‘Dead Cells’ Review: Carefully Crafted Combat Meets Random Levels

Jeremy Ray
Game Reviews Games
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4.5
of 5
Review Essentials
  • Fantastic pixel art
  • Solid, highly replayable combat system
  • Randomised playthroughs with lots of persistent rewards
  • Continually updated with new content
Reviewed on PC

While many games today seem to release and then (hopefully) get fixed later, Dead Cells has been functional and fun for so long that it’s almost as if developer Motion Twin forgot to hit the release button. Marrying gorgeous pixel art with skill-based combat and cleverly randomised levels, this is a dangerously replayable action game that you can gorge on in long stretches or just in 20 exhilarating minutes before work.

Take a deep breath, because we’re about to say the name of the genre. Dead Cells is the latest 2D pixel art metroidvania Soulslike roguelite action platformer to hit PC and console. Video games, eh? It’s a subgenre of a sub-sub-subgenre that actually manages to define more than a few other games on the horizon. It turns out people just can’t get enough of that sweet, sweet, Soulsy combat.

Dead Cells player and enemy swing at each other

Still — seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? How can a roguelite with randomly generated levels also be a metroidvania, a genre known for its meticulously crafted and explorable worlds?

The solution, like most of what Dead Cells offers, fees like a greatest hits of other games that’s somehow evolved into its own unique thing.

The Random Worlds of Dead Cells

Dead Cells achieves this by splitting everything up into different biomes. From The Sewers, to the Black Bridge, to the Clock Tower, these areas all have their own tilesets and enemies. The content within each is randomised every playthrough, but there are reliable constants. When you arrive at The Ramparts – a section of rooftops and towers patrolled by archers and mages – it’ll always be a lower level area with appropriately scaled gear.

As you’d expect from a roguelike, players have a degree of control over which biomes they visit. Once you’ve obtained the ability to climb vines, or use statues to teleport, or even wall climb, these permanent skills let you access the previously inaccessible. Find the shortcut, and these abilities effectively effectively let you skip a few biomes.

All of that spells more variety — though hell, even the repetition is fun in this game. Even going through areas we’ve beaten hundreds of times before, we didn’t get bored of them. It’s easy to lose yourself in that Soulslike flow when you’ve mastered an area and spend hours cutting through its enemies like so much butter.

Whether you’re exploring the new, or dominating the old, it’s just a different kind of fun. In Dead Cells, the latter becomes from beating each area quickly, as opposed to just beating them. Why? Because timed rewards are waiting for those who go from slow to flow.

Dead Cells randomised island game review
Every time we look at the island it seems different. Almost random...

Combat to Repeatedly Die For

We’re still playing this game a year after its Early Access launch, and that simply wouldn’t be the case if it didn’t rest on a rock solid combat system. Based on the “Souls roll,” hitting the dodge button here will grant you a second of invulnerability.

Each weapon has its own moveset but importantly, these carry different conditions for critical attacks as well. It’s a unique system that gives each weapon an interesting playstyle and individual flavour.

Take the Rapier for example, which crits after dodge rolls. Or the War Spear, which crits if it hits two enemies at the same time. The Twin Daggers crit on the third hit in their combo, and the Whip only crits on targets at the maximum thwack range.

Dead Cells early game boss fight
Did you just pull a Morpheus?

You may have noticed each of these has a nugget of risk/reward baked in. They also have different timings, such as a slightly longer attack animation on the Twin Daggers’ third strike. On top of this, all gear will come with randomised modifiers, which will be music to any Diablo fan’s ears.

Players will balance weapon moveset familiarity with stats and synergies, each respawn an opportunity for ad-hoc theorycrafting. It satisfies cravings for both action and strategy in each playthrough.

Perhaps you’re more comfortable with the Balanced Blade’s moveset, but that slower Oiled Sword might couple nicely with the Fire Grenade you just picked up? Every level has a series of interesting decisions for you to make while the clock is still ticking.

Floodgated Content

It’s also a game that has a surprising amount to do. There are new biomes and bosses waiting for you as you get further and further into the island, but it doesn’t stop there. Beyond the main game and its copious unlocks, the developers have been adding different ways to have fun.

For those who want to show off – or perhaps just need to catch a bus – Dead Cells is built from the ground up for speedrunning. Though “official” speedrunning rules would operate differently (Dead Cells pauses the timer in between levels while you upgrade), it’s neat being able to see how long each level has taken and each biome comes with a treasure room that can only be opened before a specific time.

Dead Cells start of game unlocks display
That is...a lot of unlocks.

There’s also the daily challenge, another randomised gauntlet with a unique scoring system. This mode incorporates how many enemies you can take out while also keeping an eye on the clock. Seeing yourself at the top of the daily leaderboards will require you to keep that kill combo speed buff going for as long as possible.

It’s hard to even talk about Dead Cells without sounding like a midnight shopping service – “but wait, there’s more!” – and just a few days ago Motion Twin threw a bunch more shiny new features onto the stack. Support was just added for modders which is always great for longevity, and expect Twitch streamers to be using fun gimmicks like requiring the chat to issue commands to open chests for them.

The Watcher boss in Dead Cells
Limbo as much as you want, I still see you.

Is Dead Cells Good?

We’ve seen Motion Twin add new bosses, levels, weapons, enemies, items, modifiers, and more over the last fourteen months. There’ve been redesigns, balance updates, and even a few less popular features removed outright to make sure the game flowed nicely.

It’s mainly a result of listening to its community — a practice that Motion Twin might be uniquely placed to do, given its novel structure in which every employee owns the same portion of the company. “Same pay, same say” for everyone, according to Motion Twin.

This is one of those titles we would’ve been happy with even at the start of its Early Access period. You could easily squeeze tens of hours from it back then, and over the course of fourteen months it’s just added more and more. Motion Twin could’ve flipped the “1.0” switch at any point to rapturous applause from its community.

Lucky you then, dear reader, if you haven’t yet dipped into this insta-classic. Dead Cells is an example of how to do things right in so many ways. How to do Early Access. How to listen to your community. How to take inspiration from games while growing into your own style. It also happens to be the best time to jump in and ride the content train that’s sure to keep rolling for a long time to come.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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