Dead Cells (Xbox One Review)
It was only a year ago that I delved in to Sundered, a relatively entertaining Metroidvania that emphasised the need for repetition to progress. Now, in a not so distant future, Dead Cells seeks to improve upon the grind for upgrades laid out before it in Sundered, but does it differentiate itself enough to justify your hard earned cash?
Dead Cells embodies the spirit of your typical Metroidvania with an emphasis on combat. You’ll hack and slash your way through swathes of enemies with fluid motion while finding better gear in the hopes that you’ll either make it to the end or save enough gold to fund your next run – if you’ve bought the necessary upgrade, that is. You’ll then use this gold to reroll your gear, purchase some relatively fancy weapons, or even open some paid doors. Then you have the Cells themselves. Cells are a form of currency that do not carry over and require investment in the Foundry. As you deposit Cells in to specific upgrades, you’ll see potential upgrades in the gear you start with and discover throughout your journey, a larger loot pool, or even some additional health potions. Unlike gold, Cells do not carry over between runs and cannot be salvaged. This means that the only constants that will travel with you are the runes you’ll unlock from killing certain enemies and the new routes they unlock.
It lives and dies by the upgrade system, as without it you’d be left with a very linear and short slasher. With every newly acquired rune, you’ll find that revisiting old areas offers new zones to explore by teleporting to unseen locations or smashing through the floor. This added level of exploration is definitely Dead Cells trump card and alleviates the woes that come with death and the loss of progress, ultimately staving off any stale moments.
Complimenting the branching exploration are Dead Cells procedurally generated levels. While they do change up enough that you can recognise the small differences in the landscape, it ultimate suffers the same fate as Sundered’s Lovecraftian worlds. Every level requires a minimum number of set pieces and thus becomes quite predictable. There were occasions where it felt like I was able to plan ahead before even entering an area, something that shouldn’t be possible in a truly procedurally generated environment. It is completely at odds with the completely unpredictable weapons and enemies of Dead Cells, and is a detriment to the replay value.
While the predictability of the levels themselves works against the ethos of Dead Cells, the Boss Encounters are a much welcome constant. Bosses have clearly visible attack patterns and prove to be exhilarating tests of reactions and strategy. Their familiarity also ensures that no matter what random equipment you acquire, there will still be a similar approach. There’s even a great diversity between the bosses, ranging from dual wielding swordsman to gigantesque warriors. Every successive boss also ensure that the difficulty continues to escalate alongside their style, but never feels horribly unfair. It’s just a shame that the same cannot be said for the standard enemies in Dead Cells.
Enemies in Dead Cells are placed at random, in fact I wouldn’t hesitate to say carelessly. You’ll be thrown in to the thick of combat without much thought or preparation within incredibly tight confines wherein it feels like some attacks are impossible to avoid thanks to the cool down timer on your evasive roll. Thanks to the positioning of enemies and their ability to shoot through walls, it often felt like carrying a shield was the only viable option. It’s impossible to plan for every situation in a game like Dead Cells, but when there are scenarios you forced into combat that’s nigh on inescapable, you’ll become incredibly frustrated.
Dead Cells even goes as far as doubling down on its placement frustrations with the addition of Elites. These hyped up versions of standard enemies are often nestled amongst a hive of their peers and can deal a brutish amount of damage in comparison to your death by 1,000 paper cuts approach. You can either flee or face them head on, but if you’re running a little low on luck there will be times where they signify an abrupt end to your run. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, even if you’re accustomed to a good challenge like myself.
The only real challenge in Dead Cells is finding the time, outside of that it often feels like blind luck. My first run saw me reach the finale without so much as scratch, but with each successive run it was clear that the later stages weren’t designed with fairness in mind. Obviously these obstacles can be overcome by earning enough Cells to invest in permanent buffs, although that grind far outweighs the offer enjoyment. I’d rather that Dead Cells offered longevity in the form of additional content, challenges, and modes on top of the daily challenges instead of its superficial grind.
Initially I believed that Dead Cells was cruel but fair. It punished you for silly mistakes and rewarded you for speedy execution. That impression soon faded. The more I played Dead Cells the more it felt like persistence wore down my resistance to keep going. Branching paths towards the finish line were enticing and the combat was exciting, yet there were some runs that lacked the necessary oomph thanks to re-treaded ground and a lack of differing options. I can’t bring myself to go on with the same old song and dance and the time investment vs skill ratio just didn’t feel right for me. There’s no denying that Dead Cells isn’t fun, but only in short bursts.