Indie roguelikes are a dime a dozen but Dead Cells is in a class of its own. Developers Motion Twin have blended several satisfying roguelike elements and the end result is a fun and challenging experience that remains accessible and never overly punishing.
You play as a deceased spirit who is able to come back to life over and over; a glutton for the endless punishment that Dead Cells hands out. Each of the levels is procedurally generated except for boss fights so every time you play, your experience will be very different. Beyond the stages that change between runs, Dead Cells also has branching paths that allow you to choose the sequence of levels as you attempt to gain access to the throne room and slay the king. Each level is presented as a different biome that's crafted with loads of variety to keep the gameplay feeling fresh. As a result, reaching a new stage feels satisfying and exciting.
Stages take place in prison cells, sewers, castle tops, villages, and more. The gameplay mechanics change just a bit from level to level and you'll soon figure out which ones you enjoy and which ones you should avoid. Sewers have toxic pits that sap your HP if you fall into them, the village requires you to find keys to progress, and (my favorite) the Forgotten Sepulcher is filled with a dark poisonous fog that will quickly drain your life if you don't find shelter in a light source after a few seconds. Each stage is packed with secrets such as treasure chests, shops, hidden items, etc. There are even special lore rooms that occasionally spawn and provide a bit of history for the world of Dead Cells. I recommend building your own path map as you discover new levels and how to access them (I made mine in Excel).
Dead Cells describes itself as a "Roguevania" and you may wonder what that means. It's a portmanteau of Roguelike and Metroidvania (which itself is a portmanteau). Even though Dead Cells features permadeath, it has permanent unlockables that allow you to progress further into the campaign and along new paths. Anyway, the combat in Dead Cells is fast, fluid, and fantastic. You're armed with two weapons that generally consist of melee, ranged, or protective items like shields. You can also equip two additional skills which take the form of ability buffs, traps, turrets, and grenades. You start each run with the option of grabbing a sword, bow, and/or wooden shield but there is tons of loot and you'll swap weapons regularly as you find stronger ones and ones that suit your play style better.
Enemies come in all shapes and sizes and you'll need to learn their attack patterns to survive. Dodging is a skill you'll use regularly to avoid attacks but enemies will frequently be clustered together so you'll need to formulate a plan of action instead of just running into the fray. While the combat is great throughout, I found ranged weapons (especially turret traps) to be a bit overpowered. I shouldn't complain because they were the reason I was actually able to beat the campaign but they definitely make things almost too easy at times as you can damage enemies without actually being in danger. However, they do require more patience than hack and slash strategies.
There are four unlockable ability runes that are always found in the same levels but in different places. Generally, they're protected by elite enemies that you must kill to acquire them. These runes allow you to do things like summon climbable vines, ground slam through certain floors, and allow access to previously unreachable secrets and doors. Once you unlock a rune, it's yours to keep even after you die which encourages exploration. I found the vast majority of my early runs were never with the goal to beat the game but rather to find one of the runes then use it to re-explore levels I'd already played. Besides these runes, there are also a bevy of permanent unlockables that make each run feel at least somewhat useful even if you die a stupid death or fail a certain personal goal. These include the ability to hold more healing flasks, carry over gold between runs, and unlock the chance to start with better weapons.
As you play Dead Cells, you'll come across weapon blueprints that are hidden in each of the levels. These are turned in to The Collector between levels and become unlockable with dead cells (the in-game currency that's dropped by enemies). Once a weapon blueprint is unlocked, you have the chance to find the weapon hidden in a level or up for purchase at a shop. Despite part of me wanting to check out all the newly available weapons, I was very selective about which blueprints I unlocked. This is because I was happy with the few that I had unlocked already so I didn't want to unlock any more as that would decrease the chances of finding weapons that I preferred. Another item that you'll want to keep an eye out for is power scrolls which are stat upgrades that increase your HP as well as melee, ranged, or protection attributes. There are usually two to four of these per level and they're vital in your quest to become powerful enough to complete the campaign. However, these stat boosts are temporary so they'll reset back to zero upon death.
Success in Dead Cells relies on luck to an extent but you can make your own luck which is a welcome aspect for any roguelike. Using permanent upgrades, mastering specific weapons, and becoming proficient in combat will make you have quite a lot of success during each run even if the loot you come across isn't the best. My in-game timer was over 90 minutes for both times I reached the final boss. In my opinion, that's a bit long for a roguelike although I played quite slowly and explored every nook and cranny. You can definitely play a lot quicker and be successful but first time players will find that full game runs definitely take quite a while.
Upon beating the game, you will unlock the first of several boss stem cells. These cells are permanent items that allow you to adjust the difficulty of future runs. Using the first stem cell on a run means that more powerful enemies will show up earlier on and health and potion refills will be less frequent. It's hard for me to imagine how difficult a four cell run would be but it's great to see the developer put effort into increasing the longevity of Dead Cells for players who can't get enough.
Dead Cells is undoubtedly one of the best games I've played all year. It implements both roguelike and Metroidvania elements divinely and features smooth and exciting combat with controls that will leave you aching for just one more run.
- + Fantastic and fluid controls and combat
- + Great upgrade system / tons of unlockables
- + Excellently crafted levels that blend procedural generation and predefined aspects
- - Full game runs take a while which makes death feel dishearteningly punishing
- - Ranged weapons and turret traps are too overpowered