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A headless corpse is awakened in the depths of an island dungeon. With a collection of green, gooey cells for a head the Prisoner must fight their way out of the dungeon, find out what went so wrong on the island and battle towards High Keep Castle to stop it all. At least that’s what a normal, more traditional metroidvania style game would have you do. Dead Cells tosses aside almost any notion of story as easily as its protagonist dismisses their enemies, their purpose in life and even their weird mutant helpers along the way.
What Dead Cells favours instead of story is mechanics. Few other games feel as good to play as Twin Motion’s metroidvania does. Taking its exploration and combat influences directly from Metroid and Castlevania Dead Cells puts its own irreverent spin on things. Gone is the Alien-inspired metallic-organic design of Metroid and the neo-Gothic hair metal of Castlevania. Replacing these aesthetics is a far more unique and often brighter look, Dark Souls by way of Hayao Miyazaki and Saturday Morning Cartoons.
Dead Cells strikes a fine balance between a sprint and a marathon offering weapons and upgrades that can reward speed as much as they can reward methodical caution. From oil-drenched swords to kung-fu sandals to a massive cartoon hammer and even variations on Castlevania’s whips Dead Cells has every play style covered. Add in just as many bows, shields, power-ups and traps and playing Dead Cells should be a breeze, right? Wrong. Dead Cells is hard and while unlocking the various runes that grant you permanent abilities does widen your options they never make the game any easier. Being able to smash through the floor to crush a stronger enemy helps but it’s no aid against the horde of weaker ones waiting in the wings.
Dead Cells divides its time between pitting the Prisoner against juggernaut enemies that are always bigger and stronger than you and against crowds of smaller monsters who, if they overwhelm the Prisoner, will tear them to shreds. There is variety to them all with few enemy types repeating on themselves and each new update switching up the kind that spawns throughout each level.
With this variety comes the need to switch up your tactics. While the ice-powered support weapons are a great way to breeze through the first few levels they eventually lose their overpowered reputation when you hit the later stages and the enemy resistances start to stack up. Likewise switching to faster weapons and attrition-style traps help a great deal once players start moving into the mid-game. The slow moving broadsword won’t do much good against the lightning quick inhabitants of the Clock Tower after all.
Dead Cells was in Early Access – that weird limbo of might-become-a-game-someday – for several years before its full release in August 2018. Nearly two years on and I’m still playing it consistently which is something that I’ve never done before in all my gaming life. Part of that is due to how much good, splattery fun the game is. Another major appeal is Dead Cells’ brevity – it’s rare that a complete run will take you more than 40 minutes (20 if you’re a speedrunner, suicidal or both). But mostly it’s because Dead Cells, just like the Prisoner, is an ever evolving, constantly upgraded creation.
Updates consistently extend the game’s life with new weapon blueprints and enemies. Occasionally a major update like last year’s Rise of the Giant will add new levels. The levels are key to the game’s success. Although they all share a connecting aesthetic of general medieval misery they are procedurally generated which means that while some things stay the same the journey is almost always different. Later stages offer a choice between two distinct areas and sometimes a choice between different boss fights but all roads ultimately lead to High Peak Castle.
The time loop effect is made apparent pretty quickly in Dead Cells with little changing each run beyond the death of the Tutorial Knight. Even after the Hand of the King is defeated nothing really changes, much to the chagrin of the Prisoner. Although furthering the plot really depends on how good you are at the game it’s Dead Cells’ sense of humour that keeps things moving even when it feels like you’ve stalled on the story.
The Prisoner’s glib dismissal of everything from the King he’s hunting down to the malaise that infected and destroyed this prosperous island kingdom is refreshing in a setting often known for its seriousness. Rather than lines of text used to swear revenge or deliver exposition the Prisoner will usually just give the middle finger to bosses or the other rare NPCs that annoy them. The Prisoner’s self-awareness is also a boon as he comments on a bit of world-building with the phrase “Lore on a shoestring”.
Dead Cells is one the few games from the metroidvania mini boom of late 2018 that we’re still talking about. While Guacamelee 2 and Hollow Knight are still relatively popular others like Death’s Gambit, Iconoclasts and La-Mulana 2 have fallen by the wayside. The root cause of the latter’s failure compared to the former’s long-lasting success can be summed up in the words of Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker: “I wish it played better“. Even if you’re sick of traversing the acid pools of the Ancient Sewers or tired of losing to the Clock Keeper Dead Cells’ mechanics and thus it’s gameplay remain evergreen. The satisfying crunchy wet explosion of a dying enemy followed by the rapid spear thrust or bow shot onto the next grunt has made Dead Cells one of my few forever games.
There are some games you just don’t stop playing no matter how much you know the ins and outs of their levels or mechanics. The stunt races of GTA V were and occasionally still are my go-to way of killing time before Dead Cells came along. If I want something with a bit more narrative thrust I’ll go back to one of the Resident Evil games but overall Dead Cells is what I have returned to, time and again, over the last two years. Dead Cells, based purely upon how fun it is and my commitment to this game that I barely have a hope of beating on my second time round, joins GTA V, Resident Evil and Titanfall 2 on my list of games that I will keep with me in one form or another for the rest of my life.