Dead Cells (PS4) Review

I’ve played a few roguelike games recently, from the easy 2D style of Devious Dungeon all the way to the brutal The Persistence on PSVR. Recently I got my hands on the glorious Dead Cells from Motion Twin and I can happily say that it’s probably the best 2D roguelike game I’ve ever played in both it’s graphical style and it’s addictive nature. However, Dead Cells isn’t an easy game – it’s a brutal roguelike which finds pleasure in stripping you of everything you have acquired if you don’t make it to the next safe room. It then proceeds to send you back to the beginning of the game as you, quite literally, become reborn.

As such, it’s probably going to frustrate and anger you many times over – that’s probably why I love this game so much!

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This guy basically tells you your statistics. I really want to know whats in that room!

Dead Cells doesn’t really have a story. The game throws you straight into the action and offers very little in terms of motivation and purpose, other than the occasional conversation you’ll have here or there advised you briefly on what to do next. It’s a bit different as even previous roguelike games had a story to hold the game together – even Rogue Legacy, which was a very thin story yet helped give you a purpose. However, I don’t miss or need a story with Dead Cells as the addictive nature of the game simply had me going back for more over and over again and I never even realised there wasn’t an actual story until I started to write this review!

As I mentioned above though, this isn’t a roguelike for those who want an easy ride. Dead Cells sticks to the formula of the genre and delivers a rather brutal game. Upon death, you lose everything you have gained since your last run-in with The Collector and you’ll be sent right back to square one. The game is also listing itself as a Metroidvania style game, which I can see, but it’s not like you have to obtain a certain weapon in order to progress in certain areas, it’s all about time and how fast you can complete certain runs in if you wish to find the best treasure. 

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The various pickups help you in your suicide mission.

Controls-wise, Dead Cells is probably one of the tightest 2D platforming games I’ve played in a while. The controls all work perfectly and you’re rewarded (by not dying) for mastering the art of dodging and quickly moving out of the way with fast reflexes. The game describes itself as “Souls-like combat” and I can see where it’s coming from. The majority of the combat is learning how to counterattack, dodge, find the enemy weak points and taking advantage of all of these aspects. You’ll begin each ‘run’ as a bog-standard reincarnation – 100 health, a rusty sword and a choice of either a poor shield or a sub-par bow. I opted for the bow every time as I’d rather be on the offensive over the defensive in this type of game. As you work your way through the various levels, you’ll uncover the following pickups:

Blueprints:
These are what you’d expect. You find the blueprint to a weapon you don’t yet own which you must return to The Collector in order to unlock the chance to create the items with collected cells. If you die whilst holding blueprints which haven’t been handed to said guy, you’ll lose them and have to find them again in a new playthrough. 

Massive Chests:
When you open one of these gigantic chests, you’ll be given a random weapon which can be instantly equipt. So, unlike the blueprints, these can be used there and then in order to help you progress further. You’ll find many great weapons within these but it is very random, so you could technically end up with things you don’t want. Any items you pick up are lost when you die.

Cells:
These are left behind sometimes by enemies which you slaughter. These are used as currency with The Collector in order to unlock permanent bonuses which stick with you from run to run. I’ll talk about this in more detail below. You lose all of these when you die.

Choice stations:
These are quite cool areas. Dead Cells will give you the choice between two different pieces of weaponry. Once you choose one, the other will disintegrate and you’ll be stuck with the choice you made. Thankfully, you can see all the info on the item before you chose to pick it up. These work like the massive chest items – you can equip them right away. Any items you pick up are lost when you die.

Food and gems:
Food is interesting, you can choose from a varied selection of what you want your food items to look like – anything from ‘monster’ food to Castlevania style health items, even vegetarian if you don’t want your character to eat meat. Gems are your currency in the game. Unless you have bought an upgrade, you’ll lose all of these when you die.

Scrolls of Power:
These are scrolls which you can find which will allow you to chose which coloured item you would like to enhance (red, purple or green) as well as increase your health by a percentage. Each weapon and ability you equip during the game is colour coordinated, so choosing which one to enhance plays into the strategy.

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The very first screen – you will see this a lot. also, that guy in the background is huge!

Git Gud
Okay, so you’ve probably got the gist of it now, if you don’t make it to The Collector then you’ll lose everything you’ve done since your last playthrough. That can be pretty annoying but it also makes the game a lot more satisfying once you finally make it through to the end of the stage and you can bank those sweet cells! One thing to be aware of though, in the early stages of the game it may feel like you are suffering from a spell of madness as you’ll be trying the same things over and over again whilst hoping for a different outcome. However, it’s all about trying to “Git Gud” and being able to progress a little further each time – which can be hard if you can’t bank your cells and increase your stats, right?!

Wrong! Even if you die miserably over and over again without being able to bank those precious resources, you can still upgrade yourself and get a little bit better each time. Remember how I said that upon death you are returned to the beginning of the game? Well, that’s the best thing the game could ever do for you. You’re placed within the very easy prison surrounded by creatures who would rather be dead than semi-alive. This area is short – about 2-3 minutes long – and you can harvest about 6-10 cells before you start each run properly – these can be traded in before the real challenge begins as well. So technically, even if you suck at the game, you should be able to gradually pay for new upgrades and abilities to help you in all runs.

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Each one of these is effectively an unlock in the game.

Sell your Cell
I know what you’re asking – “but what are these upgrades and improvements you can get to make your life easier?” – Let me explain the ‘safe zone’.

When you’re playing the game you’ll encounter teleports and doorways. Teleports let you instantly warp to previously discovered way-points within the area you’re in and doorways let you progress to a new area. However, most areas will have multiple doorways. For example, if you come across the door to the sewers when you’re in the prison but you don’t think you’re ready for that one yet (as it’s a little hard at first), then continue to look around and you’ll find another door which leads to another area. This is awesome as not only is the game a Metroidvania-esque roguelike, but it also gives the player multiple branching choices on where you wish to go!

Upon entering the doorway to a new area, you’ll first stop off at the safe zone which is populated by two rather strange characters. The first of which is The Collector. They won’t allow you to progress until you have spent every cell you have picked up. The initial list is basic – a restore health flask, the bow or shield at the start are random ones you have picked up, fully unlock blueprints etc… Some of these items require a silly amount of cells to unlock, but you can put them into something one at a time in order to progressively unlock one of the items/abilities. The image above, with the glass bottles, is basically how many unlocks the game has – once you unlock one then the bottle becomes occupied.

The second character you’ll encounter is named Guillain, their role in all of this is to offer you a single mutation each time you reach one of these safe zones. For example, the first time you see him you may opt for the ability to come back to life once upon death, then the next time you can add the ability to drain X amount of hp from each enemy you kill. Some of the mutations are small but they all help you as you progress through the various areas which seem to get harder the further you get.

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Timed doors – Timed from the moment you start the game and not when you enter an area!

So, what’s the actual point of the game? What’s the end goal we are working towards? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I know there are eleven areas to work through, which each have their own secrets, two stupidly hard bosses (one of which absolutely slaughtered me in the video below), over 50 weapons to find and a daily run mode (which didn’t appear to be active in pre-release). A game like this though lends a lot of if’s success to the level design and weaponry – especially when it’s all randomly generated – so I guess we should take a look at those in more detail…

Randomly generated goodness!
I absolutely love the level design! Okay, so that may be a bit strong but let me explain. The art style used in the game and the sheer amount of detail put into each and every area is so immense, the game literally oozes with charm and beauty. If I didn’t know it was procedurally generated I don’t think I would have guessed so. Sure, there are sometimes dead ends or areas you can climb with no apparent reason (unless there is a hidden destructible rock for more gems) but overall, the algorithm is working great at creating new and interesting level designs.

The one thing I wasn’t too keen on is the timed rooms. From the moment you’re reborn, there is a timer in the lower corner of the screen which continuously increases (except in the safe zone or when stood in front of candles for some reason). As you work through the various levels in Dead Cells, you’ll encounter locked doors which will only open if you’re fast enough. It always does the ‘Bullseye’ thing and tells you how long ago the door locked – similar to “here’s what you could’ve won” back in the day! I’ve managed to get in one of these doors in all of my playthroughs so far – it’s not easy. If you see my playthrough below, I encounter one at around 19 minutes and it expected me to be there 11 minutes earlier! How?

One of the aspects of the game which I believe the developers are referring to when they call the game a Metroidvania style is it’s two passive abilities you can learn. Up until you have obtained these you can tickle random bushes in the game and electrify sarcophagus’. Once you learn the abilities, you can now turn the bushes into vines to climb and you can teleport between the sarcophagus’. So it is kind of Metroidvania in that new areas unlock when you have the new abilities, but because the game randomly generates the levels each time I don’t really think it can be classed as one as you’re not literally returning to the same point to progress further. 

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The action gets a little frantic the further you get!

Is that a sword in your pocket?
Weaponry is just as cool. Not only can you equip any two weapons you find/buy from a large selection of swords, bows, shields, staffs, magical spells etc… but you can also equip up to two ‘special’ items. These include items such as throwable mini-turrets which fire a barrage of arrows at the enemies and poison gases. It seems the weapons you pick up in-game also come with various alternative stats/abilities. A few I’ve seen is “extra damage if the foe is frozen”, “May cause bleeding” and “Will erupt into a poisonous gas upon death”. There are literally thousands of combinations for you to experiment with until you have the gear you want which will turn you into a badass! The fact that all the weapon drops and chest items are random also adds to the fact you must adapt to what you are given.

Speaking of adapting – you can sometimes ‘choose’ what weapon you have. For example, the first time you pay cells to unlock a blueprint with The Collector, he will drop the weapon so you can pick it up and use it straight away. Also, you’ll find a shop in each area which will allow you to spend your gems (finally) on a few items. He only has three on offer and they are always random – so you most likely won’t get a great selection but beggars can’t be choosers!

Speaking of money – what else can you spend your moolah on? Well, within the levels you don’t only have the annoyingly strict timed doors, you also have pay-to-come-in doors. These require you to pay in order to obtain whatever they are protecting – which is usually either an item or a Scroll of Power. I’ve not really seen anything else to spend my money on – it would have been nice if the sellers sold cells for you to buy as I always have thousands of spare cash when I inevitably die.

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The Collector – I think the Mask Seller from Majora’s Mask has found a new job!

Technical:
Dead Cells is one of the best looking 2D pixel-art games I’ve played in a while. People who have read my reviews before will know that I’m not a fan of pixel-art when it’s too blocky and simple, but Dead Cells is highly detailed, looks amazing, and has so much care put into it that the pixel-art style just looks simply gorgeous in this game. Combined with the fluid animations, the fast-paced gameplay and the originality of every single area – Dead Cells is by far one of the best indie titles I’ve played this year on my PS4. Even when I was stuck in a small corridor with about 10 creatures all attacking me from all directions with spells, arrows, slime and charges (which is in my video), the game never buckled or slowed down at all. 

The music in Dead Cells is great as is all of the sound effects. There is no voice acting though as it’s all text-only, but that’s not a problem as there is very little actual dialogue anyway. It’s all about slaughtering the enemies and getting better each time!

Overall:
Okay, so what did I personally think of Dead Cells? Initially, I loved the art style, the animations, the story was actually funny the first few times you die (keep a look out for the woman) and I found myself easily hooked on the game. As time went on I became bored and found it a drag… only kidding! I became even more obsessed with the game and kept giving the game “just one more go” as I aimed to get better and venture out further with each body I’m placed within. The randomness of the drops, levels and enemies kept me on my toes and the difficulty increases perfectly. However, I have encountered a boss at a certain area which I’ll be avoiding for now as I’m clearly nowhere near ready to take it on without further upgrades to my gear. If you’re looking for a game to sink many hours into which offers slow but gradual progression and an immense feeling of satisfaction upon completion, then I can’t recommend Dead Cells enough to you!

My most successful run (45 mins):

Official Trailer (Gameplay):

Official Trailer (Animated):

Final Conclusion:
Dead Cells is one of the best roguelike games you can pick up on consoles to date. Not only does it look and run great, but it’s also incredibly addictive and impossible to put down and stop playing. Sure, the first few playthroughs will leave you frustrated and annoyed as the permadeath kicks in and you lose all of your hard work harvesting the cells, but over time you’ll “Git Gud” and breezy through the first few areas. I seriously can’t think of anything negative or bad to say about the game – you’ll easily pour many hours of your life into Dead Cells as you try and reach the end and even more if you’re aiming for the platinum. 

If you’re a fan of brutal roguelike games then you need to do yourself a favour and pick up Dead Cells today – you won’t be disappointed!

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A copy of the game was kindly provided for review purposes

Dead Cells

£19.99
9.5

Final Score

9.5/10

The Good:

  • Gorgeous graphics and very cool looking animations
  • Very addictive - constantly makes you want to give it one more go
  • Very fast paced action which can be played in short bursts or long stretches
  • Brutal and unforgiving but very fair with solid controls
  • Tonnes of weapon combinations and unlocks to try and work towards - this isn't a quick and easy platinum!

The Bad:

  • Can be a bit too brutal as the game strips you of all your gold and cells - However, you just need to Git Gud!
  • Not on the PS Vita!

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