Dead Cells (Review)

A platform game that measures your life expectancy in minutes then sends you all the way back to the start again the moment you die probably sounds at first like a bit of a sick joke. Then you start playing Dead Cells and realise the joke’s on you and you’ve spent the last two hours dying repeatedly just so you can make “that next run” just a little bit easier.

What there is of the story is revealed right from your first attempt. You start as a small green blob that inhabits a headless corpse and then attempts to make their escape. Soon enough you die and you’ll restart with a new body and hopefully a little more skill and knowledge from the experience. The video at the end sums it all up nicely and is good for a laugh.

Your game begins here… a lot.

One thing that’s in Dead Cells‘ favour is just how fluid the controls and movement are. On an Xbox controller, it’s kept simple with jump, dodge and your attacks tied to the face buttons while the triggers take care of your secondary items and healing. It works well and you get quick feedback to your actions that makes it feel great in application. And with that quick response it doesn’t take long for you to end up charging through levels like a murderous Sonic the Hedgehog. You may not live long but your brief rampages are great fun while they last. That ease in movement really helps in building your confidence and increases your willingness take risks, usually at the cost of your lifespan. If you want to be patient and work your way through the levels you can too but the temptation may be too great. It’s been that way for me anyway. 🙂

During the game you find weapons and upgrades to make your character more powerful during that current attempt but you can also get your hands on blueprints and cells. The latter two are important for playing the long game as they give you access to new items and buffs which are unlocked by cashing in the cells. These are what make you more productive with each attempt but they can also be the source of much despair when you die without cashing them in.

You can also unlock additional perks that can help you navigate levels more easily and this plays into a “Metroidvania” style of game where some areas of levels are only accessible once you progress far enough in your character’s abilities. What I liked was that this wasn’t made clear to me until I had progressed far enough in the game to earn them so it feels like a nice little reward for making progress.

The numerous portals you find allow for quick travel around a level.

The look of this game is just superb. It uses a pixel art style that evokes 16bit arcade games of the past but the amount of colour and visual flourishes that get thrown onto the screen take this WAY further than anything of that era could accomplish. It was the little things that impressed me too such as how elements of the background move in response to the player character or how the strength of the lighting fades to the edges of the screen (I suppose that’s right considering you have a flaming head). Destruction of enemies and the environment shower the screen in pixels and on the Xbox One X it doesn’t look to slow down at all.

Sound is suitably chunky with squelches, thuds and growls being a regular part of your soundscape. Some of the minimal dialog uses a Sims like gibberish during conversations which is kind of cute and works nicely. The music seems understated at first because it’s hard to focus on it when playing but if you can take a moment to sit back and listen I found it pretty good, especially the title screen theme. There’s also a suitably heroic tune that plays whenever you find an upgrade.

Colour is used well to identify levels – this is the beginning of The Ramparts section.

With all that is going on, Dead Cells still has room for humour. NPCs you encounter may not have a lot to say but what they do tells you enough and your character’s animated responses to these are worth watching at least once. Beyond that there’s things to discover in game that are funny little distractions. For a guy who’s a reanimated corpse he is surprisingly chipper about the situation. There’s even a “Diet” option that lets you choose how you want food is represented in the game if the default meaty fare is not your thing… like Thimbleweed Park‘s toilet roll option there’s something for everyone!

So is the game for you? I think that depends on whether you’ll enjoy the gameplay loop that Dead Cells has been built on. It’s a fast paced action platformer that throws random elements at you to slow you down but is also a game that allows players to have a good time in short bursts… each of which will hopefully get you closer to the end. For me, every little win has felt like an achievement in itself and I think I’m going to get quite a few hours out of it before my addiction wears off.

Dead Cells is out now for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Switch. Played on Xbox One X.

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