How Dead Cells’ pokeball keeps me coming back

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Hey, remember Dead Cells? You should, because it’s not even out of early access and we named it our game of 2017. It’s a combat-focused platformer roguelike that John refuses to call a metroidvania (although it is).

The game’s received another large update since anyone on the site wrote about it, though I’ll save most of what’s in the Foundry Update for another time. This is an article about one little item that solves one very big problem. It’s about how the Hunter’s Grenade gives me something to work towards with every fresh start, and why I was still playing at a point when I’d seen almost everything the game had to offer.

I’m calling it a pokeball, though perhaps that’s misleading: it’s a tool for gathering blueprints. Once you’ve bought it from the Collector that appears between each level for 100 souls, it’ll always appear behind a door on the first level. It costs 7,500 gold to unlock that door, which isn’t the kind of money you’ll have until you’ve bought several expensive Collector upgrades that let you carry money over from your last run.

(Although you can just break down the door if you don’t mind being cursed, which means until you’ve killed 20 enemies you’ll die to the next bit of damage you take. It’s a mark of how good this game is that I’ve gotten sidetracked explaining one neat system in an introduction to the even better system I meant to rave about.)

To use the Hunter’s Grenade, you first have to throw it at an enemy that you haven’t yet chopped into bits enough times for them to have dropped every possible schematic. Then, you have to battle an elite version of that enemy – tough, teleporting bastards who have far more health and do far more damage, and can summon their own minions. Once you’ve done away with half of their HP, you have to grab the second part of the Hunter’s Grenade and zap them with it – and only then will they drop a lovely new blueprint.

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There’s a touch of Monster Hunter or The Witcher to it, if you want to properly prepare for the fight. Clear out those nearby enemies, chug down a healing potion and lay down some traps – you’ll need them to tackle the elite. That’s especially true for the later enemies, which can be hard enough in their regular forms. It’s a small thing, but there’s something I find really appealing about fighting a battle on my own terms.

What I really love about the Hunter’s Grenade, though, is that it gives every run a sense of purpose. With the Foundry Update, I’m back at a stage where I’m unlocking several new blueprints on most runs anyway – but before then, it was that pokeball that kept me coming back for more.

I’ve previously written about how I tend to stop playing roguelikes once I’ve beaten them for the first time, but I didn’t find that with Dead Cells. At first that was down to wanting to unlock every ability, then to see every area. Now I want to find every item, which is a goal I wouldn’t have begun to consider if I hadn’t been given a tool that encourages me to go about accomplishing it. It’s transformed what might have been a miserable grind into one of the game’s best features.

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There are other ways to fix that stagnant end-game problem. Enemies could have an increasing chance to drop their blueprints each time you kill them, or the devs could have found another way to guarantee that you find a new blueprint in each life. Now that I’ve got my pokeball though, I can’t think of a more elegant solution. It gives me agency over loot drops, a fun ceremony in preparing for each tussle with a new elite, and a delicious sense of deferred gratification.

To expand on that last point, the item takes up a skill slot, which I’ve seen some people complain about but to me only adds to the idea that I’m investing in something. When a game gives me a chance to make things more difficult for myself in the short term in order to make things easier or more interesting in the future, I’m usually glad to take it.

It’s worth highlighting how the Hunter’s Grenade owes its underlying appeal to how finding each new blueprint is a Big Deal. Most skills and weapons in Dead Cells significantly change the way you play: on my last run I found a dagger that crits whenever you stab things in the back, and I can’t wait to combine that with the skill that lets you teleport behind people.

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The joy isn’t just in discovering and playing with that new item – it’s in the dizzying possibilities of using it with any other weapon or skill in the game, which makes each run feel unique in a way few other roguelikes manage. I’d love to see other games include something like the pokeball, but the ultimate reason it works so well is because Dead Cells is a great game through to its core.

12 Comments

  1. Vilos Cohaagen says:

    I love the look, music and movement. Sadly it is just too hard for my older reflexes so I shelved it and moved on.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      Hey, if it helps, at 54 I am no spring chicken, and I hadn’t played a metroidvania before but I really got hooked on Dead Cells. I have played 74 hours of it according to Steam, but haven’t beaten it, and may never. But it is great fun all the same. Much of the fun of each run is the interesting interactions of weapons/skills you get. For particularly slow reflexes you will probably prefer skills to hand to hand fighting.

      The best indicator of the quality of the game is that when I die my normal reaction is to blame myself (for not drinking a health potion, or going in gung ho).

    • frozbite says:

      My advice – use gamepad! There wasn’t lot of fun, before i switched form keyboard to gamepad )

    • ZedZed says:

      I was exactly the same. Even using a game controller, having to hit 6 different buttons in various sequences all within about 1 second was just too much for me. It’s the first time I’ve ever thought “am I too old for a game? Are my reaction times too slow?” (I’m 43). I really tried to like this but I bounced off it pretty hard. I “rage uninstalled” it – twice!

  2. Laurentius says:

    Dead Cells is amazing. For me it is twin brother (or sister) of another of my favourtie – FTL, but this time to give that action rush instead of strategy. I can’t stop playing Dead Cells the same way I can’t stop playing FTL.

  3. Dreforian says:

    Witcher and Monster Hunter are good mentions but Warframe also has a similar sort of ritual. Particularly for vault runs in the void if I remember correctly. To access them you have to have a (crafted) key, but there are four different keys and no guarantee which key the vault will take. The keys also confer their own debuffs, so you have to prep with the right choice of Warframe, loadout, key, and recovery items (and/or coordinate with 3 others) to ensure you can survive long enough for glittering prizes. You don’t have to loot the vault to complete the missions so they are technically optional, but I for me there’s no such thing as “optional”.
    Dead Cells sounds like it would mechanically appeal to me but I’m not sure about the style…and I haven’t finished a game of Darkest Dungeon yet…

  4. Humppakummitus says:

    Dead Cells was ridiculous fun for the first dozen hours or so, but then it turned too grindy for me. But what a dozen hours that was! Best part was finding new weapon combos when something suddenly clicked.

  5. Catweasel says:

    I really actually hate using the hunter grenade. Having to channel it to use it on the elites is such a pain in the ass when they can teleport and attack me too fast to stand completely still and vulnerable while waiting on it to finish and not die.

  6. Crusoe says:

    Good article for an excellent game, and the best RogueEtc in recent years.

    Though I have to be grumpy and say that if by your own admission ‘pokeball’ is misleading, it’s probably better to selve the use of it entirely rather than barrel forward with it. Eugh.

    Sorry to say so, heh. I enjoy your writing in general very much and Dead Cells is an excellent game on which to make use of your considerable talents.

  7. aliksy says:

    I bought this game on a RPS recommendation, and I was really disappointed. Chiefly, the lack of mercy invuln when you get hit means you’ll often go from ‘fine’ to ‘juggled to death’. That combined with an early game that’s just not that interesting to replay and a distasteful metagame grind means it’s just not for me. (I prefer beating a game on my own merits, not just because I unlocked bigger numbers for myself. Yes, I have issues with a lot of “RPG elements”)

  8. PlinyTheWelder says:

    Yeah it’s not a metroivania. It’s a Roguebourne. I’ve got a 30 minute YouTube video explaining that it’s core experience is entirely pulled from a mixture of souls and isaac.

    From limited healing, exploration based progression, and animation based combat to its reliance on item synergies it’s clearly a Rogueborne (TM).

    link to m.youtube.com

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