by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
Roguelikes are some of the most unforgiving, punishing games that exist. You know, on the level when you dare to compare something to . . . Dark Souls. Roguelites however are a little easier. You don’t lose everything every single time you die, which is good. You spend a lot of time in these style of games dying. Combine that with the exploration and item/power-up finding of a Metroidvania, and you have Dead Cells. I have to say, I love the concept of Dead Cells quite a lot. You start off dead, and a sludge-type spirit inhabits a body. So you and your new body will explore this land and die. A lot. For the most part, everything you gain will vanish when you die, like your Gold, Cells, and Equipment. You can purchase perks (using Cells) to keep Gold and sort of keep Equipment, but Cells are what you use to upgrade, and they’re always gone at death. Your goal is to explore this world, do battle with the (for now) pair of bosses, explore ~10 biomes, each with their own challenges, obstacles, and enemies to do battle with.
You start off just with your frail body, 100 hp, a point in three styles of damage and a rusty piece-of-junk sword. As you leave the cells you start in, you’ll see a scrap of wood, and a bow and arrow. It’s up to you to pick which you prefer, but I started with the bow. I didn’t really care for the shield myself. The stages are procedurally generated, but each biome will feel fairly similar every time you go in. This is both a pro and a con because it can be a sort of slog to do the same style of stage over and over. Once you’ve unlocked some of the permanent abilities (the ability to create a vine over those green sludge piles, teleport crypt, et cetera) the other stages begin to open up. You’ll find yourself running the same ones over and over until you get better and can go farther. That’s the point of games like this, getting better. Each enemy has its own behavior, patterns, and post-death shenanigans. They don’t all do something annoying at death, but some definitely do. There’s a creature in the Toxic Sewers for example, that explodes into eggs that explode again. So when you come across that stronger creature, that throws lightning through walls, explodes into eggs, or dashes and stuns you, you’ll figure out ways around it and to kill them more efficiently.
There are only a few bosses in the game right now, but they are insanely, incredibly challenging. I’ve only fought one, and I’ve gotten him to half health at the absolute best. As of this writing, running into bosses is more trouble than its worth, because I’m just going to lose all the Cells I’ve accrued. There are handy items that can bring you back to life once, for when you come across those pesky elites or Bosses that are ready to slap you into your place.
So let’s talk about the exploration and items a bit. You’ll probably notice your Skills and Weapons all have a color or colors attached to them. This is tied to the Scrolls you come across in your travels. When you discover them, you’ll be given a choice, for one of these three (sometimes two) colors, each offering a particular bonus and stat boost. Brutality (Red – Increased Damage after a kill, +25% damage for Red Weapons, 7% Health), Tactics (Purple = -20% CDR for Active Skills, +25% damage for Purple Weapons, 7% health) and Survival (Green = After you parry with a shield, your weapons deal 150 dmg/s, +25% damage to Green Weapons, 20% health). All do useful things, so it becomes a delicate balancing act. The Green, for example, gives 20% HP to your overall max, and there are times I consider getting that, even if I have no Green/Half-Green weapons. Because losses are crippling and frustrating, no matter how far you get.
Speaking of weapons, each weapon has stats randomly assigned to it, which might give abilities like adding poison damage or a line of fire. I found a sword that shot an arrow every time I took a swing, grenades that deal bonus damage to enemies who are poisoned, and so many other insane things. You really have to pay attention to what works well together, because in addition to your two weapons, there are also skills you can acquire, like an Ice Grenade, a Bear Trap, or (my personal favorite) an Auto-Turret that fires anytime enemies are near you, once you’ve activated it. These have a cooldown, which can be lowered, but they’re invaluable and either found in store or hidden away in passages. There are tons of secret passages, hidden items, healing consumables stashed in walls like Castlevania and more. Even if you play the same zone three or four times in a row, there’s going to be something you didn’t see, didn’t do, or did not encounter.
The most interesting aspect of these secrets are the Timed Doors. If you don’t explore the stages and just move from left to right without looking around, you might miss these. They’re special glowing doors that have a timer on them, always off the beaten path. They have very short timers, so if you need gold/Cells, you’ll want to rush to every nook and cranny, jumping down every hole you can find. If you fail to get there in time, you can’t get in it ever. Well, until you die, or enter a new map with its own Timed Door. They always have fantastic amounts of gold, and a container with Cells in it. Stages also have convenient teleporters everywhere (sort of like the ones in Castlevania: SOTN, except you control where you go), and you can see the whole map you’ve uncovered when you do this. It will also show items you’ve left behind (because you can only have two weapons/two skills at once). I keep talking about “Cells” though. What are these Cells for, anyway?
You start the game with a Health Potion that can be upgraded. In fact, after you complete a map, you’ll go back to an area that has a large entity with a glass tube on his back. If you have Cells, you cannot leave his room. Use them wisely, since you can’t get them back.There are a variety of things you can upgrade here. You can make your potion have more charges, you can keep gold after death, you can use Cells to complete recipes you find in the stages. There are some incredible things here, but they cost a lot of Cells, so you’ll have to plan, invest, and sometimes just go in blind and see what happens. For example, there’s an upgrade that will make your starter bow a random Bow that you’ve unlocked, same with your shield choice. There are rare recipes to find for this creature, so every dungeon delve can unlock something wonderful, or something dangerous. From there you’ll refill the potion flask and move on to a new biome/map. These recipes are different from the Runes you find, which give permanent bonuses/effects to make your exploration just a bit faster.
Combat’s quite easy too. You have two attack buttons, a dodge, and a jump. Then you have the two buttons for your Traps/Gadgets/Whatever you want to call them, and a button for the Potion Flask. Each enemy as I said, has a pattern. They’re all very easy to learn, and there is always a way around it or a way to counter it. A fun fact you can take advantage of though, if you jump, and swing your sword or shoot your bow, you’ll stop in mid-air, fire/swing, and then resume the fall. You can use this to ping away at a creature that might be too strong, that can’t chase you, or to use it as an initiation, dropping from a platform to strike from the darkness. However, be careful; if you drop too far, you’ll be stunned (but you can stomp and avoid that plus deal damage), and some of these monsters are very, very aggressive.The potion does not prevent enemies from hitting you either, so don’t use it unless you’re safe. Opening chests/scrolls will, however, stop things from hurting you, so don’t be afraid to go for it if you see them. But you really have to judge carefully what items you take with you. Sometimes it might seem worth it to abandon a Triple Jump item for something that will resurrect you once… but is it? Is it worth losing that potential escape mechanic? The worst you can do is try it and die! There are things in the combat that really genuinely frustrate me. There are no invincibility frames at all (except in the roll I believe), so you can get pinned between an elite and its minions and have no way to dodge, jump or get free from a stun-lock. And if you’re climbing down a chain/pipe to encounter enemies, if you aren’t aware that you can stomp on the way down, you’ll probably take damage that you cannot afford to take.
Death is Temporary; Glory is Forever:
This game is a love letter to Castlevania and Metroid from the beautiful 16-bit graphics, down to the immeasurable difficulty, but the game gets easier as you get better. The sounds, sights and secrets all make this worth a try. This is still in Early Access, so there’s still updates, content and fixes coming, as people explore and wander through each area. It will feel frustrating many times you die, if you feel like there’s nothing you could’ve done, but there was. There’s always something you can do. Maybe you had the wrong items, maybe you didn’t know what the pattern-change is, or maybe you were just like me, and constantly got bashed by a shield-wielder because you weren’t smart enough to jump over and strike their back. This game has crazy replayability though! There’s always a new thing to try, new items to pair, always something you haven’t tried quite yet. Not to mention they are working on more content for it, so the dungeons are getting deeper.
Dead Cells is a game I did not know I needed in my life until I picked it up. The controls are tight and sharp, the sounds are fitting, and the challenge is just right. If someone’s crying that it’s too hard, they just aren’t learning anything from their deaths. Metroidvanias are my favorite style of platformer, and Dead Cells has absolutely everything I was looking for. There are of course bugs, frustrating encounters, and disappointing deaths, but the vast majority of these were in my control. Dead Cells is 100% worth a play in Early Access. It’s a game of learning, and there’s a lot of items and things I have not yet covered. The fun is discovering it all.