Tucked away in a long-forgotten prison lies a corpse. From time to time, a sticky mass of green goo slips into the cell and gives the body a burst of life. Stomping forward, the armored mass of carrion charges through zombies and hordes of undead on a vain quest to find the way out. Fans of Dark Souls will notice… more than a few similarities, for sure, but this particular outing isn’t what it appears to be.
Dead Cells is a fascinating amalgam of several of today’s most popular indie genres. It juggles elements of tough-as-nails action games and Metroid-inspired exploration platformers, with the procedurally generated levels and random item allotments found in roguelikes. It’s impressive how it all comes together without a hitch, especially given that the persistent character growth found in games like Dark Souls or Metroid squarely conflicts with the randomized resets emblematic of Rogue-inspired games.
The balance struck here is one of unlocked opportunities. Each time your avatar stirs back to life, you’re given a fresh chance to press through the stages. You encounter them sequentially, so you have an idea of what to expect, but your choices in each will determine your ultimate path. So, for example, while the first stage is always the Prisoner’s Quarters, your next hop could be the Promenade of the Condemned or the Toxic Sewers. At first, only the former will be available. But, in time, you’ll earn runes that confer permanent changes and open up new routes.
So, while some roguelikes and even Dark Souls could, in theory, be completed in one run without dying, that (so far as we’ve found) can’t happen here. You must progress, die, and then restart to worm your way through the different routes, collecting critical upgrades that give you even more options.
Along the way, of course, you’ll have a shuffling inventory with new weapons and skills found in chests or shops. You can also pick up stat upgrades that you lose upon death as well as “cells,” which, if you survive your current stage, can be banked for unlocking rare items that will be added to your potential gear lottery pool and permanent bonuses like additional healing items.
Besides the inventory and stage shuffling, combat and platforming are the most critical aspects for you to master. And while Dead Cells executes on all of its mechanics, these two shine brightest. For starters, traversing levels is a smooth, quick process once you’ve got the basic feel for it. Your movement is precise, with just enough forgiveness to make exacting jumps feel demanding, yet achievable. And this meshes seamlessly with the action.
Enemies will respond to your presence in different ways. Some are unable to see you or react unless you’re on their platform and in their direct line of sight, while others will lob grenades at you from across a gap or through platforms, but can’t attack directly. Your goal is to read the screen and understand the different abilities of each enemy type, and to use that information to strategize and execute your optimal approach.
Countless other variables such as the presence of doors (which can be opened slowly for a stealth attack or kicked in for a stunning blow) work together to mix things up. Toxic pools, spiked floors, etc. all come together to give the right mix of obstacles and challenging foes. This also plays well with Dead Cells’ overall look and tone. Each enemy glows a bit and has a different color scheme and silhouette. The same is true for the stages themselves. Together, these easily identifiable coding systems make it intuitive to read the room and remain focused on the ludicrously quick combat without losing sight of your next target.
That’s especially critical because of the zippy pace of bouts, too. Most of the time, you’ll have two weapons or a weapon and a shield. This, combined with jumping and dodging, forms the core of your skill set. Once you get the hang of it all, you can effortlessly combine attacks and dodges, and, for instance, freeze an enemy with a spell before rolling behind them and unloading with a quick set of slashes. All of this seems like a chaotic mess at first. And it is–to a degree. Each piece of the combat puzzle is introduced gradually, so you very naturally learn how it fits into the larger picture.
Your nascent exploration through the Prisoner’s Quarters and other early-game maps may take around 10 minutes during your first few trips. It feels agonizing, too. You are vulnerable, largely powerless, and unfamiliar with your very dangerous surroundings. So much is left unexplained at the outset that the choice to just go and worry about the rest later comes as second-nature. Still, the going isn’t easy and you’ll struggle. At least at first.
But each round gives you a different set of toys to play with. The stage will change each time. One route comes and goes, perhaps a new treasure or den of foes takes its place. But that doesn’t really matter. The Prisoner’s Quarters, while unique with every run, keeps to a certain, persistent theme. The wistful music and basic ideas are the same. Through repetition, you earn not rote memorization of layouts, but the ability to take whatever weapons you get for that run and utilize them to their fullest. In short order, what took 10 minutes at the start takes 30 seconds once you’ve found your bearings.
What doesn’t always quite workout the same way, though, are the latter areas. Fewer opportunities to practice with tougher enemies means that they never quite develop the same level of familiarity. It keeps every attempt feeling tense and exciting, but it can also lead to some frustration. Spending a whole run trying to make it to one spot only to die and have to restart a 15-minute stretch of play again can be grating, but the backstop there is the permanent upgrades.
Even if you can’t make it all that far, Prisoner’s Quarters is simple enough that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to “bank” cells for the aforementioned upgrades. That gives you a sense of constant progress, even when you bomb a run. In fact, the only real issue with the adventure is that some of the better upgrades can take substantially longer than they should. It stalls progress in the mid-game a bit and can lead to a feeling of grinding your wheels. Besides that, though, Dead Cells is a phenomenal effort to blend together some very disparate genres into a tight, cohesive whole. It’s one of the better examples of how to remix ideas without losing their individual strengths.