Occasionally a video game just quite simply gets it right. It understands that it first and foremost is a game and should be fun and rewarding in its own unique way and shouldn’t try to bog gamers down with nonsensical trivialities. Video games are about the aspect of play, so when a game with a simple premise just starts you off in a prison cell and offers you a choice of weapon and then you’re running out the door swishing and kicking to your hearts content only to get jumped and felled by vicious enemies and then reappear at the starting point to do it all over again without missing a beat, you know you have something special.
Motion Twin, a former mobile game maker, has thrown their hat into the ring with a self-professed labor of love in Dead Cells, and from beginning to first death to reanimation and beginning the grind all over again to level up some more, they’ve crafted what may be as close to the perfect video game we have gotten. In doing what seems the be the key to success for great video games, they’ve pulled from the old and merged with the new, taking the Castlevania and Metroid formula and mixing it in the blender at full speed with the popular indie trend of rogue-lite game play.
Rogue-Lite games are definitely hit or miss, as playing a game and getting far in whatever environment the journey has thrust you in only to die and start all over again can be quite a turn off for some. The addictive aspect comes in the fact that though your progression and items may be lost forever, the games tend to allow you to keep a certain aspect gained and carry over from respawn to respawn. As you accumulate a collection of retainable items, your run through the rogue-lite becomes better and better, eventually to the point that you go through the entirety of the game in one swell swoop because you’ve amassed a lot of what the game has tantalizingly rewarded you with.
I’ve yet to beat the final boss in Dead Cells, and some runs I get bodied by a giant mob of enemies hurling everything and the kitchen sink at my character, but every single run has been fun, frantic and amazing. You play as a blob of cells that possesses a headless corpse and begins to fight its way out of an island prison overrun by undead creatures. Die on the adventure, and the “dead cells,” go back to the beginning and possess another awaiting corpse. Rinse, kill and should you die again, repeat. You have your basic three hit combo, double jump, block and parry. Your character traverse ledges and kicks down doors to stun an enemy behind it. You have a dodge roll to avoid projectiles and a downward slam that pulverizes anything beneath you. All these moves must be used intelligently to survive the island and its many traps, mobs and bosses.
Excellent game play is joined by an amazing visuals and a fantastic art style. All the areas you visit, from the opening dungeon to the sprawling bridges and caverns of the island all the way to a giant clock tower and even a dead village, are fluidly drawn. If the visual styles of Castlevania and Diablo had a baby, I’m pretty sure it would be Dead Cells. Even the pixelated gibs and blood from defeated enemies gleam in that old school SNES way, and the game elicits a feeling of filth and grime no other game like it has done to date. The island just comes alive and feels both beautiful and infected and the games many monsters add to that feeling and draw you in. Its gothic appeal is sure to delight many a fan, and even looks amazing on the Nintendo Switch, my platform of choice for this game.
I want to also call attention to the game’s soundtrack, because it gave me a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time. Back in the era of the SNES and Sega Genesis, a video game had to sell you with an immediate hook. Aside from cool looking box art and an instruction manual that gave you the story, the game’s opening had to draw you in from the jump. Mega Man X had the highway stage that served as both introduction and tutorial and bumped alongside it an amazing intro song. Symphony of the Night had the theme of Dracula’s Castle play as you sliced and diced as Alucard through the castle hallways. Dead Cells “Prisoners Awakening,” is the stuff of legend and instantly took me back to the intros of those classic games and that nostalgic feeling is peppered throughout the entire game adding to the veritable all-in blend of classic old school gaming and today’s indie wave.
Even the animation just bleeds greatness in execution. From the way the main character runs and jumps to how you climbs chains and swings the sword, every animation comes with such gravity and weight behind it I could feel myself physically gritting my teeth and clenching my chest and arm muscles tight as my giant broadsword cleaved into an enemy’s head. Sometimes the blood and gibs even made me echo an audible “Eww,” and I smile as I realized I’m doing this on my train ride. It’s good stuff and speaks volumes on how easily this game draws the player in.
Great gameplay, graphics and music are all that’s needed in today’s gaming. Too many publishers worry about the live services model or how to nickel and dime the consumer that they forget that sometimes it’s just as easy as just making sure the game is fun to play. Dead Cells realizes this and offers so many compelling reasons to grind your way to escape. With smart random skill boosts and drops and just enough challenge there is plenty to play through here. I’ve purposely avoided a lot of the other nuances this game does to promote returning to it, but know that there are even certain run-exclusive drops and a rarity system in place that will make each run compelling, unique and savory.
It of course is going to be compared to games of the past and you’ll probably see all the generic video game journalism labels like “RogueVania,” or “SoulsVania,” and all the other uncreative titles people love to throw out there. It’s not that Dead Cells isn’t deserving of being compared to those games, I just feel it does its own thing really well and stands in the spotlight as the best of its kind.
Quite simply, Dead Cells is just that damn good.