Dead Cells (2017, PC)

By William Shakesman / May 15, 2017

There is a lot to like about Dead Cells. Souls+Dracula+Roguelite sounds like a cringe-inducing mishmash of fads but Dead Cells really does pull it off. The art is really good. The Souls-ian habit of not actually including a plot but instead substituting it with NPCs who act smug at you is here in full force. The Metroid stuff feels a bit like window-dressing though, trying to give a Metroid theme to teleporters when they do not end up used that differently than in Enter the Gungeon.

   The core of the game is the combat. There's no crazy combo-depth here, but the actual feel of it is so good. The dodge cancelling and the health regain mechanic taken from Bloodborne reward aggression, and the combat is absolutely full of satisfying hits. Unfortunately, it does carry another Souls mechanic: Dodge being the most important thing. Just as in Salt and Sanctuary, the mixing of Souls with Dracula rids itself of all the positioning game and pattern learning needed to learn Dracula bosses. Here it's now Souls-style "enemy twitches, dodge through it". And even S&S tried to pack in a lot of attacks you needed to jump rather than dodge. That said, UNLIKE Souls, the combat is fast. You swing fast, enemies die, usually, quite fast. And there is a decent assortment of weapons and they all feel pretty good (though most of the subweapons feel like "just mash RT/LT when you get into a fight and it'll help nine out of ten times"). That said, your choices will be limited more or less to what you find appropriate for your level.
   This brings me to one of the problems with the game. The drop system feels incredibly random. Stat upgrades that you need if you are going to get very far are crammed in the nooks and crannies of the levels with very little reason or consistency. Enemies level up rapidly, where the same enemy on level one who did 10% of your health very quickly doing 80% two levels ahead. It's tough to get upgrades to even remotely keep up with this. The levels tend to feel like linear paths with several side-paths that dead-end in treasure, but the side-paths feel like a slot machine, some giving a good new leveled weapon just a few feet off and others giving maybe one level up and a bear trap after a grueling corridor over-packed with ranged monsters. This slot machine setup makes it feel like exploring side-paths is a waste of time.
   And wasting time is what you'll do. There is no invincibility period after damage. Combined with the massive damage of mid-game enemies, one bad room can kill you dead. The first boss has a few attacks with no wind-up too, to increase the aggravation further.
   I like what Dead Cells is trying to do. It is very good at a lot of the aspects of the design. But I can't recommend it currently. The combat has issues but is still incredibly cool, but the random levels feel like a chore way too soon (Look at my playtime: less than two hours. How the hell am I bored/aggravated with the levels that fast?) The balancing feels unsatisfying, with the first levels a cakewalk you must turn upside down for upgrades and then ramping up immediately to an instakill-fest 20 minutes into the run after having done all that scrounging. Dead Cells at the moment does not feel like it stands strong against either 20XX or Salt and Sanctuary, though there is some serious potential.