Dead Cells is a game I wish I didn’t check out in Early Access. This isn’t a knock against the game, it’s due to the fact that I want to play this game when it’s finished and has all of its elements in place. Dead Cells is a rogue-like platformer that will undoubtedly bring on the Symphony of the Night comparisons due to the game’s map and combat. It’s got a great, colorful art style and a tight combat system that eggs the player on, making you feel like you can definitely get further in the next run.
As with most rogue-likes I died a lot, but I also learned a lot. In this version of Dead Cell you wake up in a prison of sorts without a head. A green amoeba creature takes over your body and you begin playing. The main draw of the game is without a doubt its Metroid-esque exploration and SotN combat. When you enter the castle you are greeted by baddies who want nothing more than to murder you. Enemies hit hard and are unforgiving towards those with poor reflexes. While it took some getting used to, I found myself dodging attacks and getting in my shots just like any Souls game I’d played before.
While Dead Cells looks like a relatively simplistic side-scrolling platformer, there is a lot going on underneath the game’s surface. In fact, there are a lot of systems interplaying with one another; it’s hard to know where to start. For one, there are numerous weapons that fall under the sword, bow, or shield category. Note that this isn’t the final game and additional weapons could be added as well. On top of those weapons that do different types of damage and inflict different status effects like bleeding or freezing, there are secondary weapons. These are your grenades, turrets, or active abilities that help you out in tight squeezes. They often come with cooldowns and are very useful when you get overwhelmed.
As stated before, enemies are tough. Even the simplistic green zombie creature at the beginning of the game can end you with a couple of hits. To counter that, Dead Cells employs a health regeneration system similar to Bloodborne. When you are hit, your heath goes down, way down, but part of it stays orange and that orange bar shrinks over time. If you’re able to hit enemies in that amount of time, you’ll regain the health in that shrinking orange bar. Much like in Bloodborne, it’s a system that makes you run into combat and stay in combat to get the most out of your hits. This means that since you won’t be standing back and waiting, you’ll need to expertly employ the game’s dodging mechanic. Dodging is a simple roll but the character is invincible during that roll. Timing your dodges and getting in your backstabs are key to taking out hordes of enemies. After a few runs that resulted in quick deaths, I saw the error of my ways and learned the proper approach.
Players also level up during gameplay. Since this is a rogue-like these upgrades aren’t permanent but are much deeper than they first appear. When you find an upgrade it will increase either your health, weapon damage, or ability damage. Sometimes you’ll find a scroll that allows you to pick which to upgrade and other times you’ll find one that is a single upgrade for one facet. Depending on how your run is going, what weapons you have, and so on, these upgrades can completely change the tide of battle. For instance, my go-to combo of weapons are the twin daggers that crit on the third consecutive hit, and a heavy crossbow. However, you don’t get to pick what weapons you start with or find in the levels so I typically have to forego my weapons of choice. Still, the game is smart enough and fun enough to where that doesn’t matter as much as it would in other games where my weapon is the only thing keeping me going. On runs where I was stuck with a weak main weapon, all weapons have DPS stats when you pick them up, I would pour my upgrades into damage and soon enough I wasn’t missing my daggers so much. On runs where I did have my trusty twin blades, I focused on upgrading my health or ability damage to be a more rounded character. This kind of depth kept me coming back and, much like a great fighting game, made me want to explore other weapons and builds to get equally good with the game’s options.
While these player upgrades aren’t permanent, there are upgrades that occur in between levels that stay with you. During each run you’ll collect gold that can be used at in-level shops for weapons or abilities, and dead cells. Dead cells are used in between levels to upgrade your permanent abilities. These can be anything form how many potions you carry, to how much extra damage your favorite weapon does, to unlocking new weapons and abilities altogether. If you have a favorite weapon, like I do, it can be tempting to min-max your permanent upgrades but doing so will leave you vulnerable when you don’t get that weapon during a run. Likewise, trying to spread the love to all of the weapons can be tough since there are quite a few options with new weapons unlocking regularly via blueprints that are found in levels.
Since the game is in early access there are things missing and being worked out. Enemies are constantly being worked on to be more manageable and fair. Similarly, features like the game’s stat page where you can see what you’ve killed and how many is still being implemented. The biggest nitpick for this iteration of the game is that for a game that boasts “changing levels” there aren’t really that many changes when you run through the same levels over and over. Instead of levels feeling varied at this point in the game’s development they feel oddly similar, but this will hopefully be worked out in time.
There are other secrets and systems to discuss but part of the fun of these games is discovering them for yourself. Dead Cells looks like it’s got a lot of fun, interesting systems that are interworking to create a really great game. With any luck, the final game will add in missing features like the stats page and flesh out the world with more randomized level designs to keep runs feeling fresh and entertaining. If I’m right about this one, fans of games like Rogue Legacy will have a blast endlessly beating their head against the game until it gives.