I didn’t love Spelunky when I reviewed it (apologies for that headline). After writing that review, I began to see what other people like about it, but it still wasn’t for me. Spelunky is awkward to play. The whip is too short and the sprinting is too wild. I’ve always regretted that I don’t love Spelunky in the way so many other people do — but now that I’ve put dozens of hours into the similar action game Dead Cells, I feel vindicated. It accomplishes many of the same things as Spelunky while also providing locomotion and battle systems that are kinetic, fast-paced, and precise.
Dead Cells launched on PC through Steam’s Early Access portal for unfinished projects in May 2017, and developer Motion Twin is unleashing the 1.0 version August 7 for PC and consoles. I’ve spent my time with the PC and Switch versions. It uses procedural generation to mix up a number of stages that are packed with a variety of enemies. These stages all exist in pre-determined biomes, and even with the random elements, each space has consistent mechanics and design each time you play through it.
You play as a clump of re-animated cells that take over a body. Your goal is to get through all of the stages and find out what is poisoning the world. If you die, you return to the beginning of the game and must progress through the same stages again. But you can also make some progression by finding blueprints for new weapons, skills, and mutations that you unlock with a currency called cells. If you put enough cells into a weapon blueprint, that sword or bow or whatever will now appear in the world. You can also find permanent upgrades to your character called runes, and these always apply and give your character the ability to grow climbable vines or to teleport at certain locations.
That adds progression to the game, but it serves a deeper purpose that makes Dead Cells sticky and difficult to put down.
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What you’ll like
It feels great
Even after 30 hours in Dead Cells, I’ve still found myself muttering under my breath at just how amazing the game looks. It’s a 2D action platformer with pixel graphics, but its animation system is so buttery smooth that the characters pop out of the screen. This makes you want to see everything in motion, and it keeps you pushing your character forward. If you pick up a new weapon, it will always come with a suite of astounding new animations.
The look of the fighting and running in Dead Cells amplifies those systems, which are already great at a mechanical level. At any time you can sprint or double jump. If you come across enemies, you can decide how to take them on based on your character build, but every option is viable and they are all damn cool.
If you have two melee weapons, you can roll behind an enemy and strike them in the back. The dodge is effective and forgiving, and you can roll through attacks and the enemies themselves. I find that this has kept me from trying to leap around and over enemies like a fool. If you’re carrying a shield, you can parry attacks. A giant, conspicuous exclamation point appears above every enemy before they attack you, and parries are almost always successful if you time your block to that warning sign.
And that’s one of the keys to Dead Cells’ success. It gives you all of the information you need to take on enemies. You can see clearly when they’re going to strike. If one opponent is providing shields to the others, a string of lighting shows you that so you know who to take out first. If a projectile isn’t avoidable with the dodge roll, it glows a menacing red.
With all of this data on the screen and legible, you can quickly start shuffling huge parts of your decision-making process to your subconscious. This enables you to stop thinking and just react. And, if you’re like me, you’ll start combining attacks and skills and parries to take on tougher and tougher monstrosities.
The progression motivates you to keep learning
Here’s the secret to good progression: it’s all sleight of hand.
Great games give you a way to improve your character and unlock items over time because they don’t want you thinking too much about your skills as a player. One of the best examples of this is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Developer Infinity Ward is widely credited for bringing the character-progression system to online competitive multiplayer shooters. In that game, you would play in online sessions and earn experience points to unlock new weapons, perks, and modifiers. This means you would end up in a situation where you would die to an opponent who had unlocked more stuff than you have.
That sounds unfair, right? But I promise you that, at least in Modern Warfare, the new weapons and perks didn’t really give you that much of an advantage. Instead, if you were lower level, you were probably dying because your opponent knew the game better than you. They had built up more skill. But the brilliance of the progression system is that it gave everyone a built-in excuse for why they were failing. “I’m not worse or less skilled than that guy, they just have a better gun.” This would keep players grinding to unlock everything so they would have as many advantages as everyone else, but — in reality — they were acquiring more knowledge about the game, learning the maps, and understanding how other people play.
Dead Cells uses progression in exactly the same way.
You feel like you don’t have a chance to succeed because you just don’t have this weapon or that mutation. So you keep grinding it out to unlock more stuff, but the reality is that you are just getting better at the game through acquired skill and information.
It’s genius, and I love it.
What you won’t like
Do not, my friends, become addicted to progression
The problem of relying on progression to keep players coming back and grinding for hours is that how do you transition them into a relationship with the game after they complete the explicit goals that they care about.
For example, it took me 35 hours to get all of the runes in Dead Cells. Those all add permanent and somewhat basic exploration skills to your character. Now that I’ve completed that quest, I’m less certain about how to proceed. I could keep trying to grind out improvements and unlocking new stuff, or I could try to finally beat the last stage, which I think I’ve been to a couple of times. It’s almost like I just finished the world’s longest video game tutorial.
But as the progression has become a tiny bit more nebulous, it’s starting to feel like the man says in Mad Max: Fury Road. I’ve become addicted to progression, and it has taken hold of me. And I’m afraid I will resent its absence.
To be clear, this is only a problem as I’m transitioning. Now that I’m skilled and informed about the way Dead Cells works, setting my own goals is less intimidating. I just foresee that some people will struggle to get over that hump between the early gated progression and what I’d call the “endgame.”
Dead Cells is a masterpiece. It is the marriage and apotheosis of decades of Metroidvania design and the surging popularity of difficult Roguelike games. It is exquisite in all ways. It looks phenomenal. It plays like a dream. It makes you want to keep coming back even when you fail.
I still haven’t beat it, but this isn’t a linear experience with a beginning and an end. It is about the act of playing and getting better and learning and coming up with new ideas and executing on those strategies. And I’ve done that for more than 35 hours now. In that time, I’ve only grown more confident about the competence and appeal of Dead Cells.
Go out and get it for your Switch, PC, or whatever, and just play it.
Dead Cells is available August 7 for $25 on PC and consoles. Motion Twin provided GamesBeat with a download code for the purposes of this review.