Despite having a wary eye for early access games, Dead Cells was one that intrigued me from the first trailer. The gameplay looked slicingly fast because of the animations of your character and speed of his hands. That combat always felt like the centerpiece turkey that was going to attract the fans to the table.
Throughout its about a year swirl in early access, changes that came were always anchored by the relatively same combat essentials. Your character, as a replaceable body with a gooey head, can roll, jump, and slash with impunity. The magnificent dance is putting all three together around, above, and below the corners of these jagged, colorful hallways. You will have to chain ground-pounds, rolls, slashes to either side, jump tosses, and skill activations constantly with the outcomes being, of course, speed and death.
Never have I felt an action game respond so quickly to what my fingers ordered. Dead Cells has a remarkably tight animation window that doesn’t perform like, say, a Capcom game to where the pauses give you advantage. If you pause on this island, you’ll likely be smashed or chomped.
Your overall objective is to knock out as many enemies as you can to receive cells which can be used for short and long term gain. These nodes are numerous and can drop from any enemy as a constant pull for the player towards the hordes because of their value. When you snatch one up, you have to bank it at the end of the level in one of two potential exits per stage – one if you’re just beginning. Once in this inbetween realm, you can finally put them to safe and good use to help future lives start out just a bit stronger.
The upgrade system is an absolute joy of simplistic carryover from life to life. There’s even a satisfying visual aesthetic tie-in where you can see the mounting progress you’ve made towards having the full hoard at your disposal. The most valuable pieces, well beyond weaponry in my eyes, are the health flasks and gold carry-over that make the huge cell investments feel like 1997 Amazon stock prices when compared to lives saved.
The other, more focused way to upgrade in Dead Cells is with Notes of Power that are found in level and give that particular body a boost in brutality, survivability, or tactics. These are vital to moving beyond the first dungeon and worth actively seeking most times. Mutations tie to a single body as well and can also be buffed depending upon which of these paths you treat to the most notes. That being said, the health benefits will always make even the lesser used of the trio, Suvivability in my experience, extremely tempting choices.
Therein lies one of the most fascinating parts of Dead Cells as a constant trade off to keep in mind: do I dwell for more upgrades or move through with speed? The game never feels like you should be slowing down for any reason, constantly allowing you boosts and giving you times to beat for huge reward caches in nearly every level. However, if you move on too quickly, it’s going to be a short run to nowhere and the longer game, which Cell collection always speaks to, can be worth another hallway run.
Luckily, backtracking is made simple and swift with portals that can warp you to other portals within the sprawling levels. While certainly inspired by Metroid, the architecture of each level feels overly familiar with only a few runs. That’s not the say the visuals are lacking – more on that later – but I can tell you the pattern of the Ramparts or the Promenade of the Condemned without fail. I understand some familiarity, especially at the bookends of the levels, but I would’ve loved more variation beyond different elbows within the same basic structures.
Even without the more randomized nature, Dead Cells is a class-5 beauty storm to watch in motion. The graphics are a crisper, more lively version of 16-bit retro that flows with utter smoothness. Even the aesthetics are a wonder with dank prisons giving way to believable, Lovecraftian villages and stretching castle towers. Enemies are predictable if not quick to gang up, which is where the majority of your danger lies.
There are plenty of secrets hidden behind wall runes, in-level hunts for keys or items, and a bit too much of a reliance on gimmicks in some instances. Most of the zones have an internal gimmick such as poison pools or fog dispensers that, in turn, keep you learning and nervous throughout. I’m not a fan of the one in the Forgotten Spelucher because it seems to actively slow you down in ways the others don’t. The rest are interesting the first few times and keep you engaged regardless.
As to where this squishy monster is most vulnerable, that brings us unceremoniously to the story Dead Cells completely disregards. Early in the access, I remember being taught about the Malaise during short loading screens and these were the full bastion of storytelling brought to the table here. Off-kilter storytelling practices are abandoned as well as the straight-forward, leaving you with a couple of keywords and some skeletons to piece together what could be a fascinating world. Story may not ever have been a priority, but does that mean no snippets of lore to speak of is the one true path? Even some boss introductions would’ve been enough for me to really hook into, but this is an almost strictly gameplay-focused experience.
Combat and slick moves drive Dead Cells forward with a balanced force that makes Geralt look like a novice with a wooden stick. I’m accepting of that and have warmed completely to the world and secrets within. My hangups on the story do keep this from an upper echelon slam dunk. That’s between me and my gods. Dead Cells still came out as one hell of a fun game of balancing and speeding through vaporized enemies in the end. That’s hardly something to scoff at.
Dead Cells Score: