Early Access Review

Dead Cells review

Game Info
Platform Win
Publisher Motion Twin
Developer Motion Twin
Release Date May 10, 2017

Dead Cells is easy to summarize: It's a side-scrolling, Castlevania-style roguelike. But while that pat description may be accurate and frankly pretty enticing on its own, it also belies just how thrilling, addictive and expertly honed this early access game is.

This is normally the bit where I'd lay out the story as a framing device, but frankly there's not much to say. You're a person without a head hell-bent on reclaiming cells for your decomposing body. That's about it.

Maybe the "story" is due in a later version of Dead Cells, but I can honestly say I'm not missing it. When the action is this fluid and fun, it's hard to pine for a nonexistent plot. That action is the real star of the show, and I'm going to struggle to do it justice without just shoving a controller in your hand.

Dead Cells is thrilling, addictive and expertly honed

Dead Cells somewhat resembles "Metroidvania" games, with sprawling 2D stages littered with items, secrets behind destructible walls, etc. But you won't be kept out of areas because you haven't unlocked the right tool, a hallmark of the genre. The only thing standing in your way is about a bazillion bloodthirsty enemies.

As you weave your way through progressively punishing (and ever-changing) stages, you'll pick up a dizzying array of weaponry: two main weapons on the face buttons, two more powerful attacks on the triggers that require a bit of time between each use.

You'll inevitably swap out weapons as you equip more powerful tools, and this is where Dead Cells really starts to shine.

Dead Cells gif Motion Twin

Your whip does mediocre damage ... unless you hit the enemy with its tip, which means a brutally effective critical attack. One sword does critical damage when your health is below half, which makes for a terrifying, thrilling run. There's a rapier that crits after right after you roll, making for much more mobile combat. Another weapon coats enemies in oil, not so great ... unless you have a fire attack to follow it up.

Later, I found weapons that made for diabolical pairs, like, for example, a turret that poisons enemies and a fire grenade that just happens to do bonus damage to poisoned enemies.

Those bonuses are randomly assigned, so I was constantly lured away from over-reliance on any one style of attack. And every weapon and tool changed my play style so dramatically that I was constantly learning and evolving. It's such a compelling formula that even after a devastating loss, I was always eager to hop right back in and see what new tools and techniques awaited me.

Dead Cells gif Motion Twin
losses in Dead Cells will be devastating

And the losses will be devastating. Death means starting back at square one (roguelike, remember?) with everything on your person having vanished into the ether.

There is solace to be had, though. As you claim cells from fallen enemies, you can use them to purchase new weapons or upgrade your existing arsenal. That is, assuming, you can keep them until the end of the stage, where your health is refilled and your cells can be redeemed. If you die while you're holding them ... yup, they're gone too.

Dead cells screenshot Motion Twin

Over time, you'll find that you're able to push just a little bit further into the depths of Dead Cells, where increasingly enticing goodies lie in wait. There are also some special items that allow you to activate shortcuts and skip the early low-yield stages entirely, though doing so often thrusts you into deadly ground that you're woefully unprepared for.

That's one of countless trade-offs in Dead Cells. Will you let go of your necklace that allows triple jumping to get one free death? Will you open a cursed chest if it means you'll die in one hit until it's lifted? These choices can be agonizing, but they also keep the game from ever feeling stale.

There are no such compromises in Dead Cell's presentation, which blends 16-bit affect with modern, beautiful animation reminiscent of the rotoscoping in the original Prince of Persia. It's something to behold, and helps this already fluid game feel even smoother.

There is, of course, still room for growth in this early version of the game. Some weapons, like the turret and magnet grenade that draws enemies in while electrocuting them, are so powerful that I feel frustrated if I'm not gifted them in a playthrough. Also, the benefits you get from parrying with a shield rarely feel worth the risk of putting yourself in the line of fire. I tend to avoid them entirely.

Also, the randomly generated stages often create weird blind alleys that feel as though they would have a reward at the end, but don't. It would be nice for a little more variety in each level — once you start to recognize every element of them, it scarcely matters the way they're assembled.

Wrap Up:

Dead Cells is a fast, fluid, fun experience with very few flaws

To be straight with you, I had to really plumb the depths of my critical mind to scrounge up those dings. They are problems, don't get me wrong. They just can't come close to dimming the pleasure of this fast, fluid experience. Dead Cells may be the most fun I've had in a game all year.

Dead Cells was reviewed using an early access Steam download code provided by Motion Twin. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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9.0 Win