Eyes on Dead Cells

Yeeeeeaaaaaah!  Let’s talk Dead Cells!

So, Dead Cells is a roguelike action platformer with some Metroidvania elements.  It’s awesome.  Sorry for spoiling the rest of the review there.

It’s also hard, as befits a roguelike.  But sometimes you have to play and beat those hard games.  Because that’s how people know that your penis is big.  Even if you don’t have a physical penis.  Your metaphorical penis is big.  The penis of your soul.  

Anyways, Dead Cells is really a great model of what makes roguelikes so enjoyable to play.  For those who aren’t super familiar with the model, let’s go through what makes a roguelike a roguelike.  The model traditionally built around having a high degree of challenge, a very high skill ceiling, and permadeath, meaning that the games are very hard and if you die you’re right back at the beginning, but there’s a lot of room for you to get very very good at them and they’ll throw challenges at you for near every level of skill.  Given that you’ll be dying and going back to the beginning a lot, the model makes heavy use procedurally-generated levels (well, at least semi-procedurally generated, a lot of games will cheat by just having premade rooms connected in a randomized layout) and randomized gear and resources, which cuts down on the repetition by changing up the levels and your playstyle each time.  In fact, the randomized gear adds a lot to the gameplay of the model, as you have to try out and adapt to a lot of different capabilities and your strategy needs to adjust constantly to the specific things your character is capable of.  In more recent games, roguelikes have started adopting a practice of having you collect resources in each run that unlocks upgrades or new weapons or whatnot that linger between characters, meaning the game will grow as you play it more.  Success in a roguelike usually relies on three factors, your knowledge of the game and its future possibilities and various microcomponents, your ability to use that knowledge to make strong decisions about how you’re building your character with the limited and randomized resources available to you as well as your decisions to manage risk, and your in the moment gameplay skills in whatever genre the roguelike is.

So Dead Cells takes that foundation, just as described there, and builds on top of it a very technically solid action platformer.  Your main character is… well, a sentient blobby mass possessing a headless corpse, but it really doesn’t control like a sentient blobby mass possessing a headless corpse.  Your character is quick and incredibly responsive, and it feels very natural controlling them.  It does take a little bit of getting used to, but soon you’ll be zipping back and forth around enemies, dodging through their attacks, leaping through platforms and coming up behind them to bring the pain in no time.  Moreover, this game does a thing.  A thing with speed.  Every time you kill an enemy, you get a speed boost for the next several second.  This stacks to a certain extent, so if you’re smacking down enemies over and over again, you’ll get pretty darn zippy, which you can then use to beat the level in record time or to be even more deadly against your foes.  Complimenting the great controls and speed here are that your rank and file enemies are very distinct in their moves.  They telegraph their attacks really well, both with their sprites rearing back as well as with a nice exclamation point decal alerting you to the attack, even if it’s coming from off screen.  They’ll also pause just long enough for you to take a single action, aggressive or defensive, as long as your reflexes are on par.  There may be a bit of trouble time as you get to recognize the enemies and the nature of their attacks, but once you learn how and what they do, if you get hit, it’s because of a mistake you made and you know exactly what that mistake was.  Usually.  Because there was at least one point where I got killed by an enemy that attacked in half the time its fellows did with absolutely not warning.  Jerk.  But yeah, the game is hugely demanding and its very easy to make mistakes, but aside from those few times, its completely fair in its challenge.

Let’s talk the levels.  If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you probably know that I’m not especially a fan of procedurally generated levels.  I’ve called produral generation, by default ‘throwing your hands in the air and giving up on good, engaging level design’.  I’ve said that Ape Out has the best procedurally generated levels I’ve seen, but even then I stopped being interested in the game because of it.  Dead Cells, as with every other roguelike, uses procedurally generated levels.  And it doesn’t use the cheats that many other roguelikes do, of having pre-made rooms but randomized enemies and level layouts as if that still makes it super engaging to go through the same rooms hundreds of times over and over.  No, it doesn’t do that.  It has its own cheats, but it doesn’t do that.  So, you may be thinking that I absolutely hated the levels here.

Well, you’d be wrong.  I’ve said it before, you make any broad generalization about what is or isn’t good in creative works, you set rules, it’s only a matter of time before something comes along and makes something great by breaking those rules.  Dead Cells does that.  Dead Cells has the best procedural generation I’ve ever seen.  Better than Ape Out.  And it’s levels are totally engaging.  Dead Cells makes me eat crow.  And it turns out, if you serve that crow with a sauce of ‘deliberately designed player progression’, a side of ‘distinct flavor and design for each level’ and a nice glass of ‘variety of required tasks’, that crow tastes really darn good.

To be fair, I think the procedurally generated levels largely work in Dead Cells because there’s a lot of rules placed on them.  The layouts can be very different every run, but they’re always kind of the same, too.  The Promenade of the Condemned is always going to be mostly flat and fighting your way through a series of small houses with about four decently-sized underground spaces to explore and one point where you need to grow vines to progress.  The Ramparts is always going to be constructed mostly of thin-ish towers with jumpable gaps of space in between and lost of tight quarters.  Each level is designed very distinctly from every other, and I really appreciate how, even with the procedural generation, there’s still unique gameplay between the levels.  In the Clock Tower, you have to go back and forth between three vertical towers, teleporting yourself into locked spaces until you find the key to the exit.  In High Peak Castle, your job is to hunt down and kill at least 2 of the 3 minibosses in the level so you can open up the exit.  It’s hard coded in that each level is going to have certain features and have a specific definitive progression to it to the point that they almost feel hand-crafted.  So yeah.  Procedural generation here.  Marvelously done.

Roguelikes will live or die based on the strength of their gear system, and Dead Cells really doesn’t disappoint.  You have a huge variety or equipment at your disposal, and grows from there as you progress through the game and unlock options to add to the randomized layouts you’ll be finding throughout a given run.  You get a good mix of action-platforming basics, such as the swift one-handed swords, mid-range whips, slower broadswords and hammers, etc., as well as some more unique and unusual weapons, like a tentacle that reverse-Scorpions you at the enemy (Get over there!), a sandal that kicks enemies away and does a lot of damage if you splat them into a wall, or a frying pan that’s incredibly swift but very short-ranged and do extra damage if you hit an enemy in the front, right where they’re probably swinging at you right now.  You’ve also got a nice assortment of bows and shields to play with as well.  Appropriately for the genre, the gear you find will change your playstyle around quite a bit, and your ability to make good choices with limited options for gear and strategize around what you end up with is really key.  Aside from the odd crossbow or large weapon that takes both your hands, you’ve got two slots available for your standard combat gear, so you’ve got options to play with.  I’m a fan of working both the melee weapon and a bow, but if you wanted to rock two melees, you can do that.  Or a bow and shield.  Or two shields, if you really wanted to do it like that.  I don’t know why, and you do you.  Not like it’s your neck on the line.  Anyways, you have a lot of options there that change thing up quite a bit, and it’s beautiful.

On top of that, you have two slots for what the game terms ‘abilities’.  Which you find as items.  So whatever.  Dead Cells was originally going to be a tower defense game before they decided to rip it all up and make a roguelike, but you can still see the influences in this section.  You’ve got turrets and traps galore to be placing down here.  Don’t like those?  Well, how about grenades?  Tons of those too.  Or you can pick up abilities that have you doing a dashing attack, or throwing knives all around you, things like that.  Have I mentioned there’s a lot of variety in this game?  Yeah, there’s a lot of variety in this game.  Abilities differ from your weapons largely in that they have cooldowns, so you can’t just spam them, but they also tend to have more of a broader effect, and play a large part in battlefield control.  Again, learning to strategize with what you have in the moment is key.

All your offensive items, equipment and abilities alike, come in levels, so if you’re attached to the level-I Balanced Sword you found on the first level, maybe you’ll find a level-VII one towards the end that’s mechanically the same, but much stronger.  You can spend your gold to upgrade items to + quality, which basically upgrades the damage to what it would be if they were a couple levels higher than they are.  You can also upgrade the item quality drops, making it more likely you’ll find a + quality item in the first place.  Which you can then upgrade to ++ quality.  Rarely, you’ll find or be able to upgrade to colorless items, which rather than normal items, base their damage on the highest of your stats but often come with a 20% damage debuff, and legendary items, which likewise base damage on the highest of your stats but deal a higher level of pain than most other items of the same level.  A lot of your items have innate characteristics you’ll always get with every model of that type, often relating to status effects, like the ice bow which will always freeze enemies it hits, or guaranteed critical hits, like the Valmond’s Whip that will deal extra damage whenever you hit and enemy with its tip.  Each item will also have a random collection of extra effects attached to it as well, often dealing extra damage if an enemy is already inflicted with a specific status effect or shooting an arrow or dropping a grenade when you attack with it or extending the effects of what it already does, or things like that.  There’s a lot of variety there.  If you don’t like the random effects you get on a weapon, you can change them for a new set of random effects by paying gold at the blacksmith between levels, although that can get expensive fast if you’re not getting what you want.  I’m pretty sure the random drops aren’t perfectly random, that the game watches you and tries to drop you gear that complements your strategies.  When I was primarily using whips to fight my way through, I ran into a lot of higher level whips.  When my strategy was to light everything on fire, the game started throwing a lot more firestarters at me.  Makes it a lot more convenient to get a good build going.    

What I find really marvelous with this game is that it seems that everyone has a different strategy that works for them, and they’re all valid.  I got to a point, after running my head against the final boss a few times with no success, I started taking it personally, and went out looking for tips for success.  And every guide recommends something different.  I’ve seen one that recommends putting all your growth points into one stat to maximize your damage then learning to dodge really well to make up for your low HP.  I’ve seen one that recommends spreading your stat growth as much as possible so you’ve got huge amounts of HP and can tank anything, then relying on the quality of gear you find to help you with the damage.  I’ve seen one that recommends foregoing melee and equipping two bows so you can fight forever at range without running out of ammo.  You find people recommending very specific level choices and routes to the end, to maximize… I don’t even know.  The logic there gets complicated.  You can find dozens of different, opposing strategies of what worked for them.  No telling what works for you.  You have to find that yourself.  What ended up working for me was, after most of my runtime going through the easier levels because, on paper, the harder ones don’t give you any better gear, taking one run that was going through a bunch of the harder levels I hadn’t been through before, in which I found more level up scrolls than I did in the easier levels.  On top of the pumped up stats, I ended up synergizing my equipment really well, grabbing a grenade that set pretty much everything on screen on fire, a buzzsaw trap that did extra damage against enemies on fire, a sword that covered enemies and the ground in oil which made fire burn hotter and did automatic critical hits for several seconds after hitting an enemy that was on fire, and a bow.  That last one didn’t really fit in with the fire theme, but I liked it.  And with that setup, I managed to kill the final boss, the Hand of the King, on my third go at him.  And it felt amazing.

The plot is a bit Dark Souls-esque in storytelling, albeit with a bit less content.  Most of what you pick up comes from brief lines in your loading screens and a bit of flavor the few times you run across another living being trying to escape whatever’s going on or when you run into a randomly generate room with a few bits of scenery to it.  It gives just enough to get you a sense of “yeah, bad stuff going on here” and create a sense of unease.  The atmosphere, between the visuals and the music and the odd unsettling thing going on, hits it home really well, there’s a definite sense of wrongness with most everything you have there.  The music in particular, I really enjoy, and I’ve found myself pulling up the OST many a time, just to jam along with the game.

Dead Cells is a great game.  With every great game, there’s still a few downsides, and well, Dead Cells got ‘em.  The biggest one for me comes with the length of a given run through it.  Being a roguelike, when you die, you get sent back to the beginning.  Ok.  That’s part of the gameplay, makes you weigh your decisions carefully, play a bit defensively, etc.  It still builds in a mechanic that deliberately wastes your time.  And it can waste a lot of it.  The game encourages you to play through it fast, with the kills=speed mechanic, your play time constantly being shown in the bottom right, and offering you rewards for getting so far within certain time limits.  I still found the game is best played slow, meticulously searching out all the level up scrolls in a level, fighting defensively with an eye for ingress and egress, etc.  Which doesn’t work well with the ‘back to the beginning’ deal when you lose.  And this game intends you to lose quite a bit.  Usually, it took me about an hour to get to the point where I was challenged enough that failure was a possibility.  If I’m playing a roguelike, I’d prefer it to go fast, so when I do fall, I don’t lose that much time to it.  It’s also not until the 5th or 6th stage where the challenges got to the point where I was really at risk.  Hell, I made it to the second to last level on my first run at the game.  Which means every time I die and go back to the beginning, most of the content I played through posed little risk or challenge to me, until I got to the part I died at previously.  That’s a problem with the roguelike model as a whole, but it’s exacerbated by the amount of time Dead Cells takes to get to the hard stages.  I could have done better at that, granted, given I probably spent too much time not going into the hardest stages l had unlocked, but I stuck with the easier stages largely motivated by a desire to just get to the parts I was having trouble with as quickly as possible, so nyeh.  It took me about 13 hours to beat the game for the first time, which is probably around 15 runs.  It feels like that could have been streamlined a bit, with a bit of different design.  The game’s fun to play throughout, and the level design keeps things sort of fresh while the upgrade system ensures that no run truly feels wasted, but I tend to go into these things with a goal-oriented mindset, and this led to a lot of times where I was going through filler before I could make a try at my goal.

That’s really the only major complaint I have.  There are a few minor things, like the game having exits to areas then having “You need to get the DLC!!!!  Buy NOW!” when you try to use them, although one of the DLCs is free, so I’ll only take half a point off for that.  There was also the one time I lost because an enemy inexplicably made it’s normal attack much faster than any others of its type, but that seems to be a one-time occurence.  There’s a few weird things as well, like the initial upgrades seem a little unbalance, with some clearly more important and vital to fun gameplay than others, but that works out after you’ve unlocked the more gameplay important upgrades.  The bosses I’ve played, aside from the final boss Hand of the King, are rather unthreatening, and usually easier than the levels preceding them.  And there’s a lot of visual activity going on, that you need to learn to adjust your eyes to and see through so you can keep track of what’s dangerous and how to avoid and counter it.  Honestly, in a game with more issues, these probably wouldn’t register, although it does stand out here because of how high Dead Cells stands.

As you can probably tell, I hold this game in a lot of esteem.  And as a roguelike, it’s built around replayability.  If I so wished, now that I beat the game once, I can kick up the difficulty level and unlock both tougher enemies and higher level gear.  I could explore the biomes I just introduced myself to on my final run more thoroughly.  I could dive into either of the game’s two DLC packs.  Even as I beat the game, there’s still a lot more to it.  And I can see myself diving into it again.  My schedule’s a little full, so many games to beat already, so probably not in the immediate future, but I’m deliberately keeping it on my computer, looking forward to the next time I can inhabit a headless corpse and use it to crush my enemies.  

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