Preview: Dead Cells: A perfect blend of fun and frustration

Dead Cells is currently on Steam Early Access and you should pick it up. While Steam Early Access games have gotten a lot of criticism in the past for various problems (I’m looking at you PUBG), I’m happy to report that Dead Cells doesn’t suffer from the same problems. In fact, I’ve never felt like the developers were ignoring the concerns of the community or failed to fix something. If you have your heart set on playing Dead Cells on your console, you’re in luck. It’s also being developed for Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch.

In short, Dead Cells is a game that deserves your attention, even if the game isn’t finished and there is still the occasional bug. Throughout its tenure on Steam, the developers, Motion Twin, have continually updated the game with new content and balance fixes.

But what exactly is Dead Cells? It’s this amazing, 2-D side-scrolling, Metroidvania-esque, Dark Souls difficulty, RPG platformer. I know that’s a lot of words to describe a seemingly simple game, so let’s break it down into what makes this game special.

Platforming

While the breakout star for platform gaming last year was Cuphead, I daresay Dead Cells could be a decent contender for the title this year. Motion Twin took the same tactic as Cuphead did, focusing more on gameplay rather than high-end graphics. As with Cuphead, that strategy has paid off.

Instead of the flashiest stuff out there like in Destiny 2, we get a carefully crafted set of levels that are different every time. Different? Yes, different. Each time you load into a zone, the zone is randomly generated. You’ll still get the same monsters, same difficulty, and a lot of the same drops, but the layout is always going to be different, allowing for the gameplay to stay relatively fresh.

Don’t underestimate how important this is, either. With how often you go through these levels, it’s great that they aren’t the same thing over and over. The style of platforming is more reminiscent of Castlevania and Metroid Fusion rather than Super Mario. Combat is fast-paced, visceral, and quite unforgiving at times.

One thing that is fantastic about the platforming in Dead Cells is the lack of trick edges. If you have trouble reaching a ledge through a double-jump (or triple depending on items) you won’t fall to your doom. That isn’t to say that there aren’t points in the game where you might fall into a pit of spikes, but it’s not like death will greet you every time you fail a jump. The game isn’t designed to punish you for missing your jump.

Combat

The enemies, however, are designed to punish you. Much like Dark Souls, there is a learning curve to many of the monsters you’ll encounter. Most of them have easy and difficult ways to defeat them, but it all depends on your weapon setup. Finally, many of them are more than capable of one or two-shotting you.

But with the robust item system that gets better the longer you play, it’s fun to meet these OP enemies over and over to experiment with ways to beat them. Harry them from a distance with grenades, shoot them with a bow until you run out of ammo, or roll past them and smack them with a lumbering broadsword. All of these options and more are viable.

As you play, you’ll find your own unique style that you prefer to play with. A style that allows you to progress farther than ever before, but unfortunately, that progress is going to be hampered by the RNG in the game.

There is no such thing as a checkpoint in Dead Cells. No such thing as a continue screen. In the event that you die, and you will, you’re immediately sent back to the very beginning of the game to start over.

All is not lost, though. Through the game’s upgrade system, you’ll be able to recover parts of your gear, albeit randomly. For example, an early upgrade is called “random starting weapon” which will give you a random melee weapon you’ve unlocked instead of the base starting weapon. Same for ranged weapons and shields. But it is completely random, meaning sometimes you’ll get the awesome spear or broadsword and other times you’ll get a Spartan Sandal allowing you to emulate the iconic film moment in 300.

While you could simply just die to reset the RNG, it isn’t advisable. You can get through the game with any weapon combination, it just takes time and patience. Learning each style of weapon is critical to the learning curve in Dead Cells. For a long time I avoided weapons like the Fire Brand until I had to use it. Now? I’m in love with it.

Boss battles are just as fun. There are technically only three currently in game, but there are plenty of mini-bosses called “elites” to keep you occupied. And depending on your weapon combination when you reach a boss it could be more difficult than the last time.

Item and upgrade system

I’ve slightly alluded to the item system already, but let’s take a moment to really examine it. The developers have gone through the trouble of coming up with some really unique weapons, and therefore, unique ways to play the game.

You unlock new types of weapons by spending Cells on them. You get Cells by killing monsters. It’s not a 100 percent drop rate, but it’s more than high enough to feel rewarding. Careful, though, if you die while holding cells you lose them. You must clear a level in order to spend the Cells you’ve collected.

Once you unlock an item, that item is unlocked permanently. It doesn’t mean you always get it, though. The permanent unlock just means you can now find it as your random starter weapon, laying around in a dungeon, or at the various shops scattered throughout the game’s levels.

There are a few permanent upgrades that are worth getting. Early on I found the upgrade to the potion flask was critical to my success. Initially, you only get one charge, but you can unlock up to four charges with the upgrades. Once unlocked it stays with you through death.

You can also unlock new items by collecting Blueprints, which are either found on the levels or dropped from monsters. As with Cells, you must clear the level in order to get credit for these. If you die after getting a rare blueprint it’s like you never got it in the first place.

As you explore each level you’ll come across scrolls of power that allow you to upgrade one of three stats. Simply put, these stats represent attack, defense, and utility. It’s up to you to prioritize what stat you want augmented, but your choices do matter. If you’re running attack gear upgrading the defense stat won’t be as beneficial to you, but there are diminishing returns to things like health gain. Like almost everything else in Dead Cells, though, these upgrades reset on death.

Final Thoughts

While not super critical to gameplay, we need to at least mention the visuals. Each area is designed with care and looks amazing. The dungeons look like dungeons, the graveyard looks sufficiently spooky, and the docks are somewhat pirate themed, to name only a few. The team over at Motion Twin paid a lot of attention to the parts you interact with and the parts that are there just for decoration. If you get a chance to stop and smell the metaphorical flowers, do so.

They’ve continued to add more to the game to increase replay value. After defeating the current final boss, The Assassin, you can start collecting Boss Cells. At the start of each run you can apply these as modifiers to the game’s overall difficulty.

It’s not to say this game isn’t without its problems. There are still some bugs that need fixing, like certain items not being accessible that are clearly supposed to be. The game also sometimes freezes if you drop too quickly into an area with a shop. Annoying, but it won’t actually cause you to die.

I have full faith in Motion Twin that these problems will be ironed out quite easily in the coming months before release. In conclusion, you should go pick up Dead Cells on Steam. It’s pretty cheap, a lot of fun, and if it wasn’t for the “work in progress” sign at the end of it currently, you’d never know it wasn’t finished.

Check back in the coming weeks for our interview with Dead Cells developer, Motion Twin.