Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC, Xbox One, PS4
Dead Cells is a hybrid Metroidvania and rogue-lite platformer with a visual style all its own. It has been in Early Access on Steam for more than a year, and has made the most of that pre-release period with a steady stream of refinements and improvements. The game that is set to launch on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch on August 7 is a much more polished experience thanks to the game's time in Early Access, and it might be the very best in the crowded Metroidvania class coming out this month.
This review is based on time spent with the Nintendo Switch version of Dead Cells.
Slashing through enemies
Combat is nearly constant in Dead Cells, save for the shops and upgrade areas that provide brief respites. Dead Cells doesn't have the constantly re-spawning foes of Sundered, another Metroidvania game that serves as a useful point of comparison, but it's also much more focused on forward progress than is typical for the genre, which means you'll continually be pressing onwards into areas you haven't yet cleared. This isn't a game about backtracking to explore new areas with your new abilities, it's about charging forward and making it as far as you can before you die and start again, in typical rogue-lite fashion.
The basic mechanics of Dead Cells combat are easy to grasp, and see you slashing with a melee weapon and either timing blocks with a shield or firing arrows from a bow. A double-jump and a combat roll become critical as the screen fills up with more enemies and projectiles, and you'll need to be good at keeping visual track of your location on screen in the middle of the action if you want to survive.
You'll encounter more enemy types as you progress in Dead Cells, ranging from slow-but-damaging zombies to flying nightmares to the game's handful of extremely difficult bosses. Many of the mundane enemies can be avoided if you are fast and agile enough, but since killing enemies gives you the gold and cells you need to unlock upgrades and make overall progress in the game, outside of your individual runs, you're rewarded for choosing to fight more than flee.
Enemies in Dead Cells are, for the most part, robust and pattern-based foes. Even common enemies take several arrows or sword slashes to dispatch, and the damage they do is significant enough to keep you on your toes. I've seen comparisons made to Dark Souls, of course, but to me Dead Cells enemies feel in keeping with the kinds of tougher-than-you'd-expect foes of games like Castlevania and Mega Man. With a limited health pool and few healing items, every point of damage you take is costly, and you can't affford to take any of the game's enemies lightly. Reckless play can see you going from full health to dead in just a few chaotic seconds.
The more you play Dead Cells the deeper and more interesting the combat becomes. Since you progress towards new weapons and abilities with every run, your strategic options become both wider and deeper. You'll be able to find a wide variety of melee weapons, from spears to giant hammers, as well as bows that shoot lines of fire, shields that let you charge forward to bash enemies, and a huge array of grenades, turrets, and traps.
After sinking a dozen hours or so into Dead Cells, you'll have unlocked enough weapons and items to support distinctly different playstyles that aren't available when you first start up the game. A ranged-focused playthrough may see your character wielding an ice bow to slow enemies, then finishing them off with an automatic crossbow that inflicts bleeding damage, for example. On your very next life you may have magnetic grenades and be wielding a broadsword larger than your body.
Throughout the levels you'll be picking up upgrade scrolls which enhance one of your abilities (Brutality, Tactics, or Survival), which in turn cause certain weapon or item types to do more damage. In between levels you'll be choosing to unlock mutations which might increase your combo damage, or reduce the cooldown time of your grenades. Each run can be different, if that's how you want to play Dead Cells, and the interplay between random pick-ups and important upgrade decisions gives you a satisfying sense of responsibility, as you try to make the most of each life.
One of the best things about Dead Cells is the way in which it gives you a sense of permanent progress, even though it's a rogue-lite game in which you die and see the world re-set, over and over again. Levels with enemies are broken up with peaceful upgrade areas where you can invest the cells currency you've picked up along the way. The game doesn't let you leave these areas until you've spent all your cells, in fact, so you'll be investing them in unlocking new items (which will then start appearing as random pick-ups in future run-throughs of the game) and permanent ability upgrades (such as more uses of the healing potion you carry).
Some of these ability upgrades are quite expensive, so you won't be unlocking new ones every time, but you'll always be adding some cells to the pile, getting a little bit closer to a potentially game-changing upgrade each time. Other abilities, found elsewhere in the game, permanently enhance your movement options, letting you teleport or climb walls to reach previously inaccessible areas. These abilities are where the Metroidvania side of the experience comes in, letting you take shortcuts and new routes through the game's different biomes.
Colorful, gothic, and gross
Dead Cells has a wonderfully distinctive look, with bright colors, striking stages, and tons of gore. The huge variety of weapons and abilities is fleshed out with distinctive visual effects and sounds, and fire, toxic clouds, and other environmental effects strike a good balance between clarity and style.
Of course not everything is perfect about the visual and audio presentation in Dead Cells. Its over-the-top colors might be too much for some people, especially contrasted with the cooler, cleaner look of Hollow Knight. The screen can get busy and chaotic, and losing a life because you just can't see through the explosions and blood on the screen can be frustrating.
Some sound effects can get a little repetitive with repeated playthroughs, especially the battle cries of enemies you'll see over and over again. And while the music is good, you'll be hearing the songs that play in the game's first few levels a lot, to the point where you might be left wishing for a bit more variety.
Dead Cells is an action-first game, but there are hints of a great story and fascinating lore in the midst of the carnage. This is the sort of world you can easily imagine someone fleshing out in a tabletop RPG campaign. Some sort of corrupting disease has twisted the biomes you explore into nightmares. Each level has its own unique darkness to it that you uncover through environmental hints, loading screens, and conversations with NPCs. Finding a new secret area is exciting nearly as much for the new story elements you uncover as the loot contained within.
There's also a surprising amount of humor in Dead Cells for a game as bloody and grim as it first appears. It's not likely to make you laugh out loud, but the game is self-aware and tongue-in-cheek with the way it presents itself. Combined with the vibrant colors of the world, the humor helps keep Dead Cells fun and almost cheerful, even when you're dying over and over and over again.
Dead Cells on the Nintendo Switch
Dead Cells isn't a demanding game, hardware-wise, and the Switch runs it perfectly both docked and in handheld mode. While the standard Joy-Cons aren't quite as hardy and agile as you'd want to play Dead Cells at the highest possible level, they absolutely get the job done. There are no hardware or control barriers keeping you from beating the entire game in handheld mode, if that's how you choose to play, though it might take you a few more deaths along the way.
It should come as no surprise that Dead Cells is a good fit for the portability of the Switch. It's a platform that works very well with games that can be played in bite-size chunks, and games that can be easily paused and resumed later without losing track of what you were doing, and Dead Cells delivers on both fronts. You can make real, tangible progress playing during a 20 minute bus ride, and if you're still alive and need to pause your run when you reach your destination, you'll be able to jump right back in without issue.
At its heart, Dead Cells is a simple game about running to the right as far as you can, and killing everything that gets in your way. It's the way the complexity of its strategies and hidden depths unfold the longer you play it that makes it something really special.
For more, read our tips for new Dead Cells players.