Dead Cells blends the best elements of its many Metroidvania inspirations and improves upon them to create a first-rate game of its own. From the moment you gain control of your headless prisoner, pick up a rusty sword and hack away at your first enemy, you can feel how incredibly fluid and responsive the combat and movement is. Things only get better from there as you realize how far you can push the game (and yourself) using its sheer sense of speed. Combo chains killing multiple enemies in seconds are rewarded with movement speed multipliers, until you’re leaping from enemy to enemy, cutting them down while dodging attacks in a dazzling display. It’s simply one of the most satisfying combat systems ever made in a 2D action game.
The raw empowerment of the combat system is balanced out by a deep level of challenge, linked to an addictive progression system and a tremendous variety of weapons and items. Dead Cells is a run-based roguelike, so you lose everything on your person upon dying and are sent back to the beginning. However, you build up a huge pool of weapons, items and modifiers by cashing in the “cells” gained from killing enemies at the end of each level. There’s such a vast number of possibilities to experiment with, and each new combination creates a moveset that plays differently than the last. Discovering your own setups and adapting to the game’s increasing challenges in pursuit of the perfect run means each death only leaves you hungry for more.
As fast and fun as Dead Cells is, it also pays to stop, look and listen sometimes – the game is an audiovisual treat. The remarkable sprite work and animation is accompanied by a grim yet beautiful world, which changes dramatically in each new level. From prison blocks to high castle walls, blighted villages to clock towers, Dead Cells pairs the classic Metroidvania aesthetic with gorgeous backgrounds and surprisingly vibrant color schemes. Even the dankest dungeons and obligatory sewer levels had plenty of effort put into them. All of it is wrapped up in an exhilarating and relentlessly catchy musical score, giving even your most basic actions an air of excitement.
If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s the tonal inconsistency between the game’s world, story and writing. For its full release, Dead Cells has interspersed “lore rooms” around the world in an attempt to provide context and meaning – but ultimately does neither. In fact, most of them seem to be there for the headless protagonist to simply joke about. The world of Dead Cells is a persistently miserable place, cursed by an all-consuming infection and littered with the remains and atrocities of increasingly desperate people… but the writing seems incapable of taking that kind of material seriously. When I enter a room in a ravaged fishing village and find a woman who hung herself after killing her family in order to save them from infection, my headless avatar cracks a lame joke about them taking the quick way out. Not only is it a missed opportunity to flesh out an interesting world, but it leaves the game with a dumb, Deadpool-esque vibe which interrupts your immersion every time you enter one of these rooms.
Yes. Play it. Just don’t expect involving stories or characters.
Main takeaway: Dead Cells will click with the Metroidvania faithful, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable for anyone interested in fast, fluid combat and an addictive gameplay loop.