Fire, brimstone and despair!
The life of many lays wasting in the streets, as the rot and filth consumes the beaten buildings. Harlots and non-believers chant from the once-bustling streets, crying about where it all went wrong. “Were we able to prevent it?!”, “Why couldn’t this happen when we were ready?!”, and other stupid questions that don’t mask the fact that their lives are in ruin. That’s enough about a weekend at Blackpool though, let’s talk about Dead Cells.
This is the new roguelike from French company Motion Twin, who’ve been developing games since 2001. With the exception of today’s topic, all of them are Free-To-Play in one way or another, including the fun time of Die2Nite, which I admittedly didn’t know Motion Twin were responsible for. Anyway, Dead Cells hit the Early Access storefront in May of 2017, and over a year later, their love and labour has finally been fully released. The result?
The plot is delivered piecemeal throughout, but the main gist of it is that you’re a unknown blob of green goo who invades a dead body in a prison. You’re stuck on an island that’s always shifting its lands, making sure that adventurers looking to escape never find a path out, and you’re one who defies such expectations. From then on, it’s your mission to destroy all four bosses without breaking a sweat.
So it’s a side-scrolling roguelike platformer, with some beat ’em up elements thrown in for good measure. You roll around with finesse and speed, destroying any unfortunate beast that comes into your radius, and as time goes on, you get better and find better stuff. There’s a lot of weapons to choose from, all with different attack patterns, skills and strategies behind them, but there’s also the bonuses to think about.
Between each world, there’s a small passage that allows you to relax, along with possibly upgrading and unlocking some new gear. The currency used to unlock further gear is Cells, which seems to be a fifty percent drop rate, so once you’ve killed every other enemy in the area, you should have a hearty bunch to give to The Collector and his friends.
Finally, there’s Mutations, both the figurative meaning within gameplay context, and literal. With almost every passage, a monster with a large backpack will give you the chance to make the fight that little bit easier, whether it be more HP, more ammo for your ranged weapons, or to cheat death, you can have three at max. It’s rare that you get this type of boost within a Roguelike, and it’s rarer that the mechanic is implemented that well.
The combat is a little bit button-mashy, hence the beat ’em up comment, but like most good beat ’em ups, it manages to make up for its lack of elegance with a sheer amount of catharsis. All of the weapon combos have some great animation to them, the screen slightly wobbles with each death by your hand, and the pixel-art explosion of giblets and guts is a wonderful testament to your skill.
The flow of gameplay is also ludicrously quick. Make no mistake, you won’t be taking your time here, you need to be fast, really really fast in order to succeed in this game, and thankfully the game compliments the speed by telegraphing attacks. When it comes to normal monsters, a “!” symbol will appear above them when they’re about to attack, something I found to be quite necessary due to the graphical density of the combat and the world around you.
That being said, if there was a word that could be used to perfectly describe the gameplay, it would be “finicky”. It’s possible to get through this game without button mashing like a madman, I can do it no problem, but sometimes, it feels like the game can’t keep up with the speed it promises. What this leads into, is a lot of fights where you take more damage than you should have because the roll glitched you in front of the enemy’s attack, or the stun was one frame away from happening.
Elite monsters show this problem the most, making them such a pain in the arse to fight. They’re essentially just the normal monsters with a slightly bigger sprite, and slightly shorter attack telegraphing, but they can also summon a horde of zombies to piss on your parade. Here is where combat gets clunkier, as you’re trying to focus on attacking the Elite, but there’s no space to tell where your punches are being thrown.
Still, despite all this, the game still has some utterly incredible fighting spectacle, amplified more-so when the bosses come into play, and the complaints from before are thrown out of the window. They’re bigger than the elites, their slow movement compliments your aggressive fighting style, and they’re tough but fair. If there’s anything that makes the pain worth it, it’s knowing that you’re going to be meeting a fair opponent at the end of it all.
From there, the game continues to keep this “flawed gem” approach to everything else. Don’t get me wrong, this game is good, it’s really really bloody good, but with almost every element to it, there’s a hearty kick to the teeth that makes the strength stumble. Let’s start with the environmental design and atmosphere.
A lot of people— uneducated people, that is— rag on roguelikes for withholding narrative for a more streamlined experience. They don’t, spoiler alert, people just think that when randomization is used in a game. That means an integral storyline is lost, which isn’t true, as Dead Cells outright proves otherwise, showing that it’s easily possible.
Throughout the worlds, there are tidbits of exposition and storytelling that your character can gaze over and ponder. It’s here that a lot of the plot is learned, from dead bodies, notes left behind, and rooms all over the levels, there’s quite a hefty amount of lore here. It’s even tied contextually into gameplay, by having some of places you can inspect drop special rare items every once in awhile, which is great! It’d just be a shame if our character wasn’t a possibly-smirking jackass.
For some reason, this gelatinous blob of green faeces, who’s quite literally using this dead body as a free apartment, has a personality; Quite a grating one, to be completely honest. At first, it’s quaint, as his over-enthusiastic animations give way to some well executed comedy. After a while however, his guffawing at the hanged bodies and despair of the world drags on a bit, as he will quite literally give some people the middle finger for clawing on to life.
Tying in with the environmental design, the level design and combat bring up this three punch combo of brilliance. Care has been taken to make the world seem as authentic as possible, making sure that despite the fact that this island shifts the paths constantly, these prisons, towns and bridges still connect realistically. This leads into is quite a tactical way to approach battles.
You can smash through doors in order to stun any enemy on the other end, and prison cells have a possible chance of containing an escape tunnel to some hidden goodies. Later on, there are tons of hidden rooms and potential to use the power-ups you’ve been getting along the way, and the secondary weapons you can obtain can be thrown into the room below for good measure. There’s an exceeding amount of ways you can dispose of your foes, but you do have to be quick about it.
The only real problem that the level design has, is that it’s always accounting for items you get later into the game. There are certain doorways and platforms that can’t be opened unless you get far enough into the story, and it’s quite frustrating seeing a chance to level up your gear, only to find you that you don’t have the rune of Bumsniff yet.
There’s also the timed doors, the one gimmick in this game that everyone either loves or hates. To keep up with the “speed” motif, there are doors within every level that can only be opened if you’re fast enough to get to them. The first one’s two minutes, the second one’s eight minutes, so on and so forth. It’s a fair reward for skill, and my problem isn’t that they’re annoying winks to the crappier kids playing, it’s that the rewards are crap.
It’s always a few Cells and a temporary powerup, it’s rarely anything more substantial than that, and to be honest, I think the drop rate for Cells is fine enough as it is. I can get forty of ’em by just ploughing through these zombie bastards, I don’t think an extra ten being lost is going to keep me up at night. The summer heat is doing that already.
Truthfully, the only thing that escapes the game unscathed is the variety of the environments and the atmosphere if you choose to not let your character speak. You’ve got a lot of different worlds offering different dangers and threats, visually beautiful vistas and levels to run through, be it the enclosed quarters of the Prison, or the murky waters of the Toxic Sewers. There’s also the high-rise Ramparts, the maze-like design of Stilt Village and the misty Slumbering Sanctuary to worry about as well, so be hot on your heels.
All this and more is also backed by an utterly BRILLIANT soundtrack, which comes close to being the highlight of the entire game. There’s a weird reminiscence of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion shining through the music. Oblivion if it had sort of an acid-western vibe, but with some sombre cuts laced into it. Regardless, it’s a well-varied soundtrack.
Dead Cells is by no means a perfect game, or the best roguelike money can buy, but it’s the style, the grace and the confidence of Motion Twin that sets it apart from its contemporaries. Taking combat in a direction not seen since Symphony of The Night, along with fusing the inevitable damage-taking mechanics and the speed of NeuroVoider. This is a title that, while it doesn’t stand head and shoulders above the rest, it can easily gaze into the eyes of its predecessors, and let them know that their time is up.
Piss off, The Binding of Issac, the new king of gross-out violence is here.
This review of Dead Cells is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A hearty blast of horrific roguelike violence, with the combat being the only thing that's not as up-to-standard as the rest.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.