Metroidvania was one of those terms in gaming that just had no effect on me, that is until about a year ago. I knew what it meant but outside of that I just had no interest. Then I realised that I should give them a go, see what the fuss is about and educate myself. Cut to a month later and I’ve completed Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion and Metroid Zero Mission. Quite simply that was one of the greatest decisions I’ve made in my gaming life, to give that style of game a go. Moving on from that I’m currently about 10 hours into a Castlevania Symphony of the Night run and can see why that is held in such high regard. As such when we come to today and I’m talking about Dead Cells, what is described as a Rogue Lite Metroidvania, I can say with some experience that everyone should ignore the Metroidvania genre label; But that’s not to say that Dead Cells isn’t one of the best games I’ve played in the past 12 months.
It may sound like a petty thing to get hung up on but I want to start with getting the negative out of the way before I spend minutes gushing about the awesome experience that Dead Cells is. Metroidvanias to me are all about the exploration to continue the plot, it’s about the different atmospheres that are evoked by the designs of the various areas of the games. Dead Cells in reality only really equates to the Metroidvania style by map design and being a 2D platformer, outside of that, what you’re actually looking at is a wonderfully solid and fulfilling rogue-lite that will consistently have you looking at the time and thinking “oh, just one more run”.
Starting in a prison you are a blob of various decomposed bodies that at the beginning of each run plops down on the floor of the execution chamber to grab a recently beheaded body. With this new shell for your essence you must run through level after level of enemies that are out to get you. During your runs you’ll pick up new weapons and gadgets that will aide you in your slaughtering of the undead and the mutated.
When you kill the foes of the world you’re sometimes award with Cells. Between levels you meet a Collector who has the ability to unlock permanent upgrades for your runs. This is the crux of the game, doing run after run until you’ve earned enough cells to get your next upgrade, which in turn will help you get a little further into the game which in turn gets you more cells. The gameplay loop is satisfying, as long as you survive the first level (which is near impossible to fail) you’ll be able to get some cells and get close to upgrading something. In my first few runs I made the mistake of unlocking weapon blueprints I had found with the goal of starting the game with better attack power when in reality the most useful upgrade you could possible get is the Potion upgrades allowing you to heal yourself multiple times during a level.
As well as meeting the Collector in between levels you’ll also encounter someone offering you mutations. You can hold up to three mutations and these range from extra damage to extra health to the always essential second chance mutation that brings you back to life on hitting zero health. These mutations are a reward for getting through a level and mixed with the random scrolls you find on your runs that imcrease damage or health, depending on which you choose, really can make the difference between a 5 minute run and a 30 minute run.
You’ll eventually start meeting bosses as you progress, defeat these and you’ll unlock abilities and game modes. The first will grant you the ability to grow vines out of certain sections of ground allowing you to climb up areas to make faster progress or reach little treats. On defeating the Conceirge at the thend of the Ramparts level you get the Daily Challenges door unlocked in the opening area, a game mode that tasks you to complete a random level with random weapons and a points system. All of these little things help you in the long run giving you a new blueprint to spend your hard earned cells on giving you that itch of wanting to be as good as possible.
Dead Cells is a hard game, there’s going to be many occasions where you just bite off a bit more than you can chew and you’ll pay the price but with each death you as the player will learn something; struggling to do any damage to a shielded enemy, roll past them and take out the training dummy totem that is protecting them. Early game archers messing you up? Have a bow handy and shoot from crouching as their shots go straight over your head. Quickly these little tactics become second nature and you’ll be sprinting through the first three levels easily.
With the world resetting on each death you’ll have to explore the level to find where the exit is but also take advantage of the ease of the first areas to get some decent gear and upgrades to meet the tougher requirements down the line. All of this, this loop of live/die/repeat, is there to give you satisfaction and stress. Everyone can play this game, some people may be stuck in area one and smacking their head against the wall but with each successful completion of level 1 you’ll be helping your character permanently with upgrades to help you before long smack your head against a wall in level 2.
The overall design of Dead Cells is great, an awesome 3D pixel art gives depths to all the sprites and the world at large, the areas are each unique with the Ramparts especially being a treat visually. The music of the opening prison and the Village on Stilts being a joy to bomb around to.
With upgrades weapons and equipment bosses are still going to kick most people in the behind. You’ll have numerous deaths but at no point are they cheap, you screwed up and that’s how it always is. Enemies have yellow exclamations above their heads when they’re about to attack giving you time to do a well executed roll into punish attack, if you take damage its because you lost focus, even for a second. Bosses especially follow a set routine of attacks that are there to be played on with a good roll. My personal favourite being freeze spell with a couple of automated turrets sat around peppering the bastard, I had one of my best runs to that tactic.
Dead Cells is a game I will recommend to everyone, I played the PC build which ran smooth and had zero issues but personally if the option is there for you (and the port is good) I would say this seems like a perfect game for the Nintendo Switch, something that will fill up your commute or lunch at work, every run always makes progress and the games story is on the light side so there’s no concern about having to put the Switch into sleep to get back to your desk. Everything in Dead Cells is tight, the controls feel good, the animation and sounds is perfect, the procedurally generate levels are always fair and the combat is tasty. Dead Cells is up there with some of the best gaming experiences around, to me its not a Metroidvania like everyone is touting, but it is a near perfect game.