- Total Score - 9.5/109.5/10
Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, and now Dead Cells – it easily stands with the greats in every regard.
Super Metroid, an SNES classic known for its incredible level design, a great upgrade system and for being one of the best-paced games of all time.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a PlayStation classic known for its memorable cast of characters, outstanding music, and it’s fantastic RPG approach to Super Metroid’s level design.
Two games that were so revolutionary in their respective era’s that they have influenced an army of clones in a sub-genre that has become just as played out as the phrase “The Dark Souls of” in the last few years. Metroidvania, a word that represents a genre of hundreds of games since the Indie explosion and the onset of Kickstarter and Early Access. From big studios and small, many developers have tried endlessly to evoke the names of those two greats, but many have failed to deliver more times than they have succeeded.
Dead Cells, developed and published by Motion Twin, fully embraces both of those classics in its actions, instead of its words.
Dead Cells, on the surface, is very straightforward. The game starts with a blob of moss, corpses and more forming a warrior’s body. You meet the odd character or two and, as soon as you open the first doorway, you are thrust right into the action. You platform, slash, shoot, block, and level up your way through various stages, encounters and boss fights. You collect a resource known as cells, and in between stages you can use these cells to unlock permanent upgrades. If you die, and trust me, you will die (a lot), you start back at the beginning and the run begins all over again.
On the surface, nothing about the basic concept sets it apart. With thousands of clones all vying for the same style, what makes Dead Cells stand apart? The answer is pretty simple. Everything. It’s one thing to “say” you’re a Metroidvania; it’s another thing to be something that lives up to them.
Visually, Dead Cells is striking. Everything from the main character himself, the stages, enemies and bosses are animated to perfection. The art style is visually arresting. I often wondered if I was looking at 2D sprites or 3D character models rendered to appear like 2D sprites. In the age of pixel graphics, it takes more than a nostalgia trip to separate yourself from the crowd. The art style is what takes it to another level. Bosses, enemies and the weapons you wield range from imposing, flashy, and sometimes, just weird.
It’s all presented with a layer of grit; never too clean, but not so dirty that the image gets clogged up with needless noise. It’s not just in how good it looks, but the visual design impacts gameplay as well. Enemy attacks are all telegraphed, animated and executed perfectly. Even when things get truly hectic, enemy visibility and information is always presented to you in a clear and concise fashion. This is important because all the visuals in the world wouldn’t matter if it led to cheap deaths.
The OST also holds its weight. With haunting pianos and organs in the castle, the creepy and steady percussion thumping in the sewers and the sweeping melody of the Promenade. Every level has a unique style that matches the visual design to a “T”. Attacks are meaty and satisfying, and every weapon has clear sound that emphasizes how unique they all are from one another.
All the visuals and sound in the world wouldn’t mean much without something solid to keep you coming back for more.
This is truly where Dead Cells takes it to another level. The controls are simple but extremely tight. The combat system has clear feedback, solid hits and, more important, responsiveness. See, the number one thing most games fail to capture when they make Metroidvania #1276 are the controls. All of the greats, from the two that birthed this sub-genre to the others that have followed (think Hollow Knight, Rogue Legacy and Shadow Complex), are all vastly different in style and gameplay mechanics. The one thing shared between all of them, however, is extremely tight and responsive controls.
Every attack in Dead Cells can be rolled, interrupted or block canceled. Shields can parry, and evading gives you just enough frames of invincibility to get you out of a tight spot when they arrive.
Dead Cells just feels good. Every jump, attack, boss defeat and death always feels fair. You might swear at the enemies, or yourself, or those damn flying bats making life miserable. You will never get angry with the controls, however. If you die in Dead Cells, it’s always on you. It’s hard, but always fair.
Backing how solid the game feels to play is how it doles out its content. Rogue-lite games have to strike a balance between punishing death and a meaningful life. Things like skill upgrades, gold, and weapon pickups are all fleeting. They last until you kick the bucket, then you start fresh. Back to square one. The cells you pick up from the foes you defeat are used at a vendor in between stages. These cells are the backbone of the progression system. Upgrades range from the minor, like being able to recycle items for gold, to the vital, like being able to start with multiple health potions.
Blueprints for new weapons add them to your list of unlocks, and upgrades, such as random starter weapons, can spawn you with a legendary sword right from the get-go. All of the unlocks, the slow climb, every new level and permanent ability, all add fuel to the fire. This game feels responsive, looks great, and is fun to conquer.
You end up with a certain satisfaction on a macro level, but on a micro level it has the perfect storm for the “one more run” formula. Not since Spelunky has a game caused me to live, flourish, die, and repeat, over and over again as I slowly tackled the same mountain. Every new peak I reached was just another hit of adrenaline to keep me going for one more run.
Dead Cells is something special; a game that goes beyond its own description in every way.
The only problem now is…what do we call the genre? MetroidCellvania?!? A problem for another day, but for now, make sure to pick up Dead Cells. It’s easily one of the year’s best games.