Dead Cells is often going to be called a combination of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Dark Souls. That description is not as accurate as it may initially seem, especially since every round starts you off in the same place. If Dead Cells is a Metroidvania, it’s one that has been filtered through Spelunky.
[Note: Polygon originally reviewed the early access version of Dead Cells in May of last year. This review was written with the author having never played any of the early access releases, nor having read the original review.]
But it is a pastiche, and has few new ideas of its own. Which isn’t a criticism; new ideas are often overrated as a measure of new releases. What’s important is that Dead Cells steals good ideas from beloved games and executes them well, mixing well-worn concepts together in a way that feels familiar in tone and content, yet still provides the thrill of exploration and progress. Describing a game by listing other games or genres it resembles can sometimes be lazy, but in this case it feels appropriate.
There’s a story here, but the game itself barely seems to care; the writing and lore are filled with meta-humor that often seems a bit forced. It’s as if even the development team knew it didn’t really matter why this character was doomed to live forever, dying in combat endlessly, and would rather poke fun at you for trying to figure out why. The words “git gud” are found written on a wall, for instance, and the shrugging character states that it’s probably an incantation. I guess technically they’re right.
Other than that, it’s hard to find fault in Dead Cells’ many building blocks. The controls are precise and easy to pick up; I found myself rolling past arrows shot at me to throw a grenade in one direction while slashing with my sword in another to clear out a room in the first few hours. It doesn’t take much time to learn how an enemy attacks, but it is hard to maintain composure and stick to your plan when the game throws larger numbers of mobs at you.
It’s possible, and kind of easy, to cheese out certain bosses or whole areas by stacking your secondary weapons and abilities a certain way, but doing so could mean you’re ill-equipped for the next one. If anything I tried to avoid becoming over-reliant on certain items and strategies in order to try new things. Falling into a rut in terms of equipment is usually death.
Ultimately success comes from learning how to build a character — complete with weapons, skills, mutations that give you additional buffs and scrolls that upgrade your character’s health and damage — that will let you defeat all the game’s bosses and its many environments. Each round starts by offering you the choice of a shield or bow and arrow, and the decisions only get trickier from there.
Perhaps my favorite part of the experience is how mastering the different systems let you slip into a state of flow. The game is never relaxing, but like driving in the real world you’ll often find yourself zoning out with your thoughts as you use a variety of skills that begin to feel like second nature. I often felt like my focus was being sharpened without being overwhelmed, which is a hard trick to pull off.
I still haven’t beaten the game, despite around 20 hours put into it. And I’m nowhere near tired of learning how to get just a bit better in order to see the next area. I did, however, run into a problem in my early runs where I was unsure what I had to do to unlock more of the experience, an issue the game could communicate a bit better. Learning how to survive longer doesn’t do much to help you if you’re not also spending your time hunting runes, which can be a frustrating experience if you don’t know where to look.
Dead Cells comes to life on the Nintendo Switch, which is where I played it for this review. Being able to play a quick round while on the road or in bed feels sinful, although the frame rate struggles from time to time when there’s a lot happening onscreen. Sadly, that’s when you need those frames the most, but the issue was never bad enough to make me abandon this port for another version of the game. The portable nature of the Switch makes putting up with the inconsistent frame rate a worthwhile tradeoff. Others, especially super competitive players, are likely to disagree.
The lack of new ideas doesn’t matter, no one had to reinvent chocolate before pairing it with peanut butter.