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Four years on, Dead Cells remains a roguelike delight

Definitely still alive

I have a strange relationship with Dead Cells. I picked it up in 2019 and played it for a while, by which point I'd clearly had my fill. No DLCs to my name, nothing. I'd done a big run and put the game down.

Fast forward to now. Suddenly I own the latest expansion The Queen And The Sea, plus all the DLCs that came before it. I'm nonchalant, thinking that I dropped the game for a reason. Surely I can't be won almost three years later? Well, nope. I was wrong. The DLCs have opened my eyes to the game in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The combat is crunchy, the challenge is thrilling, and Dead Cells more than holds its own next to more modern darlings of the genre like Hades.

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Ask me to pinpoint exactly why I dropped side-scrolling roguelike Dead Cells all those years ago and, well, I don't really have a concrete reason. Perhaps it comes down to "the amount of stuff". After a single run of slicing and dicing, I felt like I'd seen enough. My memory is hazy, but I swear I went on one absolute tear and finished off the final boss. I just couldn't bring myself to go through it all again, knowing that I'd likely put my fist through plaster in the process.

So heading back into Dead Cells for this Queen And The Sea DLC - and all the rest - I wasn't sure what to expect, or whether the folks over at Evil Empire (the folks who've taken over development from Motion Twin) had made the game's roguelike runs more appealing. Would it finally manage to hook me?

In one word: yes! In fact, after three years of thinking I was done with Dead Cells, I've fallen in love with it a little bit. Whether I've grown into Dead Cells, I don't know. Perhaps my gaming palette has just matured over the years. But I reckon a large part of my renewed admiration lies in the greater scale of the game now. With three DLCs, it feels like it’s bursting with secrets and pathways, like each run can lead to something new or exciting. Where before I thought I'd seen it all (which I hadn't), now it's this steady drip feed of new areas and encounters that keeps me coming back.

A screenshot of Dead Cells' Queen And The Sea DLC showing the player wielding a trident.

The game is fluid and crunchy and tightly designed. There are loads of doors that lead to places. A tentacle spoke to me. I found a bench from Hollow Knight, then got to use the little fella's nail as my weapon. Finally, I unlocked the ability to teleport to statues instead of rubbing them to no avail. Actually, I reckon that last revelation was in the base game, but still, the new DLCs are helping me see the game in a new light.

Speaking of which, I was initially puzzled by these mysterious doors of light. Three of them, all leading to ominous-sounding places. I picked one and it was rather pleasant - for a bit. Rusted platforms with a golden sky as a backdrop, which made for a nice change from dark and dank. Then the nagas with spears showed up, as did some horrid crows and spell-slinging cultists. A quick Google tells me they're from The Fatal Falls DLC.

That's the thing - much of my time with Dead Cells is shrouded in mystery. There's so much content with these DLCs, I don't know what's what anymore. And I think that's great. I like it when a lot of stuff just mingles and mixes into a cocktail of loot. In my last run I discovered a sword and pistol combo, that's apparently from a free update unrelated to the DLCs. I'd slash a couple of times, then round off the swingy business with this bang that ripped through enemies.

And man, is the combat good. I look at my previous self in puzzlement, to be honest. Fighting is fast and frenetic, with tonnes of variety. How could I have left this behind? Still, at least I appreciate the punch it has now. Yes, you've got the brilliant Hades with its thumps, or the likes of Rogue Legacy with its pings, but Dead Cells does impact better. The twin-swords make for stylish scissors, while the Nutcracker is an oversized meat tenderizer, and there's always this satisfaction, no matter what you're using, when the enemy splats into red goo at the end of a combo. You move with a springy agility, yet hit like a truck. It's glorious.

And there's nothing more glorious than getting a good run going. One time (1), I managed to reach the Queen And The Sea DLC. It's a bit like the fishing hamlet from Bloodborne: waterlogged, clammy, and home to nasties that chuck anchors. What's neat is that I was steered to the endgame expansion by seemingly random encounters. At first a tentacle handed me a note, and from there I stumbled into a fishy character who dropped hints as to how to reach the ocean. Manage to make it to the latter stages of a run and you'll take the door that's not glowy and gold, but tinged with a ghostly blue.

It's fair to say my time in the first stage of this DLC space was a bit limited, albeit an absolute thrill-ride. I wouldn't say it's designed all that differently from any other areas, as it's got the usual den of lefts and rights and drops into pits. But I would say that it's populated with some truly horrendous abominations. I particularly dislike the leech men who relentlessly spew even more ravenous leeches from their gullets until you down them, or, in my case, douse them in fire.

A screenshot from the game Dead Cells. The player's currently jumping through platforms in an underwater ship, surrounded by enemies.

Most terrifying of all, though, were sinewy balls of gloop that stalked me across corridors. They reminded me a bit of the Carrion monster, with tendrils that would extend and latch onto surfaces as they pursued me. If you let them get too close, you need to dodge their lunges or be minced in seconds. I did, however, manage to acquire a cute little gloop friend of my own! He's called Leggy and he's red and has a nice smile. He follows me about and smacks nearby things and if I activate his move, he puffs his cheeks and emits spikes that bleed enemies. This makes his hits deal critical damage, because he's a good boy.

I also acquired a lantern-weapon-thing, that let me pulverise enemies with a swing and collect their fallen souls. Now for the really cool bit: I could then fling these souls at enemies like missiles, causing them to explode in bursts of gore. My first taste of ultimate power, until I realised that I was taking double damage in return and swiftly got mauled to death by a hulking sea captain.

Although I'm yet to reach the heights of The Lighthouse or face off against the Queen, I'm having a blast with Dead Cells. Heck, I've barely scratched the surface of the DLCs that came before this one. Now I see why everyone lauded this game back in 2017, and why it's still popular. As a lapsed player, all this new "stuff" has proven a reawakening of sorts. My eyes have been opened to how moreish this game remains four years on. I mean, my primary concern right now lies in finding a throwable shark, which speaks volumes.

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