Since the turn of the decade, we’re seemingly being blessed with at least one stand-out Metroidvania and one Roguelike a year, and sometimes they’re a mixture of both. 2016 saw us rolling through dungeons with Dodge Roll’s Enter the Gungeon, the year before boasted Axiom Verge, and Crypt of the Necrodancer made its case for many GOTY lists in 2014.
Although my time with Dead Cells -the new Early Access title currently taking Steam by storm- has been short, all the signs point towards the hybrid “RogueVania” reaching the same great heights as those that have preceded it. It’s a maddeningly addictive blend of smooth combat, sumptuous style, and replayability, which is good because you will meet your end a lot. A lot lot.
As it’s still 8-12 months off being completely ready, the story isn’t all there in Dead Cells just yet. However, as we’ve seen with many games of its ilk in the past, sometimes all you need to do is die over and over again while making progress by the inch to fall in love. Motion Twin’s eleven levels represent a great deal of content for an in progress title, made all the meatier by how slowly you will make ground across it sewers, dungeons, and gothic architecture.
At first glance, combat seems simple – a little rudimentary, even. Melee and ranged attacks are simple button presses don’t seem like they require all that much precision or thought. “This is piss,” you think, as you easily hack away at almost non-threatening zombies, “what’s all the fuss about?” For the next ten minutes, you blissfully wander around the starting area at your own leisure and get lulled into a sense of almost arrogance.
And then it hits you like a spike to the chest, just to reflect the sudden upswing in difficulty. Your simple maneuvers don’t work anymore, the replica-looking sword and child’s bow you’re given no longer enough to see you through. The gruesomely detailed pixel enemies are quicker, more powerful, and in bigger numbers, so of course death isn’t far behind. Humbled and empty-handed, you start again right from the beginning of the game.
Dead Cells doesn’t feel like it wants to hold your hand, randomly generating different areas and monsters following each failure and giving you the loot it sees fit. Just like the dungeons you fight through, the items, weapons, and skill upgrades you find along the way are totally randomised. In one loop, I found myself with more upgrades than an insecure tank with an inferiority complex and weapons that could cut through most of the grunts in one to two hits. In another, I may as well have had a twig and a rotisserie chicken. This is where I expect a lot of frustrations with the game will lie, so it’s something that might want to be checked out before launch.
Similar games make the player feel like a god whenever they make significant progress, not through a message appearing on-screen which applauds your excellence or anything like that, but just by how adept you believe yourself to be. Although I still have a lot left to learn from Dead Cells, finding the rhythm in its combat by rolling around the place while throwing bear traps and ice grenades before coming away without a scratch is immensely gratifying, even more so when it’s after a scrap with one of the game’s Elites.
The Elites are basically just regular monsters who have been at the caffeine a bit too much. They’re bigger, have more HP, and deal an offensive amount damage. They feel like a cheap inclusion, lazy boss battles that seem like placeholders until something bigger comes along. And they are. The real boss battles lie in wait for later in the game to completely wreck you and who you are as a person. A futile battle with “The Incomplete One” was all the nudge I needed to walk away from the game and type up these early thoughts.
According to the developers, Dead Cells looks it might be fully released for the first quarter of 2018. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, the future looks incredibly bright for this one. It’s a remarkably polished Early Access effort with next to no technical issues to report and runs without any hiccups on my PC, which has seen four too many winters, so be sure to give it a look if you don’t mind a headache and clenched fist.