Dead Cells checks off many familiar boxes, but somehow transcends its easy characterization to become something much more addictive and engaging than many of its brethren. It's a side-scrolling, roguelike Metroidvania game with a pixel-art graphical style, but that word salad hides the polish and fluid combat that makes Dead Cells so much fun. There's no denying that we've seen games like this before, but once past that initial feeling of déjà-vu, the player will find something special. Roguelikes will never be for everyone, but Dead Cells moves the genre closer to the mainstream, while keeping plenty of hardcore goodness.
Over the past few years, developers of roguelikes have seemed to understand that while the mechanics of the genre are appealing to the hardcore enthusiast, baking in some sort of persistent progress or leveling system opens the genre to a much wider and less masochistic audience. In the case of Dead Cells, while death means a journey back to the start, weapon blueprints and character upgrades - like an increased number of health vials - stay with the player. The titular cells and cash earned during each run can be used to buy stat boosts and consumables at shops along the journey. This barely hints at the diversity of stuff that can be found, unlocked and even held on to after death. Each run and especially, each boss defeated, bring the player a little closer to real power.
While the structure, enemy types and level aesthetics of Dead Cells remain fixed, the level architecture and enemy and reward placement - and even the order of the levels themselves - are procedurally generated. Because even low-level enemies are relatively lethal, the hack-and-slash combat almost has a Souls-like aura of danger and game-ending tension. While scoring a particularly lethal weapon early on can make a level easier, at no point does Dead Cells ever become a mindless exercise. Much more than many games in the genre, there is a skill and learning curve that demands and rewards timing, tactics and understanding enemy behavior and abilities. It's a good thing that combat is so fluid and controls are both simple and precise.
Dead Cells isn't as strong on explaining its systems as in executing them. It requires a fair amount of head-scratching to understand how everything works and what's important to pay attention to, what weapons are most effective and what perks and upgrades are essential. There are two primary weapon slots - basically for a melee weapon and a ranged weapon or shield - and slots for traps, bombs and other devious consumables as well as healing vials. Depending on the luck of a particular level's draw, the path may be chockablock with scrolls, weapons and fast-travel portals, or more spare. There are dozens of weapons and each can be effective with the right combination of upgrades and stat boosts. Part of the fun of Deal Cells is trying out the weapons and finding just the right one for a specific level and enemy type.
If you're looking for story, keep looking, because Dead Cells is based on a premise and not much more. You play as an unnamed Prisoner, who reanimates from a blob of green goo. While NPCs give minimalist hints of story along the way, Dead Cells is focused on action, combat and survival. Its pixel-art style is colorful but somewhat lacking in variety and enemy types within each level and area are fairly limited. While Dead Cells is a bit visually disappointing, its sound design and music are quite effective.
Dead Cells is like an unholy hybrid of The Binding of Isaac and Dark Souls, with the skill-based combat of the latter merged with the unforgiving structure of the former. As much as Dead Cells tries - and largely succeeds - to make some concessions to wider accessibility, it is still a game for players with patience and tolerance. Death is frequent, replays inevitable and while the hack-and-slash is almost always engaging in the moment, there's a fair amount of visual repetition and, thanks to the procedural generation elements, fun is little bit dependent on the luck of the draw. Dead Cells may be a near masterpiece of the genre, but the genre's conventions are still a barrier to greatness.