It’s hard to understate the impact of From Software’s Dark Souls. The 2011 title’s notorious difficulty and lack of hand-holding has inspired numerous memes and Youtube videos challenging players to “git gud.” In recent years, Dark Souls’ philosophy towards level design and combat has gone on to influence the indie scene, with the most recent example being Dead Cells by Motion Twin. Unlike similar titles, Dead Cells is not content with just being a Dark Souls clone and takes many steps to distance itself from (and in some ways, surpass) its more well-known counterpart. With its unique atmosphere, approach to gameplay, and rogue-like elements, Dead Cells is a distinct and demanding game that greatly rewards those who can rise to the challenge and frustrate those who can’t.
Much of Dead Cells underlying story is shrouded in mystery. Taking place on a “living island,” players control a science experiment gone wrong, a prisoner with what appears to be a flame for a head that can come back from the dead. As grotesque as he sounds, the player character is extremely likeable. Despite his undead nature, the prisoner is full of emotion and will oftentimes shrug, give a thumbs up, or make humorous remarks depending on the situation. The details surrounding this character and his circumstances are few and far between, serving as motivation to complete the campaign. During the course of the campaign players will go through vast dungeons like the ominously titled “Promenade of the Condemned,” an overgrown forest with sinister details in the background, including chains and empty cages. It’s never communicated what exactly happened here, but the imagery alone is enough to evoke feelings of horror and dread.
It’s this feeling of the unknown, of never knowing what might be around the corner that really drives the action in Dead Cells. Taking inspiration from games like Castlevania and Metroid, the game’s levels are sprawling and littered with secrets just waiting to be discovered. One room might offer hints of what happened at the Promenade of the Condemned, while others may hold a merchant selling weapons, and some may even introduce an NPC offering a side quest. Even if these secret rooms go by unnoticed, their dark and dreary aesthetics serve as the perfect battleground for fighting the various types of enemies.
Combat is hands down where Dead Cells shines the brightest. Players will fight a plethora of neon-radiating alchemic abominations with a wide range of weapons as they side scroll their way across the island. Up to four weapons can be carried at a time- a melee weapon, a ranged weapon or spell, and two utility weapons that operate on a cool-down, like turrets and grenades. These utility weapons are a fantastic addition to combat, and can often times turn the tide of battle in a pinch. Along with these weapons, players can stun enemies with doors Hotline Miami style, or even get the drop on them from above for a quick takedown. Like Dark Souls, combat can often times get pretty intense, but thankfully I never felt like a single enemy could one shot me. With Dead Cells, much of the danger instead lies in the possibility of getting surrounded. Overall the combat system feels much more ferocious and fluid with a greater emphasis placed on DPS rather than strategic timing.
Aiding the game’s combat is a well thought out RPG system. During a run through a dungeon, players can come across different scrolls that increase both their health and either their melee, ranged, or survival stat. These scrolls are spread out across the levels pretty evenly, and keep the player from feeling underpowered when compared to enemies. After players have completed a level they will also have the option to purchase a mutation, a special perk offering bonuses such as 30% more health, extra ammo for ranged weapons, or health regeneration upon killing enemies. This post level area is also where players can spend their Cells, this game’s equivalent to Souls. Unlike Dark Souls, this currency isn’t used to purchase direct upgrades for the player, instead, Cells are used to either build new weapons or purchase upgrades to be used on subsequent playthroughs after dying.
Dead Cells is a rogue-like, meaning players will lose all their progress and Cells upon death and are forced to restart the game from the beginning, procedurally generating a new collection of levels. The use of rogue-like mechanics will affect players differently based on their own perspectives and experiences. I actually performed best on my initial run and even then I only made it to the third level. On every subsequent playthrough though I would constantly run into new obstacles I had never expected to encounter before. The unpredictable nature of the game’s design can, unfortunately, mean that new threats can become incredibly frustrating as they ultimately became barriers to progression.
Which isn’t to say that the rogue-like design doesn’t yield some enjoyable benefits; even at its most frustrating this level of randomization benefits the game in surprising ways. Where Dark Souls would force players to slog through the same exact area filled with the same types of enemies after death, Dead Cells keeps things fresh. Memorization is essentially thrown out the window, forcing the player to be prepared for any situation. That weapon that worked so well on the first run may never show up again on subsequent runs, so players will have to become familiar with a good majority of the game’s weapons. Additional playthroughs also offer the perfect opportunity to use some of the permanent runes discovered in the campaign. These runes allow the player to interact with the environment in ways they normally couldn’t, opening up paths to previously locked areas and even extra levels.
Even when struggling with new challenges that are constantly thrown at the player, it’s hard not to admire the depth and complexity of Dead Cells. The combination of metroidvania exploration with Dark Souls style combat and progression create one Hell of an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. Despite its comparisons to Dark Souls, Dead Cells is a truly unique experience that stands well on its own merits. Anybody really wanting to “git gud” should not miss out on this gem.