Available On: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
The metroidvania and roguelike genres have become overused buzzwords among indie games (see also the newly coined ‘roguevania’). Action-platformers have been refined and molded over and over again just in the last few years. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes every time a new one is released.
But forget all that genre cynicism, because Dead Cells is fantastic. With an evocative art style, buttery smooth combat, and perfect level of progression, Dead Cells is easily the most satisfying action-platformer since Rogue Legacy.
You begin each run by dropping down into a prison as a crawling pile of goo, inhabiting the nearest dead prisoner. You then play as the Prisoner, starting with only a rusty blade and either a weak bow or simple shield, as you fight your way through neon-colored zombies and pink abominations.
The story is told entirely through the environment. Certain story rooms can be generated when new levels are built, pausing the action so you can examine an alchemist’s notes, or speak to a prisoner on the other side of a door. These events are darkly humorous, adding nice bits of levity to an otherwise gothic world of undead beasts, a fallen kingdom, and an unstoppable plague.
The art and animations are rich and fascinating. This is not the classic 16-bit pixels of Rogue Legacy, nor the painterly mixture of Ori and the Blind Forest. Dead Cells features a uniquely technicolor style that’s seen more in cyberpunk worlds than gothic fantasy.
The procedurally generated levels also provide a nice variety, with many touching on specific nods of past heavy weights like Castlevania, including a vertically-inspired Clock Tower, the pipes and acid baths of the Toxic Sewers, the pitfalls of the Ramparts, and the oppressive darkness of the Forgotten Sepulcher.
The Metroidvania genre is defined by gaining new abilities to access new areas. Dead Cells has a few ability runes that open up new levels, and a web-like level structure that lets you choose your own path and level progress through each run. But more than anything, Dead Cells perfects the basic loop of killing things and earning cells to unlock a wider range of weapons.
Cells for Sale
In the beginning you only have access to a handful of weapons and items. You have to unlock more by finding randomly dropped blueprints, then unlocking the blueprints by spending cells. Cells can also unlock health potions uses, gold refunds on dropped items, passive mutations, and new starting equipment. Often entire runs will be defined by which weapons and items you’re able to acquire and combine.
Cells are dropped upon death, but – and this is key to Dead Cells success – you turn in all cells in between each level. After finishing a level, which can last anywhere from a few minutes to 10 or 15 depending on your tactics, you’re given a chance to turn in cells to unlock items, reforge equipment, purchase mutations, and refill your health. It helps take the sting off of dying and creates a solid sense of progression – even if you only complete the first level.
By turning in cells you’re constantly unlocking new and better equipment, and Dead Cells has a huge variety of excellent choices. Deploy a Sinew Slicer trap to shoot at foes. Use the Spartan Sandals to knock them off cliffs or into walls. Drop an Ice Grenade to freeze everyone in place. Wield the Electric Whip for better melee range, or the Heavy Crossobow for a shotgun-like burst. Each weapon also has randomly generated properties, such as extra freezing damage, firing grenades, or summoning blood-thirsty worms, creating a hugely satisfying loot-based adventure that makes almost every run new and interesting.
Dead Cells is rated T for Teen by the ESRB. The game features a lot of blood and a bit of guts as enemies tend to violently explode when defeated.
Much of Dead Cell’s success are the little things, like including teleporters at every intersection so you never have to backtrack through empty hallways. Or the rewards in the Timed Gates incentivizing speedy runs at the cost of clearing out a level. This is a genre that has been bludgeoned to death over the years, yet it’s still impressive to see one game get every aspect very right, and then some. For a more combat-heavy rogue-like action-platformer, it doesn’t get any better than this.