For as long as I’ve been gaming, I’ve been catching up and trying to absorb all the games that are out there at a rapid pace. I started a little after what many now consider to have been a golden age of gaming; I was playing classics when they were already three or four games deep into their franchise. By the time I started to consider myself a gamer, I was working out the puzzles in Resident Evil 4 and Windwaker for the first time.
But even as my list of played games grew, there were a few games from when I was even younger that stayed at the forefront of my mind. Monkey Island charmed me with its quick wit; Ferazel’s Wand immersed me in a world of strange enemies and tortured deaths; and Prince of Persia captured a grace of movement that was unthinkable in real life.
Dead Cells has brought me back to those games. It has intelligence, it has environment, it has fluidity, and it’s addicting. In it, you play as a prisoner who’s found himself trapped in a dungeon with no head and only a rusty sword to defend himself. Various guides that you encounter explain the rules of this world to you piece by piece. The player learns that the dungeon is always changing, and that you have to fight your way out. When you die you return to the start with nothing except permanent upgrades. It’s a rogue-lite metroidvania mix (or rogue-vania, as the developers call it) with all the staples of its genres: procedurally generated maps, tough enemies, dungeon crawling, permanent upgrades, hidden rooms, bosses… all rendered in crystal clear and colorful pixel-art.
Speaking of the game’s art, you may have noticed this preview has a few more screenshots than the usual Gamer’s Almanac article. That’s because Dead Cells is beautiful even when it doesn’t need to be. The gameplay could carry Dead Cells on its own; it isn’t an rpg or a walking sim, and it’s doesn’t belong to a genre of games that begs you to stop and enjoy the scenery. That’s for a good reason. You have to be on the move, running from and slashing through enemies, so rogue-likes & lites don’t typically invite you to stop and take in the sunset. Dead Cells does just that, while still instilling a sense of permanent dread that keeps you on the move. In fact, there are a few secrets in the levels that can only be found if you’re looking for them, like rune-activated doors and sprouting vines.
Though in its current state Dead Cells only allows you to move through the levels in a linear progression, upon full release Dead Cells will let you move back and forth between them to explore at your will. This is an exciting thought, since it’s already fun to explore the game as it is. A level’s mini-map is only fully revealed once you’ve gone through an entire territory, and because (in rogue-like fashion) you’re dying frequently and the world is always reshuffling itself with the magic of procedural generation, the player pretty much always has a bit of exploring left to do. Once you get better at countering each level’s enemies it becomes easier (and more rewarding) to reveal every bit of the map, since you’re no longer just running for your life to reach the next level.
Discovering the edges of a map isn’t the most satisfying thing in Dead Cells, though. What keeps me coming back to this game is how fun it is to hack and slash through enemies, collecting their “cells” so I might invest in permanent upgrades. Investing in these upgrades slowly improves the things your character has access to, which (combined with practice) helps you get through enemies and levels that used to trip you up with ease. I say combined with practice because succeeding in Dead Cells does come down to a certain level of persistence. You need to be willing to dedicate the energy to learn how different enemies behave (and how best to counter them) if you want to have any hope of survival. That said, the enemies are introduced at a good pace and aren’t too difficult to figure out after they kill you once or twice. Mechanics and movement are smooth, which allows you to navigate easily across a level and focus on fighting and collecting cells instead of fiddling with the controls. These work in tandem with a well designed HUD and easy to navigate UI that fit the game’s dark theme and don’t clutter your vision.
What you can upgrade is defined by what blueprints you find as you explore, but generally these fall under the category of health, wealth, and weapons of dungeon destruction. Once you bring these blueprints to the Collector, he’ll turn your cells (which can be divided however you like) into a variety of things. This is where a lot of the fun begins, because once you craft new things you have access to much more powerful weapons and skills. Your rusty starter sword might be enough to do some damage, but it isn’t nearly as fun as a glowing blue broadsword or a well-placed turret. These weapons add variety to every playthrough, and help you ensnare the cast of haunted foes that you face in different ways. With this, Dead Cells becomes a customizable experience. Mage types might find themselves leaning towards freezing their enemies, and defensive types might forgo a secondary weapon in lieu of a shield.
The excitement of unlocking permanent upgrades combined with the fact that the game is easy to pick up make it a more inviting rogue-lite than most. Despite the fact that Gamer’s Almanac has pretty heavily focused on rogue-likes and the concept of perma-death as of late, I’ll admit it isn’t my personal favorite genre. I’m always a bit disheartened by the loss of so much progress, and the pressure to invest a lot of time into a game that can be lost with one slip-up isn’t always what I’m seeking. With this in mind, I was surprised to find myself enjoying Dead Cells so much. I think this is because Dead Cells isn’t just a rogue-lite; the developers have truly described it best when they call Dead Cells a rogue-vania, because it balances the unforgiving aspects of a rogue-lite with a metroidvania’s best (and most fun) qualities. Dead Cells is truly a fresh rogue-vania that plays exactly like a Dungeon Crawler should. Even though the game will be releasing early access, it already has the makings of a dark adventure that will keep Gamer’s Almanac coming back.
Dead Cells is developed by Motion Twin. It will be available Early Access on Steam (PC, MC & Linux upon Final Release) on May 10th. For more information, visit Dead Cells’ official website. Please note that impressions and screenshots from Dead Cells are based on a Beta version of the game that was received for free.
Looking forward to this dungeon-crawling rogue-vania? Let us know your impressions of Dead Cells in the comments!