Real talk: If we rewind back two weeks, I would have no idea how much I’d love Dead Cells. In fact, I wouldn’t even fully know what the game was two weeks ago – fortunately for me, I discovered it here at work and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Mikey Petralia, one of the hosts for our weekly Tuesday live streams on Mixer and Twitch (Humble plug: Check us out on our weekly live streams every Tuesday at 3pm Pacific at twitch.tv/lootcrate and/or mixer.com/lootcrate!) introduced me to the incredible Dead Cells, developed and published by French indie studio Motion Twin. And I am SO glad Mikey did because this game went from a total mystery to one of my darkhorse favorite games of the year. I’ve talked about my criteria for “favorite games” before, so I want to break down for you why I think Dead Cells is a true nostalgic masterpiece, and maybe by the end of this article, you’ll discover a new favorite game for yourself, too!
First off: What is Dead Cells? I’m glad you asked! Here’s the short(ish) version: Dead Cells is a side-scrolling 2D action-adventure game that sees you tackling impressive challenges as you take your immortal little fire-faced character through an escape from a mysterious prison he finds himself in. You take on procedurally generated dungeons and enemies as you attempt to hack-and-slash your way out. However, here’s the catch: You’re gonna die, and when you do, you come back to life again – only you return to the area you started in, brand new and fresh, losing all your weapons and items you had, as well as any resources you gathered (for the most part). The key, though, is learning the game, slowly gaining more permanent upgrades and buffs that you can get by tracking down “runes”, finding blueprints and completing dungeons. Once you’ve learned enough about the game, you’ve mastered certain playstyles, and have acquired enough upgrades throughout multiple dungeon runs, only then will you be able to take on the game’s toughest challenges.
Now that you have the brief 411 on what Dead Cells is all about, let’s discuss why I think it’s an absolutely amazing game!
Maximum Nostalgia – Anyone that’s read my work in the past knows that, when it comes to my favorite games, nostalgia is a big factor for. I love throwback games that mix new school with the old school – games like Battle Chasers: Nightwar, I am Setsuna, Octopath Traveler, Cuphead, and more come to my mind when I think of current games that combine the best of both worlds. Dead Cells does all that for me too, and then some. Being a product of the NES and SNES generations, I grew up getting my ass stomped by games like Metroid, Super Metroid, and Castlevania, and if you have enjoyed any of those side-scrolling “metroidvania” type games, then Dead Cells is more or less a must-buy, in my humble opinion. The game has the same sort of challenges, the same sort of risk vs. reward playstyle, the same sort of “collect all these special items that will let you go back and collect items you couldn’t get at the beginning of the game” kind of experiences that you’d find from any of the classic side-scroller platforming adventure games. Also, the game has a beautiful soundtrack and absolutely gorgeous visuals – it very much has the feel of old-school hand-drawn games of the good ole days, for sure!
Challenge Accepted – This game does not pull its punches, right from the get-go. In a very Dark Souls fashion, the game fully expects you to die – a lot. You’re met with challenges very early on that are more or less designed to teach you lessons about the game as a whole, and much like a FromSoft game or something like the previously mentioned Cuphead, you continue to push through a little more with every run; learning patterns, adjusting your playstyle, and squeaking out just a little more progress through the game’s procedurally generated dungeon areas. The loot you get is procedurally generated too, so there’s sort of a The Binding of Isaac experience you have playing the random number generator to see if you get the sweet random OP sword and shield combo you love right from the start, or if maybe you’re stuck with some weak whip and a bow and arrow instead. The randomness that not only influences the challenge, but it also adds to the replay factor – you might get stomped on one run, but on the next run you get a completely different combo of weapons and items that allow you to overcome the obstacles on your next go. It’s always fresh, it’s always fast-paced, and it’s ALWAYS challenging – even on the 100th run.
Smooth and Intuitive Gameplay – No joke, this might be one of the smoothest feeling games I’ve played in a very long time when it comes to the combat. Everything just sort of clicks – the combos are easy to execute, weapons are easy to wrap your head around, and each and every piece of gear and weapon you get has enough nuance to make new things exciting and fun, while still remaining accessible. And it’s a damn good thing it’s so fluid to play, because if the combat and movement were clunky at all, then the challenges in this game would be at best incredibly frustrating and at worst borderline impossible. Now, there is a bit of a skill floor in regards to getting your bearings when you get started, but once you have a hang of the pace it becomes almost second nature as you zip around, slicing and dicing and smashing enemies to get those sweet, sweet Dead Cells – which, by the way, are a core aspect to the game!
Much like a Souls game, Dead Cells are a resource that you collect throughout the game that you use to buy upgrades that stay with your character even after you’ve died and had to start over – and there is a LOT to chase after from a collection point of view, and only once you have collected certain items and upgrades can you actually fully progress and experience the whole end game. So there’s plenty to chase run after run, even if you’re only grinding the early “zones”.
Accessibility and “Bang for your Buck” – This last part is pretty simple, in my mind: Dead Cells is available on PlayStation4, XBox One, Nintendo Switch, and on Steam. So, basically, no matter how you choose to consume your video game action, you will be able to get your hands on Dead Cells. Personally, I purchased it on the Switch becuase you just can’t beat the form factor experience of being able to play a game like this handheld, and it performs incredibly well both docked and on-the-go. The other side of this is the bang for your buck – the game is an affordable $25 bucks, and in the two weeks I’ve been playing it I have definitely got my money’s worth. The replayability is huge, the gameplay is fun and exciting, and you can find time to bust out a 15-20 minute run here or there, or you can find yourself diving in run after run putting some serious time into it (like I have).