Written by Jason Palazini.
Dead Cells may be an Early Access title on Steam with a long ways to go, but it’s showing some incredible promise already. This 16-bit Metroidvania, souls-like, rogue-like arcade game is expected to double in content by the end of its Early Access period in roughly 8-12 months. And if dungeon exploration and fast combat are up your alley, developer Motion Twin has designed Dead Cells just for you.
You play as a prisoner who has inexplicably lost track of their head, but your cells have returned to the rest of your body, granting immortality and control over your remains. Were you executed? Were you cursed? Did you drink the kool-aid? When your character is asked what brought this fate upon him, you offer nothing more than a silent shrug. Why? Because it doesn’t matter.
Dead Cells is a delightful return to 90’s gaming where games existed to be enjoyed, without rhyme or reason. 16-bit pixels dance in place to the hectic electronic soundtrack while they wait for your command. Enemies consist of color coded zombies with a range of skills, robot scorpions, enraged wardens, and magic-spike summoning mushrooms. While Dead Cells does occasionally resort back to the old design approach of using recycled enemies with new colors, Motion Twin uses that tactic with caution, altering designs as often as possible. The collection of baddies forces you to use as many pickups as you possibly can, regularly varying your strategy to keep up with the growing collection of abilities used against you.
As you progress through the 2D map, enemies will drop two forms of currency: cells and coins/precious gems. You’ll encounter an NPC between each area who will take your cells and apply them towards unlocking new weapons, skills, or health upgrades. While much of the game will reset after each death, your unlocks will remain permanently available to you, making it easier to progress throughout the game. But beware, any unspent cells you’re carrying when you die, will be gone forever. And, unlike other souls-like games, there are no opportunities to retrieve dropped cells. On the other hand, a percentage of the coins you’re carrying upon death will be returned to you when you respawn. As you run through through the halls of Dead Cell’s dungeon, you’ll stumble across a merchant who will sell you the skills and weapons you’ve unlocked. These abilities are also dropped on death so you’ll have to budget resources in accordance to your personal play style.
To keep you on your toes even more, Dead Cells’ maps are procedurally generated, changing after each life. While the difficulty curve and general order of areas changes only slightly between each playthrough, you’ll often find yourself backtracking to find the next portal, desperately trying to hold onto the precious cells you’ve collected.
Currently, only a few bosses exist, but with each victory, you’ll unlock a permanent skill, like climbing or teleportation, that will allow you to access new arenas. While these fresh doorways open new opportunities, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you prefer to take the shortcut and jump right into the challenge, or to stick with the grind, unlocking better items along an easier route to aid you in a real time of need.
Dead Cells is a challenging game, but it’s far from relentless. For any gamer who has found themselves intrigued by the Dark Souls franchise, it’s safe to call Dead Cells your gateway game. Dead Cells provides a fun challenge without being overwhelming, and invites thoroughly rewards players for their exploration. I’ve lost track of far too many hours as I cried through the Toxic Sewers and battled across the Ramparts. While it has more content to release before it can truly prove itself, Dead Cells is a rare example of a gem to come out of the current Early Access trend.