Dead Cells (2018)

I’m the first to admit that finding a rogue-lite game that suits my tastes is difficult. As someone who enjoys steady progression systems and a consistent difficulty curve, the rogue-lites and rogue-likes of the world seem antithetical to my preferences. Even Enter the Gungeon, a game which I love, almost had me quitting after a handful of hours. Unfortunately, Dead Cells never hooked me and grew stale after a dozen hours. While the combat was entertaining enough, I had felt like I had seen the whole game after a handful of successful runs.  

The core concept of the rogue-lite genre is that every time you die, you must restart the game from the first level. Rogue-lites in particular have methods of progression that unlock weapons and upgrades throughout the course of the game that will make subsequent runs easier to complete. That combined with the knowledge and skill gained after multitudes of runs allow the player to make it deeper and deeper in the game, until the eventually conquer the final boss.

One of the primary aspects of Dead Cells that is given praise is its progression system. While playing the game, exploring hidden crevices, and killing enemies you will gain cells and blueprints. Blueprints serve as unlocks for weapons and tools that once earned can be found in subsequent runs. You must spend cells to complete the blueprints as well as unlocking generalist boosts like additional health flasks. 

The premise of Dead Cells is that you control an amorphous blob that takes control over a beheaded body that it finds. You must traverse a crumbling kingdom to defeat monsters and overthrow a corrupt ruler. There is not much explicit story and explanation given to the player. Instead, you will find hidden bits and pieces of lore scattered throughout your runs. It’s clear that there is a disease known as the malaise that is the source of the kingdom’s ruin, but learning the source of the disease and how the main characters are significant is something that the player will have to figure out after many, many hours. Truthfully, the reason you play Dead Cells is not for the story. 

My favorite aspect of Dead Cells is undeniably its combat. As side-scrolling hack n’ slash, you can expect some fast-paced and chaotic action when playing Dead Cells. There is tons of skill expression in how you choose to approach each encounter. You can rely on pure instincts to dodge incoming attacks, or you can play it slow and rely on ranged attacks and traps, or perhaps you prefer to utilize shields to block and parry blows. Every weapon behaves differently, and each one you find will have different augments to its base ability that can further warp its playstyle. It is fun to experiment with numerous builds and see how different each run can be.

Slashing through hordes of enemies just feels right. When a game gets combat correct, it’s hard to explain. There is a visceral feeling of satisfaction. Dead Cells undeniably gets it right. There is a rhythm, an ebb and flow, to good combat. Enemies react to your hits, but given the opportunity will retaliate with massive damage. There is a ton of variation in each enemy type, leaving the player to play cautiously with each new encounter. But once you master each stage you can strike down enemies with confidence and breeze through at breakneck pace.

The meat of Dead Cells is its combat and exploration. Dead Cells labels itself as a cross between a rogue-lite and a metroidvania. I’ve discussed its strengths as a rogue-like, but as a metroidvania it’s a tough sell. The nature of being a rogue-lite is the inherit randomization of the layout of each subsequent run, which is in direct conflict with the progression loops of traditional metroidvania. Exploration is a key aspect of any metroidvania, and remembering where locked doors and out-of-reach ledges were is absolutely core to the experience of a metroidvania. The exploration of Dead Cells is more dynamic, but it does not scratch the itch that a traditional metroidvania would.

Dead Cells is composed of many differing areas, and you can change your path during each run if you so choose. You must collect and unlock a handful of relics across numerous runs to access some of the more challenging areas. While this seems like a metroidvania initially, I quickly realized that collecting relics and accessing alternative routes was entirely unnecessary. Sure, it was more content to play through, and some new enemy types dropped new blueprints, but the intrinsic reward was not justified. These areas brought me no closer to defeating the final boss. Maybe I’m missing something, but I felt like due to the increased difficulty of the zones it was actually a hindrance to attempt them during a serious run.

To increase your power in a run to give yourself a chance to defeat the final boss you unlock weapons of varying power levels as well as scrolls that increase your health and damage. As far as I could tell, taking the path of least resistance was just as effective as tackling the most challenging routes. Unlocking new blueprints to craft new weapons is fine, but I found that many of the blueprint weapons were undeniably weak. Sure, some were stronger than the early game weapons but most were not worth the price of admission. It feels like much of the progression in Dead Cells justification was “just because”, which truthfully did not drive me to continue.

The biggest offender of this mindset was how difficulty levels scaled. When you initially defeat the final boss, you are given a “boss cell”, an item which you can activate in future runs to up the difficulty. When you defeat the next higher difficulty, you unlock the next boss cell, and it continues like this until the 5th boss cell. At that point you will finally be able to challenge, the “actual” final boss of the game. 

The truth is that I felt absolutely zero desire to complete further levels of difficulty past the initial one. You are rewarded with more cells to unlock more blueprints, but as previously mentioned that felt worthless. Moreover, you do not unlock any real “additional” content until the 5th boss cell, which I’ve heard rumors will take 75+ hours to realistically complete. I felt no drive to unlock higher difficulties just for the sake of it. I like challenging games, but doing the same thing over and over with just harder enemies doesn’t appeal to me.

Overall, Dead Cells is just a confusing game to me. I enjoyed my first dozen hours with the game but I felt absolutely no desire to progress after that. Hardcore fans will tell me that the point is to complete each difficulty level, but there just doesn’t feel like there is a point. I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m just not the core audience of this type of game. All the unlockables and blueprints and difficulty levels just beg the question “but why?”. It is for these reasons that I give Dead Cells a 6/10. Despite having fun combat, I just don’t understand the cyclic and repetitive nature of Dead Cells.

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