Dead Cells (Switch eShop) Review
Finally leaving its ‘Early Access’ stage on the PC (it’s about time!) we get to play Dead Cells on the Switch. Dead Cells first and foremost is a side-scrolling platformer with a heap of combat. It is also known as a ‘rogue-like’ or ‘rogue-lite’, that draws inspiration from games like Metroid and Castlevania, as well as more recent games like Rogue Legacy and Dark Souls. While sounding like an unfortunate mishmash of genres piled into a heap, the game is much better than the description implies.
Dead Cells has you playing as a blob-like entity that hijacks a headless prisoner’s body, taking up arms (weapons, you still have your arms attached) and cutting a bloody path through the many monsters that can quickly turn you back into a plain headless corpse again. Why are you doing all this? There are tantalising glimpses into the lore when you stumble across an area with examinable spots, but this not what the game is about, it’s all about ‘the run’. Initially, you start off each time with a choice between a sword, a bow and a shield, and then you’re off and killing monsters. As you explore and kill, you’ll get money as well as new weapons and throwable items/traps. You’ll also come across stat boosting scrolls, pick up blueprints, and from some enemies, you’ll also get ‘cells’.
The catch is when you die you lose it all. The blob finds another headless corpse in the prison depths and you start again. It always sucks when you lose your precious haul due to permadeath, but all hope is not lost. If you can get to the end of a biome/area, you get to keep your blueprints and spend the ‘cells’ you’ve built up on things that can carry over between runs through the ever-changing kingdom. At first, it’s getting the basics, like an upgradable health flask or being able to hold onto some of your gold in your next run. Most upgrades and item unlocks require a fair amount of cells, so it’s usually several runs before you can get the benefits. In some cases (*cough* Spartan Sandals *cough*), unlocking some blueprints turned out to be to my own detriment. A combination of random starting weapons and unlocked Sandals had me stuck running around alternating between a slow kick and arrows.
To start off with Dead Cells feels great to control, there’s a real fluidity to the movement and the way everything can chain together that is just fun. It never got boring dodge-rolling up to a group of monsters and messing up their day, making short work of them with a barrage of blades and arrows and maybe the odd Ice grenade. The game is at its most fun when you’re gracefully moving through these dark and foreboding castle fragments, exploding skeletons into a shower of gold and jewels. As a result of this kinetic game style, most areas don’t take long to get through when you’re pushing towards the next resting point. Timed doors that appear through your runs even push you to move fast if you want to see what rewards lay beyond. Most of the time it was more items, cells and gold which I likely could’ve gotten during the run if I didn’t just wildly speed through the previous section.
Due to the randomised nature of the areas and the weapons, you never know what kind of run is in store. When you come across a great combination of weapons and traps, it can feel like everything is going your way. But when the game throws crappy weapon after crappy weapon at you, it feels like you accidentally stumbled into Masochist Simulator 2019 as you try and make do. Even when you get off to a bad start it never feels so insurmountable that you just give up. And that’s one of the things that stood out to me, even when the odds seem stacked against you it’s not a foregone conclusion, and with the moveset and muscle memory hammered into you from the very beginning you can still go far.
To get the most out of the game you’ll want to find the progression runes that will give you access to more areas and rewards. The first two I found easy to stumble across. One allowed me to make climbable vines grow at select spots, and the other unlocks daily challenges. The others aren’t so easy and the game won’t tell you where they are either. I eventually caved in and looked up how to get the other runes. Each rune requires you to get the one before it and things stop being fun quickly when you’re going through every area with a fine tooth comb, hoping you took the right path. Fortunately there isn’t much backtracking if you didn’t take the wrong path, as there are fairly frequent portals that allow you to move around the map. Unlike some of the games in this genre where necessary upgrades halt your progress until you get them, I found that I could easily get right up to the areas towards the end just with a really good weapon combo. However, if you want to see all the areas available, and be able to explore more of the familiar areas, you’ll want to pick up the upgrades when you’re ready for a challenge. With planned extra content post-release, there’s going to be plenty to do even when you think you’ve found everything.
One of the biggest selling points of getting games on the Switch is as always the portability. Dead Cells is no exception and plays like a dream. For a fast-paced game that excels in its fluid movement and combat, the game rarely faltered. Even when there was any form of slight slowdown, it took a lot to make it happen and nowhere near enough to impact gameplay. It’s been said a lot with a lot of games over the last year and a half, but this is another game that is perfect to play in handheld and on the go. With each area only taking a few minutes, it’s easy to pick up and play. While previously only available on the PC in ‘early access’ it’s also great to be able to play it on a TV
Dead Cells is a really fun platformer and rogue-like (lite?) and what starts off as ‘just one run through the castle’ quickly becomes an hour of several runs. While it draws a lot of inspiration from other games, it very much feels like its own entity. In future, it may be an inspiration for games following in its footsteps. With movement and combat this good it would be criminal to not see it appear more. If you love sidescrolling platformers with a healthy heaping of combat that will put your skills to the test, your next step should be buying Dead Cells.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
+ Addictive ‘One more run’ gameplay
+ Controls so nicely
+ Perfect for handheld mode
- Progression upgrades a bit too tricky to get