A Metroidvania with Souls-like combat with gorgeous graphics. What more do you want?
For every ten stories about a bad Early Access version of a PC game, there’s always one Dead Cells. It seems that developers not always treat the Early Access programs as a method to throw the game into the world early to earn some coin and then count on the community to help them with beta-testing. The Dead Cells creators, a French co-operative going by the name of Motion Twin, seems to be going the path so familiar to the developers of Starbound.
A Frankenstein of Genres
What is Dead Cells anyway? Well, it belongs to the Metroidvania genre, meaning it’s a 2D fighting and exploration game set on elaborate maps that often open up later on in the game, when you finally receive the proper tools. It adds a bit of the fighting system of Dark Souls, or should I say, a bit of the atmosphere of fighting from Dark Souls with rolling being the most basic tool for evading enemy attacks. And on top of that it’s a light rogue-like, meaning that every playthrough on a given level is a bit different, but don’t expect any miracles, it’s not entirely different.
That’s enough of video game genres and sub-genres, because the most important questions you need to ask about Dead Cells is: is it any good? Especially in Early Access, where most games are nearly unplayable and you have to wait months for the developers to create something worthy of your time.
You Are Going to Die
Oh, it’s good. It’s very good. You start with nothing, a literal ball of slime falling from the ceiling and taking a human shape. You have a rusty sword that’s good for nothing. After a moment you find a bow or a shield and this is one of the first of many decisions you have to take. You can only equip to fighting items at a time. So you can go with a bow and a sword or a sword with a shield. This decision is not irreversible as Dead Cells is all about swapping inventory every time you see something shiny, but it will affect your play style.
Additionally, there are two item slots and one amulet slot. There’s a variety of objects to use, including bombs either explosive or icy, flashbangs, bear traps and so on. Just remember to employ them in the heat of battle as fights tend to get pretty hectic and a timely thrown flashbang can save your life.
You level up by gathering the titular cells and using them between maps to develop items in your inventory. There’s also gold that can be used to purchase better equipment and open new doors to some fancy areas and additional gear. Oh, and you drop the gold and the cells if you die. And the map is generated anew, so that’s that.
What does it mean for the game? Well, it can get pretty hectic, especially if you take into consideration the fact that health items are few and far between and your health potion has very limited capacity. So you will die. A lot. Fortunately the level of the developed items stays the same, so each playthrough may be treated like a way to increase your strength during the next fight, and the next, and the next.
Animating the Dead
Let’s put aside talking the mechanisms of the game as Dead Cells is really not doing anything particularly original with them. We need to talk about how it moves…
And what glorious movement that is. The animation on the main character is especially tasty, as he scrambles, jumps, kicks and slashes through hundreds with enemies with energy and style. But it’s the little details that stand out the most in moments out of combat, like the way the protagonist shrugs his shoulders during a conversation or waves his head in acceptance (remember, he has no head). Or how he tries to kick down a door and fails, tries again more desperately, but fails again only to fall flat on his bottom on the dusty floor. Or the way he behaves when talking to other characters. Or the way he drinks his health potion. You really have to see it for yourselves to understand the sheer, overachieving beauty of it.
As an Early Access game, Dead Cells still has some areas to improve. At the moment the story is not only hidden, but to be honest, a bit lacking. Mystery is fine, but it needs to be implied. A lack of a story is not a mystery, it’s a lack of a story. Maybe further on Motion Twins will add a bit more depth to this aspect. There is also a small problem with the development of difficulty of the game with the first two levels being especially easy and the further maps becoming extremely difficult to tackle on. It needs some tweaking, I guess.
There’s some improvement to be done with the music as the melodies tend to repeat themselves pretty fast, especially so in a game where you will be repeating a given level biome a couple of times an hour, but I am confident that the creators will be up to the task.
Dead Cells is a great game at this point and who knows what will happen in the future. It has great sense of humor, a deadly pace, great ideas and even better graphics. You need to remember that Dead Cells is still in Early Access on Steam so some bugs might appear, but in this case I am very much sure that this means that the game will be expanded and will become an even greater monster. And this is good.