Publisher: Motion Twin
Developer: Motion Twin
Genre: Action Platformer (Roguelike)
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Available On: Xbox One, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows
Dead Cells is difficult. The new title from French developer and (self-described anarcho-syndicalists) Motion Twin, is much more difficult than any game I’ve ever played. I originally missed the boat for the ‘Soulsbourne’ games (those games in the Souls series, and those that sought to mimic their success), and despite the rave reviews FromSoftware has received, I’ve never felt the need to bash my skull against that particular wall. Dead Cells, however, has revealed the joy in repeated head trauma to me, because I can’t stop playing. I’ve put so many hours into this game, I’m not sure my corneas will ever be the same. As I write this, I’m experiencing a headache that feels like there’s sand behind my eyes and it’s tearing my optical nerve apart. Despite this, I keep playing because I’ve got to beat this game.
I still haven’t done it.
Now, before anyone starts questioning my journalistic integrity (looking at you, Filip Miucin), I have played most of it. I’ve made it to the final boss, who promptly murdered the crap out of me, and have visited most of the biomes (Dead Cell’s term for its various levels). And even though I haven’t beat it yet, I’m still torturing myself in order to make even the most meager amount of progress. So, I guess you could say I’m a fan.
This game pulls inspiration from tried and true gaming traditions. Its own Steam store description lists it as a “rogue-lite, Metroidvania inspired, action-platformer” with “2D souls-lite combat.” If that sounds like internally referential, industry specific jargon, it’s because it absolutely is. Motion Twin is referencing a handful of games that have been monumentally influential in the industry, but essentially this description is saying that Dead Cells is 2D platformer with procedurally generated maps, random loot, permanent death, and combat involving dodge-rolls.
The difficulty of this game comes through what Motion Twin describes as “tough but fair combat”. Though 2D combat isn’t generally difficult in and of itself, the game offers you many varied challenges to overcome. Each enemy has unique attacks and abilities, and though all of their behaviors can be predicted, the game does an excellent job of grouping them in such a way that forces you to think through your options and react extremely quickly. Despite their claims of fairness, this can get a bit overwhelming when there are enemies that can attack you through walls or from off-screen (though the age-old video game adage of “git gud” will often serve you well enough). In addition to that, there are very few ways to heal yourself after making a mistake, and the permanent death mechanic erases all of your progress. When that happens (when, not if, because you’re going to definitely going to die), you find yourself living Motion Twin’s tagline; Kill, Die, Learn, Repeat.
This may sound like a slog, but Dead Cells balances out the difficulty by offering you permanent upgrades. As you fight your way through the biomes, you collect cells which are used to unlock upgrades such as bigger health potions (as opposed to the single use, Weenie Hut Junior one you start the game with), new weapons (my favorite is the balanced blade, which has a faster attack which is perfect for a button masher like me), and other abilities. Each new unlock offers new game play options that can give you an edge on your next play through. These new options aid Dead Cells in walking the fine line between being so hard that the player screams in frustration as they throw their controller at their television and offering enough of a challenge that they keep playing into the wee hours of the morning while neglecting their friends, family, and responsibilities.
Narrative in this game is a bit sparse. What story details are offered are definitely reminiscent of the dark, minimalistic storytelling of games like Dark Souls, with a little added wackiness (like the Cursed Chests that beg to ‘punished’ because they’ve been ‘naughty’, or the nameless player character who flips off a few NPCs) to spice it up. The player receives hints about the story, which boils down to some sort of disease called ‘the Malaise’ taking hold in the world and a King who has taken draconian measures to stop it, through short interactions with NPCs (who are few and far between), and randomized rooms or set pieces (which may not be included every time that a specific map gets generated due to the randomization). It’s clear, even though the story seems well thought out and entertaining, it’s not the main focus of the game.
Overall, the game is very well made, though there is the occasionally hiccup in frame rate. It’s also a little light on narrative, which can definitely hurt a game that revolves around grinding, but it has enough interesting features to satisfy my impulse for exploration. Ultimately, however, Dead Cells is a well-made game with addictive gameplay, and plenty to explore. To get the most out of the game, it’ll need to be played through at least a few (hundred) times, but it’s worth it, especially if you enjoyed Hollow Knight, Dead Cells’ most comparable contemporary. I’d also recommend this title if you enjoyed the challenge of games like Cuphead or Dark Souls, or if you’re a fan of more traditional 2D games such as bet ‘em ups like Splatterhouse, or platformers like Megaman.