While a few other titles may have mixed these two together (the most recent being the underwhelming A Robot Named Fight), Dead Cells has been the most promising ever since it entered Steam Early Access back in May 2017.
Patient PC gamers and those on console will soon have the 1.0 release when it unlocks tomorrow, so how well did this game pull off this unique marriage?
Picking up this game for the first time and it’s much less daunting than it may appear. The controls are sublime here – the 2D platforming and combat is incredibly smooth and killing enemies is an utter joy.
Really, all other mechanics aside, just moving and fighting in this game is a treat. We now see why Dead Cells was such a success in Early Access. The core components here are so strong that it can carry the game through almost anything.
Your character has four slots for equipment you can allocate to weapons and items. Much of Dead Cells’ combat variety and progression happens with this system.
There are inherent synergies – like a whip that does extra damage to a burning enemy and a torch to set them alight – as well as more subtle ones. Our favourite of the latter is a frozen blast and a lumbering greatword that takes a long time to wind up. Hit the enemies with the blast to slow them down, and then OHKO them with the sword. It never gets old, even after you’ve cut through a thousand enemies.
Dead Cells seems to cater for every playstyle here. There are options for close, medium and long-range, and you can even mix them together depending on the enemy. Certain types of equipment also level according to powerups you get, so you can specialise further or stay a more rounded build to match the occasion and new equipment you get.
Unlocking new equipment is also a fun time as you need to hunt special enemies which will drop blueprints. Safely get these to an NPC at the end of each level and you can spend resources to unlock them.
We really have to hand it to developers Motion Twin. This equipment system together with the satisfying combat is an almost perfect mix that encourages you to play just one more game to see what the dice roll will bring you. Sometimes you get an overpowered run at the beginning and steam roll, and other times you’re barely tickling enemies with nothing but sandals as your only weapon.
This isn’t perfect, however. Due to the resources required to unlock equipment, you may find yourself railroaded into a certain play style, preferring to upgrade what you like instead of taking a gamble on new items. While this is praised by some as the item pool is less diluted, it can feel like you’re missing out.
That feeling is exasperated by the metroidvania elements of the game. As is tradition, you will see parts of the map (and their treasures) but will be unable to reach them without certain unlocks.
While it may be frustrating, it’s a fantastic incentive to explore and find the upgrades that will allow you to reach those areas. Granted, we were 12 hours into our game before we had all the runes, but Dead Cells feels like a 100+ hour game to us, so we don’t mind doing a bit of grinding at the beginning.
What is less forgivable, however, is the map design. The random generation isn’t really our problem – the long hallways leading to nothing are frustrating – but the real pain is the story.
Dead Cells feeds you the threadbare story of its word with special rooms unlocking a bit of text from the character – the game even makes a joke about this, calling it “threadbare storytelling”.
After many hours these rooms kept popping up and felt like a massive irritation once we were well into playing. We really don’t see the need to keep including them in every run with only some proving items with their interaction.
The art style here makes up for it, as we genuinely did want to find these unique rooms purely to see how they look. This extends to the rest of the game as the design here is brilliant. it’s unique and interesting to look at, and even the most disgusting enemies have an element of charm to them.
The music is forgettable with the sound design taking centre stage. The weapons pack a real punch here in terms of audio feedback and you’ll want to have those cranked even if you’re listening to music or a podcast while you play.
The biggest problem with this game, however, is its length. Once you’re good enough to beat the first few levels, getting to the later ones is an absolute slog.
While later enemies and items help add variety, once you’re 40+ minutes into the run things just feel repetitive and you want to call it quits.
While other roguelikes do share this problem, none are as taxing to play as Dead Cells. You’ll be frantically mashing buttons to stay alive as the enemies gain more and more health as levels are cleared.
Making later levels shorter and populating them with fewer enemies would have gone a long way here. Run rerolls, where you can completely change your loadout, would have been a welcome sight too.
These, however, are not enough to detract from an absolute recommendation from us. Even for those who usually don’t touch roguelikes will find something to love here.
It hasn’t replaced Enter the Gungeon as our daily game to pickup, but it is coming close and it’s always fun to start a new run to see where it takes you.
And, man, that combat is so damn good.