Dead Cells has been available as an (extremely well-received) early access PC title since May 2017, and has now finally seen a mainstream console release on all major platforms. 2D Metroidvania roguelite action platformers are all the rage these days (as well as being a mouthful and a half to say out loud), but does Dead Cells live up to its reputation as one of the greatest titles in the genre?
To give too much away about the story would spoil the experience, but the basic premise revolves around an unnamed immortal prisoner and an ever-changing castle inhabited by legions of vicious monsters. Players are able to amass a seriously powerful arsenal, discovering stronger weapons and more lethal items as they progress through the game. At any one time, The Prisoner can wield two of a huge range of melee and projectile weapons as well as a couple of secondary items such as grenades, bombs and traps. Combat in Dead Cells is an absolute joy, and combining your attacks and figuring out which items best complement others can really make the difference between life and death. Enemies are fast as well as clever, and they can be relentless in their attacks. Once you get the hang of the controls and learn to recognise each enemy's attack patterns you'll be dancing around the screen wreaking havoc everywhere you go.
The Prisoner's immortality means that while his body might die in battle, his spirit will always live on. Returning to the starting point (without any of his previously-discovered items) and inhabiting a new body, The Prisioner sets off empty-handed once again on another run through the castle. Every new weapon you find during the game is added to the available item pool for use in future runs, potentially giving players some more powerful weapons right at the start of the game. There's every chance the weapon you first found half an hour in might make an appearance right at the very beginning, making the first few levels a little bit easier each time you play.
These opening areas can soon start to feel a little tiresome as you see the same things over and over again, but the layout of each environment changes slightly after every death so you'll often come across something new even when you're traipsing around familiar locations. There are also areas you can't visit until you get the appropriate skill, so the early game opens up further after you acquire certain runes in later areas, adding a bit of extra incentive for constant exploration when re-tracing your steps.
Between each level, players visit a rest area where skills can be upgraded, with progression carrying over to subsequent runs so your investments are rarely truly in vain. Defeated enemies drop money which can be spent on new weapons and items, as well as souls which are used for researching any blueprints you might find. After investing the appropriate amount of souls in a blueprint, its item will be offered for use immediately as well as being added to the item pool. Your upgrade progress carries over, so your investments here are never truly in vain. Helpful “mutations” can also be equipped in the rest area, health and healing items can be replenished, and some other things happen at various points throughout the game...
Dead Cells looks stunning, with its modern pixel art style filled with intricate details and fluid animations. Locations are memorable, the enemies are superbly designed, and the whole thing is way more colourful than you might expect for a game based in and around a murky castle. Combined with the excellent combat, daily challenge mode, secret areas, and fast-paced exploration and adventure, it's a supremely enticing package.
Dead Cells is the closest thing to a modern 2D Castlevania we've seen so far, and fans of the genre are well-advised to investigate. There's always the potential for Bloodstained to steal its crown later this year, but for the time being we're honestly pretty much head over heels for Dead Cells. New players are reminded that the first few hours really can be a bit of a grind until your abilities are up to scratch, but those who choose to persevere have got one hell of an incredible adventure ahead of them.
DEAD CELLS / DEVELOPER: MOTION TWIN / PUBLISHER: MOTION TWIN / PLATFORM: NINTENDO SWITCH (REVIEWED), PC, PS4, XBOX ONE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW