, especially when being handed plot (the game is also quite light-hearted regarding itself, with such lines as "there's some writing on the wall, how handy...spoon-fed plot on a shoestring!"), and is not ashamed of admitting it's heritage (with graphic and in-game references to a whole host of previous games such as Zelda, Tomb Raider, Dark Souls etc etc).

Finally, here is me beating/cheesing the first boss for the first time. I'd had some advice on Facebook to simply drop turrets, and then dodge his attacks. It as a proper "woohoo" moment (quickly followed by having my face punched in on the next level!)


That does look cool! Look at the item drops when you kill the bastard!

I'm not normally one for platformers but I'd give this a shot. The "skill glass bottle" things I saw in the Eurogamer vid are really neat. What a cool way to show them.

brainwipe's picture

I got the switch version just after it got all that publicity for that plagurist IGN editor ripping off the review from some small youtuber.

Very fun very hard but definitely got that "Just one more go I'll get it this time!" I'm fairly rubbish at it and have only made it past the guy who gives you the vine rune thing but not any further.

Evilmatt's picture

Based on IGN's review policy "reviewers are expected to player games single-player or campaign to completion at least once", in this case thats a blood hard demand!

I've now beaten the second boss (basically by putting all my upgrades into health, and then cheesing them by running around while dropping turrets), but tehn (predictably) got mullered in the very next level. I've also now discovered that you effectively start on Easy, and you unlock a newer difficulty level each time you complete...upto 4 times. Pfft.

babychaos's picture

yep pretty hard to do with something like this, although that guy was shown to have ripped off nearly everything he ever reviewed so I suspect that wasn't the motivation.

I quite like the ice weapon that freezes anything solid then allows you to hammer away at them at your leisure

Evilmatt's picture