Dead Cells boasts brutality but its real joy is consistency

And ready to die!

The ruinous ‘roguevania’ Dead Cells remains atop its throne of skulls – the defeated remnants of all other games released this year. If you haven’t enjoyed the electrowhips or bloodied throwing knives of this dice-powered 2D riposte to Bloodborne, go and sort yourself out instead of reading this article. I’d say “I’ll wait for you” but I know you won’t be back.

It also just received its fourth big update, adding new monsters, levels and weapons. But what impresses me most about Motion Twin’s consistent fiddling with the game is not what they change, but what they know to leave alone.

First, let’s briefly go over some new stuff. The flashy new items include an icy crossbow, some finger fireworks, a big shockwave, and a couple of shields, one of which knocks grenades and arrows back at your assailants with added power. This is a good video for seeing all the new weapons and skills. There’s also two runes that give you the ability to wall jump and stomp through loose stones on the ground. More importantly, levelling up has changed. It doesn’t feel revolutionary to begin with, but all becomes clear once you start creating monstrous rando-builds that favour one form of combat over another. I’m not going to linger on it but you can read the changes in more detail here.

The new patch has been called “the Brutal update” but given that I still haven’t beaten the second boss (a giant tentacled jerk called the Watcher) I’d say it has always been pretty brutal. I can’t even talk about the new areas (a clock tower where the level progresses vertically, and a misty golem-infested sanctuary where statues come to life) with any authority because I haven’t reached them yet. Although, with effort and luck, I know I could do it. I swear.

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I often moan about the feeling of a game as it rests in your hands. I gave up Prey and both Dishonoreds – two gorgeous and much-loved games – partly because movement and fighting felt clumsy and staccato, all radial-wheel-pausing and bumbling momentum. Dead Cells is the antidote to that. It feels excellent. You are a responsive, double-jumping stab-freak with special powers and it feels that way from the moment you pick up your first pair of twin daggers, your first ice grenade.

Since the last time I played they’ve added speed and damage boosts following a kill, which encourages you to fight fast and leg it from one enemy straight to the next. Many of my previous builds revolved around getting a turret and ranged weapons and taking my time, bleeding enemies dry from afar. And while I can still fall back on that strategy, it isn’t encouraged. Teleporting worms chase and harass you, cannon-toting pirates bombard you from above. It feels like I’m being violently ushered into a new way of playing. I’ve even tried out these shields Adam is always drooling over. I won’t admit that they are quite good.

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But what I love is that I can go back to Dead Cells, even after missing two of its previous updates, and still feel in perfect control of my brittle and brutal wee man. The developers got the sense of movement and combat perfect in the initial release, and then nailed it to a church door. They haven’t messed with the double-jump, the roll, or the devastating mid-air stomp. They haven’t messed with the doors, which you can still open by reducing the wood to splinters. They haven’t messed with the Bloodborne-styled health bar, or the dead giant lying in your prison cell (calling it now, that’ll be the final boss). All my favourite things seem a part of the brickwork.

Instead, they’re focusing on giving you new choices. One new unlock lets you re-roll whatever a merchant is selling you, for a small price. Another is a grenade that lets you choose what reward you get from a blueprint-carrying enemy. As per the new levelling-up system, you sometimes find mutlicoloured scrolls lying around, which boost either one aspect of your character or another. A red and purple scroll will let you choose between increasing the damage your red weapons do, or increasing the damage and reducing the cooldown of your purple ‘tactical’ skills.

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Another scroll, say purple and green, may make you choose between those purple traps and turrets, or a green boost to your health bar and better shields. And there are still level-up scrolls that let you decide between all three options (see the picture above). All this challenges you to make builds that focus on one thing or another, without altogether abandoning a single characteristic.

In short, it’s roguelike elements have been marginally improved and there is new stuff for the hardest hitter, while the platforming and combat are as sublime as ever. Part of me wishes I could still creep through it slowly, relying on ranged attacks. But the school of thought here is a Miyazakian antagonism towards the player’s complacency. What are they doing to cheese this enemy? How are they avoiding the fight? So when you try to run away from a golem and it magically teleports you right back, you have to respect the developers’ foresight. They know what a spineless coward you are, and are determined to make a speedy, fighty hero out of you, even if it means killing you.

More than this, they leave the fundamentals alone. Like fighting multiple enemies in a dungeon hallway, fiddling with a game’s design requires a focus on what’s important. Whereas I often panic and roll straight into the business end of an axe, the creators of Dead Cells seem to prioritise better. Here’s hoping that continues until the game’s slimey escape from the prison of early access.

Dead Cells is available in early access now on Windows for £14/$17/€17 via Steam and GOG.

18 Comments

  1. Crafter says:

    For people having played the two, how would you say it compares with hollow knight ?

    • Sir_Deimos says:

      Very different. Hollow Knight’s levels are hand crafted and your move set is limited to your “nail” and a few spells learned along the way. It also uses more traditional save points so you don’t really lose progress.

      Dead Cells has randomly generated levels and is about finding the weapon set that works for your play style (or changing your play style to match the items the RNG gods have given you). No check points means every run starts from the beginning.

      • subprogram32 says:

        Saying you only have your Nail and a few spells is a bit inaccurate – by far the most additions you get is to your actual moveset, such as a dash, wall climb, and multiple other additions and modifiers that change how you play the game. There are also ‘charms’, optional add-ons to your character that further modify certain traits, such as weapon range or spell damage, but are limited to only a few slots.
        It’s basically a metroidvania, not a roguelike, and such is truly not comparable to Dead Cells.

        • Sir_Deimos says:

          True, I was just highlighting the major differences in what you actually “do” on a minute to minute basis. Was trying to avoid movement ability spoilers since it sounds like they haven’t played either and I didn’t see most of them coming.

    • onodera says:

      Dead Cells probably has more in common with Hotline: Miami than with Hollow Knight.
      HK is generally more slow-paced, your approach to enemies and bosses methodical. You navigate the map back and forth to explore more of it with your new upgrades.
      DC is about the flow, every other time you approach an enemy you put yourself in danger because another one can now attack you, so you have to stun, roll, hit, jump like a battle dancer to avoid their blows. It’s about forward motion, since when you’re done with a room you’re done with it, you’ll see it again only after your inevitable death.
      I think only the bosses are similar, but having twitch-based bosses in platformers is probably standard fare. I personally prefer bosses you can easily beat by tailoring your skill and gear set against them, but that wouldn’t be fair in a game like that.

    • senae says:

      Dead Cells has a very broad moveset, but it only allows use of a tiny sliver of options at any point. The way these options play off each other is always interesting and inspires creativity.

      Hollow Knight has a very narrow moveset – you can basically just jump, heal, and attack in 4 directions at the start of the game – and deepens those actions as you progress everything else you get is tied to those 3 actions, and usually there’s just enough time between upgrades to let you get used to the previous ones.

      Hollow Knight has better level design because it’s all handcrafted, it also has just the BEST map system I can’t get over how good it is.

      Both games get the feel so right, though. If you’re interested in 2d metroidvanias in basically any way they’re both best in breed. If you have to choose one, I’d say go with Hollow Knight.

      • Crafter says:

        I am already playing hollow knight, which is why I asked :)

        I am currently looking for a way to finally kick a certain light boss in the face, after that I guess I won’t have much to do except for the DLC content.

        I agree on the map system. For years I have been looking for a game learning from the first thief. In Thief, to cut it short, you buy your maps from informants so they tend to be incomplete or even wrong.

        I guess I am going to try DC next then, I just hope they push an OsX version soon.

  2. Synesthesia says:

    This game grew on me so fast. It’s like Oldboy: The hammer scene: The game.

    • UnConsolable says:

      Damn. Yes it is. You sir just painted a red dotted line between my big stupid grinning mug and my cowering collection of controllers.

  3. Mandragora says:

    God… It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. They just can’t stand the fact someone might actually have “fun” playing the game. Just terrible.

    • DrJ3RK says:

      Have you played it? It’s absolutely incredible. It’s not an easy game, but it’s not unfairly difficult either. It’s easily one of the best games I’ve played in the past year or so.

    • Nixitur says:

      No, they want to ensure that people have fun with the game. Because if you could stand back and just let your turret finish enemies while you have a drink and wait, that’s really not much at all. Or even standing back just pelting enemies with arrows while being in no danger at all.
      When presented with the choice between something fun and something safe, players will understandably often choose the latter. If you want your game to stay fun, you gotta minimize these choices.
      They’re not taking away the fun options. They’re taking away the boring options.

      • Mandragora says:

        Nope, they got upset players weren’t playing the game how they “wanted” them to and keep changing it. Said those exact words on another article posted on this very site. And taking away the fun options is EXACTLY what they’re doing. Fun or difficult… You can have both, but not if the developers here have their way. Again, slow-mo train wreck.

  4. keithzg says:

    I just hope that one of the changes they make at some point is actually publishing it for Linux :P

    • Crafter says:

      link to steamcommunity.com

      It is confirmed for mac & linux.
      I just hope it is going to arrive pretty soon, it is usually fun to see this kind of game evolve

      • ElGordoFreeman says:

        Most likely after exiting early access

      • Premium User Badge

        particlese says:

        Yeah, really looking forward to that Linux support! Between this and Devil Daggers, that’ll be two of my favorite and currently most-played games available on my (admittedly niche) OS of choice. Much love to all the devs committing resources to working Mac and Linux ports these days.

        • DrJ3RK says:

          Axiom Verge runs on Linux (and MacOS) and I would highly recommend playing it if you haven’t. It’s basically a Metroid style game. I actually prefer it to Super Metroid in a lot of ways. Sundered also runs on Linux, Shovel Knight, Songbringer, and Hyper Light Drifter. All extremely good games for your OS.

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