Game review: Dead Cells for PC

You probably expected this review to come out sooner, and to be honest, I did too. I’d purchased Dead Cells when it was still in early access. If you know me on Twitter, you know from my rants that I hate early access and refuse to pay to beta test for most companies. But after watching multiple Let’s Play videos and seeing how smooth the game play was, I decided to take a risk and pick the game up early. Before I even get to the proper review, I would like to offer kudos to the developer for releasing an early access product that was fantastically stable. In the thirty hours I played before moving to the full release, I never once had a crash or any kind of glitch. You can’t even see that in many triple A games after their obligatory day one patch.

Once the game went gold, I got a notification in-game that I should start a new game to experience “the full story,” and I did so with much trepidation for reasons I will explain later. From that point forward, I put another seventy-seven hours into the game, for a grand total of 107. So, know this review is coming after much kicking of the virtual tires, and that despite what I’m going to say, I will continue playing the game for a long time after this is published.

So….Dead Cells is a game I’d really like to hate. I can’t because it’s stable, it’s got gorgeous graphics, and fantastic music and sound effects. But I want to hate it because of the controls and because of the absolute pain it was to gather the main tools of movement within the game, runes. I want to hate it because much like Binding of Isaac, success or failure often comes down to the tools randomly doled out to me in the course of a run. I want to hate it because much like Binding of Isaac, so much of my time is spent groaning over bullshit created by RNGesus that it dilutes the times where I am actually enjoying the game.

Don’t get me wrong, on a good run with fun weapons and skills, this is mostly a joy to play. But a bad run will often be followed by another, and another, and given that a run to the last boss takes me around an hour and thirty minutes, those bad runs can often make me feel like I’ve wasted my time for nothing. (Y’all speed runners are probably snickering over my run time, and y’all can bite me.)

A good run will give me plenty of chances to find upgrades for Brutality, Tactics, and Survivability, and investing in these skills will grant extra percentages of health in diminishing amounts. (In theory you can invest in all three stats equally to get more health, but this results in a wimpy main weapon, making the boss fights much harder, and in the late game equally boosted skills seem to grant the enemies some bonus defense and damage to counter your progression.) A bad run will result in fewer upgrade scrolls, or worse in upgrade scrolls of the wrong color combination. There’s a special kind of anger reserved for arriving to the first boss with a wimpy health bar, one healing potion, and a combination of bad weapons and skills that just tickle the boss instead of harming him. That special kind of anger can happen over and over because the random number generator decided to build frustratingly similar runs again and again, and again.

For that matter, it’s entirely possible to end a run with one set of weapons, and find those exact same weapons as your starting set in the opening area. So you go to the menu, press restart, and…yep, you get the exact same weapons again. I get it, this is a likely probability with random number generation and a small pool of options. But if my last run sucked with a certain set of tools, I sure as hell don’t want to use them again on my next run.

Even on a good run, the controls can be a major hindrance to my enjoyment of Dead Cells. I’ve seen review after review praising the “buttery smooth” controls, and I’m not feeling that. I often find that pulling down on the left stick and hitting jump, which should result in a ground slam attack, will instead make my undead hero make a small upward hop before dropping into the midst of a crowd of enemies. I will then try to jump back up to the platform I was crouching on above said mob, only to have the double jump whiff out two feeble motions, leaving me in range of an enemy attack. I have intentionally dropped off of ledges, only to have my dumbass hero grab the ledge and haul himself back up despite me holding down on the stick, or for him to grab a ledge on the other side and climb up. I have crouched a good forty pixels away from the chain “ladders” and had my asshole hero shift over to climb down. This is all made more frustrating because the procedurally-generated levels means there often are control “gotchas” like this on every single level.

Remember how I said I was wary of starting a new run to experience the full story? The reason for that is runes. It’s not so hard gathering the first two, but the second pair are entirely dependent on whether RNGesus feels like being nice to me. In the early access version, I would guess that around fifteen hours went into getting the third rune, and hour twenty-five is when I finally got the fourth. The first rune lets you summon vines to climb at certain access points, while the second allows use of teleporters. While this is vaguely metroidvania-like, it mostly just feels like busy work. Even the third rune, which makes the ground slam potent enough to break through marked sections of floors, feels like something you could have started off with and it was just gated off to stretch out play time.

But then there’s the fourth rune, which allows for running up walls a short distance, and friends, you NEED that rune in the worst way. And….you won’t get it for the longest time because it’s gated off behind two bosses and a mini-boss. On my second play through, I needed seventy agonizing hours to finally get that fourth rune, and all because with each run my selection of weapons wasn’t good enough to kill the second boss, Conjunctivitis. (A name I will never attempt to speak aloud, and which I had to look up online because I’m never sure how to spell it, much less pronounce it. Seriously, just name this fucker “Beholder,” Motion Twin. I know you renamed him before, and this new choice is feh-king awful.)

Even with a good selection of weapons, I also needed to grind many hours to get two extra healing potions so I could deal with the boss’ many painful tentacle-rape phases. (Side note: the price in “cells” to unlock extra health potions and other basic games functions like banking funds are so expensive that it’s a pain in the ass to unlock anything good. Conversely, if something is relatively cheap to unlock, you can almost certainly expect it to be garbage.)

There’s a school of thought that finally beating a hard boss provides joyful euphoria, and I am not in that school. Finally beating a hard boss brings momentary relief and lingering resentment because I just know I’m going to have to fight that fucker again at some point. In this case, victory also brings a measure of fear because there’s still an “elite” mini-boss who has to be found and defeated to get my rune. If I die to the elite mini-boss or any minion before finding him, welp fuck me, I can go back to the start and try again.

Getting that spider rune means finally being able to access all areas of the game, and often a wall run path will allow you to skip a lot of bullshit just to get where you need to be. Once you get it, you can pull off tricks that make you look like you know what you’re doing (those moments are fleeting, because inevitably the controls will do something to make you look like a moron again), and you can use the “easier” path to get to the final boss, The Hand of the King. (Another side note: At all cost, avoid Forgotten Sepulcher. No matter how well you prepare yourself, that place is a run killer.)

And, can I just say, fuck the design of this boss fight? The boss itself is mostly manageable, but some asshole decided, “What this place needs is spiked pits on either side of the arena.” Because of that asshole, I have never beaten the final boss, and I may never be able to do it. The boss basically knocks me into a pit, and there’s half my health gone no matter how much I upgraded my skills. I jump up to try and get out, and one of two things happens. Either the boss bitch slaps me back into the pit, or my asshole hero grabs a breakable ledge that drops him right back into the spikes again. Seriously, fuck this boss fight. Fuck it with the most diseased dick possible.

*Takes deep breaths* I should mention the story, which is mostly meh for two reasons. The first is the way it’s presented, which is through finding rooms with notes. The hero even comments at one point, “It sure is convenient finding all these notes. Lore on a shoestring!” That’s a bit too on the nose about how half-assed the storytelling is. I don’t feel like I got a better experience by starting over from scratch to see these notes, and the fact that RNGesus almost tripled my time to collect the fourth rune made collecting all this lore even more agonizing. Then there’s the story itself, which goes like this: a plague struck a kingdom and the king took EXTREME measures to curtail its spread. His efforts were in vain, and his kingdom collapsed under a bloody revolt. The plague somehow mutated some sewer sludge into gaining sentience, and said sewer sludge found a pile of bodies, revolting soldiers who were beheaded. The sludge becomes the head of a body and attempts to kill the king because of course it does.

It’s not terrible, but it’s just so stock standard that you can find the same ideas in many, many other games. Plus, there’s a minor niggling detail in the story that makes lots of enemy encounters later in the game somewhat annoying for me. These bodies you’re possessing were part of the king’s army, right? So why is it that most of the king’s healthy troops are two or three times your size? It’s this bizarre video game logic, and yeah, I know it’s pretty common, but still I get to these ten foot minions, and every time I think, “The body my hero is wearing came from these troops.” Before the lore notes, the size disparity didn’t bother me because I didn’t know where all the bodies my sludge-possessed hero were coming from. But after knowing what’s going on, it kind of kills my immersion. In other words, adding a story actually subtracts something from the overall experience for me.

Now let’s talk weapons and skills, a topic I can be much more enthusiastic about. As you progress through the game, you will find blueprints. You have to survive to the end of the area to turn in the blueprint, and in what seems like a weird glitch to me, you have to exit the menu of The Collector and then go back in to see the new weapon, skill, or mutation. Then you have to pay The Collector in cells to unlock that item and make it available in-game, either at a shop somewhere in the levels or as randomly encountered loot. (They can be found out in the open, inside treasure chests, or behind “locked” doors that require a certain amount of money to open. I say locked in quotes because you can actually break down the doors if you don’t mind being cursed. The curse is lifted after killing 10 enemies, but until you do, you’re a one-hit-kill target. I actually like this, and the cursed chests with the same effect. In certain runs, the curse becomes a kind of risk/reward challenge that can help turn a mediocre run around.)

As to what you get, the weapons run the gamut from awesome (broadsword, fire brands, ice blast) to pathetic (electric whip (no amount of upgrading can make this thing useful for me, and I really wanted to make it work because it looks so damned cool), any crossbow, balanced blade). Most of the bows are decent damage dealers, although I didn’t like the infantry bow because it only deals critical damage at a range that I might as well be using my melee weapon for. Bows and throwing knives have a limited number, and you have to recover ammo by killing enemies or waiting long enough for them to fall out and return. They fly back to your hero either way, so you don’t have to worry about keeping track of where they landed. It’s a cool mechanic that nicely gets around the need to restock ranged weapons.

I’d have a hard time picking any favorite weapons, but I can say that weapons need to synchronize with your skills and with each other in order to be good, or better, to be fun. As an example, pairing the broadsword with the ice bow makes a great combination, allowing you to freeze enemies and prevent them from dodging the slow but heavy hitting main weapon. As an added bonus, enemies who thaw out move slower, making them even more vulnerable to the broadsword’s massive swings. Ice blast however, having a slower cast animation, can leave you open to attack from many enemies if it’s paired with the same main weapon. The result is being stunned out of every attempted attack, and obviously this is not fun.

Adding more to this synchronization puzzle, every weapon has a set of special abilities that can be reforged by an NPC in the hub world between areas. Say for instance that you have fire brands as your alternate weapon. You can change the ability of your main weapon to do additional damage to a burning target and voila, instant synergy. (Well, sometimes you can get this to work. The abilities are also generated randomly, and the cost of reforging goes up with every failed recast. It’s entirely possible to blow 20,000 credits and still not get the effect or combination of effects you were hoping for. That can end up being a run killer. Oh, also, there is a cursed ability that makes your hero take double damage from enemies. It is no buono.)

Skills are another kind of weapon, but these have a cool down timer. Some skills are traps like the sinew slicer, a turret that fires spinning blades to bleed enemies to death. There are grenades with normal explosive damage, freezing ice, or scorching flame, and all of these can have secondary effects through their abilities, such as a fire grenade freezing enemies near the dead victims, or emitting a toxic cloud to poison them while they’re burning. (Neato!) But there are also some rather fantastical skills, like summoning a tornado or riding a thundercloud to fly over enemies and rain lightning down on their heads. Then there’s knife dance, which fires off kunai in a circle around you, rapidly bleeding out any enemy they hit. If you get this skill and can manage to reforge the effect of it firing through all enemies, this bad boy can wreck waves of enemies with ease.

Finally, there’s mutations, of which you select one at the hub world after completing the first three areas. (You can also pay to reroll them, but I never bother with it because I like to save my money for reforging weapons and skills.) Some work with skills, like shortening the cool down time for skills, though for some odd reason grenades have their own separate mutation for their cool down timer. There are mutations to double the number of arrows and knives you can carry, to gain more hit points, and to avoid death once despite suffering a killing blow. These are just a few of the mutations I’ve unlocked, and there are many more I haven’t even collected as blueprints yet. This is why I try to stick through lousy runs, because I might find a new blueprint somewhere to unlock a new weapon, skill, or mutation to make my suffering worthwhile.

Oh, I almost forgot the timed gates. In every area, there’s a gate shaped like an hourglass, and as the shape would imply, you have to reach it before a timer winds down and locks the goodies inside away from you. For me the problem is, the time to reach said doors is so unreasonably short that it punishes me for exploring any level, and if I skip everything and run straight to the door, it punishes me again with wimpy rewards. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, and after my first few efforts to get inside only to find shit loot, I’ve never really bothered to do it again. It’s better in my opinion to fully explore and possibly find a wealth of weapons and upgrades than it is to race past everything and be under-leveled as a result.

Lastly, there’s a daily challenge, but unlike the daily events in Spelunky, I really don’t enjoy playing this mode. Here, as with the timed doors, the challenge is based on an unreasonable timer that tasks me to find the boss and defeat them without exploring the rest of the level. I know some speed runners probably love this kind of challenge, but I very much prefer being able to take my time and explore. So when the game goes “hurry, hurry, hurry!” I go “nah, fuck it.” It’s a shame, though, because without the timer, I think I could really enjoy trying to get a high score and make an attempt at a daily boss run.

Despite my complaints, I have put in 107 hours into this game, and I expect I will continue to do so between runs of other games when I need a break from 3D games and want something in a more 2D flavor. (I’m currently running through God Eater: Resurrection again, loving the story and hating my dumb companions. If I have a wish for God Eater 3 coming out this December, it’s for smarter companion AI so I’m not constantly having to rescue them.) Yeah, Dead Cells has some quirks and annoyances that create friction between me and my enjoyment of the game. But if I set that aside, I can also find lots of stuff to praise. The graphic design of the various areas are gorgeous. The animations of my super sludgy hero and the enemies are fantastic. The music is so good that I’ve often called my husband over and handed my headphones to him so he can give a listen, and he agrees, it’s all good stuff.

In spite of my grievances, I give Dead Cells 4 stars. It’s a decent 2D platformer that invites replays through procedural generation, and that eventually rewards your efforts with some killer weapons and skills. But it’s very much one of those “you have to give it X hours before it gets good” experiences, and if you don’t have the patience to get there, this could be a deal breaker for you. If you do have the patience and time to invest, this could be a great game to come back to again and again. So that’s who I’m recommending it for, the patient gamer who doesn’t mind a bit of grinding before getting to the good stuff.