Dead Cells: Tips and tricks to master the afterlife
Dead Cells is beautiful, infuriating, exciting, frustrating, innovative, and glorious. It’s what happens when sketches out of a 16-year old goth’s notebook have a lovechild with Metroidvanias and Rogue-lites. It’s designed to be hard and you will be killed more times than you can count. Hopefully this guide will help your first few hours be a little less painful.
Dead Cells incorporates the exploration elements of a Metroidvania with the permadeath mechanics of a Rogue-lite game. But what does that mean? And how do these two game types interact?
Metroidvanias are named for the venerable franchises of Metroid and Castlevania. In their earliest incarnations, they’re side-scrolling action games with an emphasis on exploration. As you progress through the game, you gain new abilities that alter how you can interact with your environment. New weapons and gear provide new ways to defeat old foes and gain access to new sections of old environments. Think Hollow Knight and Ori and the Blind Forest.
Rogue-lites are so named for the original Rogue, a dungeon exploration game from 1980. The dungeon is randomly generated and when you die, you have to start over. The Rogue-lite variation on the formula allows users to retain some of what they have gained during each run. You can see modern examples of this in games like Everspace and FTL.
So how do these genres blend in Dead Cells?
The levels (called biomes) are randomly generated with a few pre-created areas added in. Levels are largely different each time you die. When you defeat bosses, you gain runes, which allow you to unlock and explore different parts of the biomes. This allows you to reach new and different biomes that were previously inaccessible.
When you defeat enemies, you collect cells, which function as a currency for unlocking gear, character perks, and other permanent upgrades. At the end of each level, you give these cells to the Collector, and the stuff you unlock is available the next time you run through the game. Unlocked weapons and gear will spawn randomly throughout the game, and every incarnation of each level is very different.
You are sentient pile of green goo that’s infested a dead body. That goo is also sort of on fire? It’s pretty gross and pretty awesome. You have three stats: Brutality (red), Tactics (purple), and Survival (green). They all start off at one, and can be increased by finding scrolls, which are scattered around the various biomes. Scrolls let you choose which stat to increase, allowing you to improve your character as you see fit. They also increase your hit points. Upgrading stats also increases the efficacy of related mutations.
Stats and gear exist in a symbiotic relationship. Weapons deal damage based on their related stat. For example, your starting sword does damage based on Brutality. Bows deal damage based on Tactics. A lot of your early traps deal damage based on Tactics or Survival, while Grenades deal damage based on Brutality.
This gets funkier as the game goes on, as some items are “dual colored” and are influenced by whichever stat is higher. You tend to improve stats based on the gear you’re carrying, and choose gear based on your stats. If you’ve invested a lot of points into Brutality, chances are, you’re going to want to stick to melee weapons and grenades.
Your first few scrolls provide large bonuses to both hit points and damage, but provide diminishing returns to both. You can specialize in one single area, but you’ll be a glass cannon - your damage will be high and your hit points will be much lower than they would’ve been if you generalized a bit.
I encourage new players to take at least their first level in Brutality (because almost every melee weapon is based on that stat) and the first level in Survival for the huge hit point increase (50 and 60 percent, respectively). More hit points means you have a larger margin for error, and you’ll want that when you’re just getting started.
Cells, Mutations, and Cold Hard Cash
When you kill enemies, you receive cells and money. Money can be spent at shops to purchase new items. Cells are a little more complicated.
At the end of the first level, you’ll meet the Collector, who allows you to invest your cells into unlocking permanent upgrades and new gear. Some of these upgrades are VERY expensive, but don’t worry - dying doesn’t erase these cellular investments. They are persistent across all your brief, violent lives. Always turn in all your cells. If you die between drop-offs, you lose all of the cells you were carrying.
I strongly recommend that you upgrade your health potion as soon as possible. When you start the game, the health potion only provides a single usage. The first upgrade is relatively affordable and gives you a second sip, doubling your staying power and increasing your margin for error. The next upgrade I recommend is the one that lets you carry gold over from your previous lives. This means that you can use shops immediately, and start experimenting with available equipment to find out what you like.
There’s also another little dude that provides mutations. Mutations are perks that do stuff like improve your cool down times for abilities or grenades, give you more hit points, or provide a DPS bonus after you kill someone. You can have three active mutations at any time, and can only take one every time you reach this room. You unlock more mutations via the Collector.
Two Save Files
I strongly suggest you have two save files. Your first save file should unlock absolutely everything. Unlocking an item allows it to appear in shops and throughout the game. However, you’re going to hate some items (Nutcracker, I’m looking at you.) and every time you get stuck with them, you’ll rue your fate and curse your luck.
That’s where your second save file comes in. In your second file, you should only unlock the items you know you like. That way, you’ll only ever receive weapons that you like, instead of junk you don’t (NUTCRACKER, I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!).
Bows or Shields?
The first choice you make in Dead Cells is between a shield and a bow. Both are interesting takes on these obvious accessories.
The bow has a limited linear range. Eventually, arrows drop to the ground. If an enemy is nearby when you fire your bow, you will lock on to the nearest enemy. This is particularly helpful for flying enemies, who move unpredictably and would be otherwise much harder to hit. Bows have a limited amount of ammo, which gets refilled when you kill an enemy. If you don’t manage to kill anyone, your ammo will eventually refill, but very slowly. This is important to keep in mind when handling bosses. A pair of bows is neat during levels, when there are plenty of fragile enemies to kill, but bosses are one on one fights, and you can run out of ammo very quickly.
The shield protects you from a percentage of damage from an attack. If you parry, it blocks all damage and deals damage to your enemy. If you parry projectiles, they often bounce back toward the enemy, dealing damage to them. Parrying requires activating the shield at just the right time - watch for the exclamation point over the enemy’s head to know when they’re going to attack. Shields also provide a brief forcefield after you get hit, preventing further damage for the duration.
Dead Cells has a mechanic called breach. There’s a little math involved, but I’ll spare you that for now (check the fan wiki for a more detailed explanation). Essentially, if you deal enough damage to an enemy quickly, you can stun them, which stops them from attacking, moving, or doing anything besides getting their face beaten in. You can cause an enemy to be breached with melee or ranged weapons. Breaching is great. Do it often.
But keep in mind that some later enemy attacks can’t be breached, and will go off no matter how badly you smack them in the face.
The Rally Effect
This is a funky, largely invisible effect that I only discovered by digging into the Dead Cells wiki. There’s a very full explanation available there, and I suggest you read it, but the summary is this: when you get hit, you should attempt to damage enemies immediately afterward. Damaging enemies heals you for a percentage of the health you lost in that previous hit. But if you get hit again while the rally effect is ongoing, your rally ends and your health is lost permanently. So be aggressive, but be careful!
You can execute a dive attack by pressing down and the jump button while in the air. This slams your character directly downward, dealing damage to whatever’s below you. The higher you are, the more damage you do and the wider the AoE of your attack. Simple, right? But the Dead Cells devs added a bit of a twist.
If you allow yourself to fall too far, when you land, you’ll be stunned and won’t be able to take any actions. But if you are performing a dive attack, you can fall any distance and not be stunned. However, if you are dive attacking into unknown areas, you can slam into spikes, poison pools, and other environmental hazards. If you hit an enemy mob and don’t kill them with the dive attack, they may get an attack in on you before you can respond. There’s a cost benefit analysis you have to make when dive attacking.
Some heights are so high that diving will still cause a stun when you land. You can avoid this by rolling in mid-air, as this resets the dive attack. These areas are few and far between, however.
You start the game with a double jump, and it’s your primary movement ability. The game throws environmental hazards at you as early as the second biome. If you’re like me, you have a tendency to hammer the jump button - if one jump is good, two jumps is twice as good. No. Wrong. If you expend your second jump right after your first jump, you’ll have less control over your character’s momentum, and double jumping will often cause you to overshoot your goal. Try to handle environmental hazards with a single jump. You’ll often know right away if you need a second jump.
You can also control your aerial momentum by attacking. Attacks, particularly with ranged weapons, can freeze your forward aerial momentum, causing you to drop. You can repeatedly fire your weapon in order to hover; with a fast firing weapon, you’ll only drop a bit between shots. The lightning whip in particular is great for this.
You can get cursed by doing one of two things: opening a cursed chest, picking up a cursed item, or breaking through a pay gate. If there’s an item you really want behind a pay gate and you have no money, you can smash the door down, but doing so will lead to you being cursed. When you’re cursed, any damage you take will instantly kill you. You end the curse by killing ten enemies. There’s actually a cursed sword that does tons of damage, but curses you perpetually. It is not, in my opinion, a wise choice.
Burning, bleeding, and poison status anomalies inflict damage over time. Weapons that inflict these statuses list a DPS rating for the effect, and these statuses can stack. Blood drop and flame icons appear over an enemy’s head who are being affected. If the enemy is being affected multiple times, multiple icons will appear.
When you freeze an enemy they turn white. If you hit them, the freeze effect ends, but they’ll be moving in slow motion, making them easier to dodge and kill.
An oiled enemy has a black drop icon over their head, and they’re much more vulnerable to fire.
Always take a look at your weapons’ status effects. Sometimes a sword will do more damage to a frozen enemy, or an ice arrow will do additional damage to a burning enemy. Knowing these weapon stats will help you be as effective as possible.
Stuff Worth Smashing
If there are enemies near a door, smash through it using your roll or an attack. Smashing through doors will stun nearby enemies, giving you an advantage when initiating a fight. For added effect, shout “OH YEAH!” as you make your entrance, for that hilarious murder ambush feel. (The Kool-Aid Man is actually full of blood.)
Also, if you simply open doors, they eventually close behind you, making retreat slower and more difficult. Destroying them ensures fast and easy backtracking.
Keep an eye out for runes on walls. These sections can be destroyed with any attack and often provide health items. Later on, you’ll find floors with runes on them, and they can also be destroyed but only after you get a particular rune upgrade.
Finding Your Rhythm
Each enemy has a set behavior pattern that you need to learn. Some are basic, like zombies. They walk back and forth on a platform until they see you, and when they do, they pause, wind up, and either take a swipe at you or leap at you. Others are more complicated and responsive to your actions, like the twin-sword-wielding Runner, who teleports around to chase you and hack you to bits.
You start off the game with your basic sword and shield / bow, and you will find a natural rhythm to defeating the many enemies in the game. If you go with the bow, you’ll plink the enemy from afar. If you go with the shield, you’ll probably mix it up at close range in order to land parries. As you obtain new weapons, it will change your approach to each enemy. My current favorite involves ditching my melee weapon entirely; instead I freeze enemies with ice arrows and then burn them with the AoE firebrand weapon. This combo allows for very little enemy response and provides a great deal of crowd control.
Dodging is a key element of this game. While you’re dodging, you’re largely invulnerable - take advantage of this fact! Very few enemies in this game have “bad touch” that deals damage on contact - this allows you to run by enemies, dodge past them, and stay mobile. By running and dodging, I can avoid killing anyone in the first biome, and finish in less than two minutes if the level layout isn’t too complicated.
Picking Fights (or Not)
There are a lot of optional fights in Dead Cells. Killing enemies provides precious cells and cash, but death is permanent and erases your run. If you’re low on life and out of healing potion draughts, seriously consider whether it’s a good idea to enter a cramped room with a bunch of enemies when you could simply bypass it.
This goes double for Elites. Elites look like normal enemies with the Elite tag hovering over them. They are more aggressive and their attacks are stronger and deadlier. Once they reach 50% health, they start teleporting around the level chasing you, forcing confrontation until they die or you do. You can’t run away; you have to finish this fight. They also summon additional mook enemies that you’ll have to deal with as well. Elite fights are always crowd fights. They always drop a higher level item like blueprints or a new collar, so you’ll have to approach each fight as a cost-benefit analysis.
You start off in the Prisoner’s Quarters and will end up in either the Toxic Sewers or the Promenande of the Condemned. During your early playthroughs, you’ll notice a door in the Promenade of the Condemned that will most likely be locked.
Your goal is to reach that door before its two minute timer runs out. There are a load of gems and free cells and usually a weapon or upgrade scroll or two back there. It’s definitely worth skipping a lot of the fights in the Prisoner’s Quarters to get to this room. There are more rooms like this throughout the game, and they reward fast level runs.
Don’t forget your teleporters! If you need to backtrack, these will help you shave precious seconds off of your level completion time. You can activate them just past walking by them.
I hope this helps ease you into Dead Cells! Remember, you’re going to die a lot, and that’s all part of the process! Don’t get frustrated - every new life is an opportunity to experiment with new combinations of weapons, mutations, traps, and grenades. As you progress, the game opens up in amazing ways. Stick with it through those first painful hours and you’ll get to enjoy one of the best games of the year!