Look, Rogue was a perfectly fun game. It was revolutionary for its time and it’s amazing how long the concepts it introduced have endured.
No one could have suspected that it would spawn games like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, or Crypt of the Necrodancer decades later. It’s a simple formula that has been refined and moulded into various new forms over the years to make some pretty amazing experiences.
All that being said, I still liked Nethack better.
Dead Cells is the most recent iteration of what has become known as the Rogue-lite, action-oriented RPGs with almost every aspect left up to randomization aside from some unlockable aspects that persist between runs. On top of all that, we live in a post- Dark Souls world, where there is a wide audience for extreme difficulty and constant death, but, to be fair, old Rogue was no cake walk itself. People are going to try and tell you that it also hosts some Metroidvania elements, but I wouldn’t suggest getting too excited over that. In a proper Metroidvania style game the abilities you acquire to access new areas are also useful during the regular course of gameplay: Alucard’s mist form allows him to avoid damage as well as slipping through metal grates and Samus’ super missiles do massive damage as well as opening green doors. In Dead Cells these abilities really only open new paths, like big fancy keys in equally sizable and ornate locks. The game still stands on its own without curling up into a tiny ball and rolling around, and it stands tall.
The setup is simple. The player takes control of this funky looking green thing that inhabits a cadaver in some sort of musty, monster-filled prison. There’s a sword and a bow and a shield nearby, and the feeling like you should probably leave—normal prison stuff. Progress through the prison to nearby areas, amassing a collection of weaponry, leveling up three stats (each of which corresponds to a different style of weapon and a different style of play), and killing everything that tries to stop you. Each death starts you back at the prison with new items, new monsters, and a new layout, but it still connects to the same areas, each similarly randomized, with enemies and hazards unique to them.
With all of this randomization, each run of Dead Cells is dictated by what you come across along the way. If you cut through countless mobs with fats stacks of cash you’ll be on the hunt for the next vendor with the choicest goods, but if you ran across your favourite ice blast you’ll be freezing your foes solid and dreaming of more gear with randomized attributes that deal extra damage to frozen enemies, or emit toxic clouds or bright pink biting worms, because why just freeze the legions of the undead when you can also poison them or subject them to hungry worm death, or both? Play is fast and satisfying, with skillful rolls and blocks giving way to vicious attacks in a ballet of blood, flames, and arrows.
Between each area there’s a place to rest. The mysterious collector will take any spare cells you might have, dropped occasionally from enemies or plundered from comically large chests, and turn them into infinitely useful permanent upgrades, like randomized starting gear, new items that appear out in the world, or even an amount cash carried over from previous runs. There’s an excitable fellow, eager to provide a whole spread of possible mutations like a single use extra life or increased damage following an enemy slain, all to compliment different builds and playstyles. There’s even a big potion to recharge your health and recharge any healing items you may have unlocked. So gear up and heal up because things just get harder as you keep going.
Graphically speaking, Dead Cells feels like a sleeper success. Stunning graphics aren’t what I think of here, but they’re there, in the backgrounds, in the colourful enemies, and in the imposing NPCs that certainly only wish to help. The same could be said about the music. The score is wonderful and evocative of the desolation surrounding you and the epic battles, but all of this is overshadowed by tight, fun gameplay. I can’t tell you how many times I have told myself that this run is the last one tonight, and that I really need to get to bed, only to follow it with one more final run. After all, I started with that great ice bow.