Rogue-lite, Metroidvania, Souls-lite, 2D action platformer, procedurally generated, I could throw all these categories and genres at you to explain Dead Cells, but I could just say it’s a fun game.
Dead Cells puts you in control of a headless warrior who is stuck in a loop until he can escape the various areas filled with enemies and defeat the final boss waiting for you at the finish. You start every game with a random weapon and side weapon as you fight through a mosh of enemies to get to the next area, all the while finding or buying better weapons to use and constantly upgrading your character with Scrolls of Power which affect your damage output and increase health. Once you die, you lose all your materials: weapons, money, blueprints, and Souls; a currency that helps you upgrade your character and your arsenal, and then you must start from the beginning with all stats boost gone as well. Weapons can be found in a secret room, off the occasional elite enemy, or bought in the various shops you find during your run. The same goes for blueprints. You can find blueprints for weapons, abilities, and permanent status changes to your character that can help you go farther in your subsequent runs. Though weapons and money are helpful from run to run, the most valuable collectables you can look for are rare blueprints for more powerful weapons and abilities down the road.
This game’s biggest diversion from its contemporaries is the exploration through procedurally generated levels. In this case, I wouldn’t roll your eyes just yet. Games that tout procedurally generated worlds love to talk about how you’ll never play the same game twice; but for many of those experiences, they suffer with a case of dull landscapes that are near indistinguishable from one another. I personally have trouble enjoying games like this because they miss the entire point of video game exploration: constantly discovering new things that are worth finding. Unfortunately, the technology for procedural generation is not at the point that it needs to be to deliver on the promise of never playing the same game twice. Motion Twin as a game developer understands the technical short-comings of procedural generation and decides to make a game that can work today, not in 10 years. That is why this game succeeds.
Every level in the game has its own aesthetic that doesn’t change on its own, but the roadmap of every level changes after every single run, making impossible to memorize loot spawns, shops spawns, or even enemy spawns. This means that every time you start a run, you can’t just speed through the map without expected the unexpected. You may run into an elite enemy that can jeopardize the entire if your character isn’t prepared for it. this keeps the game exciting on a moment to moment level, constantly forcing you to think about every room you enter. Motion Twin isn’t promising an impossible world where the game changes every pixel on the screen giving you an entirely different experience EVERY SINGLE TIME. What it does promise is that you’ll never be bored with the same levels with the same rooms and the same weapons at every turn, just making it different enough to always be interesting.
The combat was a bit learning curve for me because I always found myself dying within the first two areas, but that was because I was meticulously and cautiously fighting one enemy after another, quickly being overwhelmed after two, three, four, or more enemies attack me at once. But as soon as I started just going in with my melee weapons instead of just avoiding the enemies and trying to kill them from a far, it became so much more fun for me. I love rush-down combat and slashing through enemies making me feel powerful in the game, and the game rewards you for digging into the play-style that suits you. You can play long-ranged with traps, turrets, and bows galore if you’d like. Sometimes you’re forced to if the randomized weapon spawns don’t give you the toolset you prefer, giving you a chance to enjoy what else the game has to offer.
In terms of gripes with the game, I think from a visual perspective, this game is not . Yes, each level has its own aesthetic, but the levels can be very derivative from one another in some instances. At times, I wish there was more creativity in the level design, especially since the enemy types change drastically as you get to the later levels. Perhaps it’s the limitation of the game’s engine, but there should have been one moment where I thought to myself “wow, this game is pretty.” Unfortunately, that moment never came for me.
To me, some aspects of the game in general aren’t very inspired either. The developers wear their influences on their sleeves when it comes to level design and combat. It’s understandable for a developer’s first game, but nonetheless, it can be a little too noticeable at times, especially the level design and art-style. It’s a shame that this game works so well in the rogue-like genre but can be tied down by the pillars that created the metroidvania genre. I wish the developers took similar risks when looking at those elements because they can get a bit repetitive. This may be because the learning curve and progression was slower than some others, not allowing me to continue before growing tired of the same enemy types and bosses, but I can’t base my review on anything other than my experience with the game.
In conclusion, this game stands out from its contemporaries by finding a way to make every run interesting and fun, I just wish there were more deviations and updates to the genre it finds itself in. For a first effort as a developer, however, this is a game to play, and a team to watch for in the future. Who knows, maybe Motion Twin really will surprise me one day.