I’ve never been one for difficult or rogue-like games—you can thank my short temper and minimal patience when it comes to dying in video games—but I’m a little bit different when it comes to Dead Cells. The game is a combination of stunning 2D pixel graphics and smooth movement. It can be punishing in its own right; but, on the other hand, the potential for progression kept me running through levels again and again. The addictive gameplay and the feeling of building my strength and capability with every run made me endure every mistimed dodge-roll and cheap enemy tactic. To be fair, I felt some of my tactics were cheap too…
First off, there is no doubting that the game is beautiful in its own right. The pixel art and animation is stunning, and care was definitely taken when designing the levels and the enemies. The art style is consistent across the game, with all enemies and levels all appearing unique in their own right. The style is very much “cute-and-endearing”, but you can’t focus on that too long—otherwise it will kill you. In particular, the cursed chests filled me with delight once I first encountered them. You see, the chests have these really adorable animations as they talk to the player, but then out of them comes some very suggestive and provocative words. It’s highly humorous, and it really was enticing to give into them and open them up to get a potentially powerful upgrade…that was until I realised that opening a cursed chest meant enemies could kill me in one hit for the rest of the level. I now appreciate cursed chests from afar, and I often stand around to enjoy their little quips.
Levels are procedurally generated, which is of benefit to a game where the turn of a very corner, or drop down into another room may contain a surprise for the player—either in positive or a deadly way. The levels are well designed, the map is clear to read, and there are portals to teleport around the map once you have discovered them—making backtracking for any reason less of a chore.
Like any rogue-like game, the goal is progression. Often the progression will be slow, but it will be enough to get you addicted to doing run after run. Additionally, the game does a fantastic job at catering to different playstyles. I found myself sticking to fast-moving melee weapons for rapid attacks against enemies; in my secondary slots, I opted to stick with traps and turrets. The combo of these weapons and tools allowed me to trap my enemies, whittle them down with my turrets, and finish them off with melee if necessary. Enemies could often be downed from a distance (which was the “cheap tactic” I was alluding to); but, to be fair, it is a valid playstyle and the game developers clearly designed the game with this possibility in mind. You can also pick up scroll fragments in the level that provide buffs for the weapons you choose to use—Tactics being the stat that controls trap and turret damage. So, by sticking to a certain playstyle, you need to choose buffs and accompanying Mutations that will help your type of attacks build in strength as you progress.
Mutations are another aspect of the game which can provide your build a buff in a way, or just give you the benefit of greater survivability. As I progressed through the game, I knew that survivability was the key to getting further and further, which is why I always seemed to pick up the Necromancy mutation (which allowed me self-heals upon dealing damage to enemies). With a maximum of three mutations allowed to be active at once, I also picked up Dead Inside to provide me with a substantial HP buff; the third mutation was usually a buff that allowed me more DPS if I was close to one of my deployed skills (my turrets and traps). While I took a slow and methodical approach, the game can be played in so many ways. It definitely encourages speed-running—with the game always displaying a timer on your current run—with the potential for rewards at the end of a level if you complete a certain objective (e.g. kill thirty enemies without being hit, finish the run in under two minutes).
After slowly improving and experimenting with which build I was benefiting from the most, I was able to beat the game and it’s bosses on Normal difficulty. And then: that’s when the real challenge started. Here I was, slowly making my way through Normal—hitting the next level of difficulty was an eye-opening experience. Suddenly, health replenishing was limited and enemies hit a lot harder. The need to be less careless and more succinct with movement and tactical decisions rose greatly. I’m still currently on one Boss Stem Cell (the modifiers which make the game harder), and the spike in difficulty is still something I’m combating. To give you an idea of the incremental spikes: there are five Boss Stem Cells, and one is already punishing enough.
Dead Cells is all about risk and reward. The player needs to make decisions along the way—all which will affect their chance of survival. The weapons you choose, the scroll fragments you decide to pick up (or miss, because you are speed-running towards the end), and how you approach your enemies make this a game full of decisions. For someone who has proclaimed very little patience for rogue-likes and games known to be difficult, this game was approachable even for me. The art style was endearing and a pleasure to look at. The game, with its progression, allowed me to feel that even with the occasional death I was able to make ground on collecting more cells and unlocking and finding more items. The deaths did not outweigh the amount of progression I was able to make, and I felt I was able to build my buffs up enough—through about thirty runs—in order to finish Normal. This build up allowed me to learn how the game is best approached, and was somewhat of a practice for when I eventually entered the higher difficulties. Funnily enough, deaths didn’t seem to dissuade me in Dead Cells; every run is a run to learn from and helps the player to see where their fatal mistakes where—and that in itself is tempting enough to do the run again with a revised approach.
I highly enjoyed Dead Cells. It is approachable from the beginning and allows the player to improve, but then provides incremental challenges later on for those that want it. It sits at about A$35 on the Steam store and, for the content and entertainment it provides, I’d say that it was…an easy cell.