It’s a weird time to be a Castlevania fan. While Netflix has reinvigorated interest in the series with a gloriously violent animated show, the games themselves have dried up since the departure of long-time director Koji Igarashi. The most recent official Castlevania title was a pachinko game released in Japan last year. But, as is so often the case, indie developers have stepped up to fill in the gaps. There’s an entire subgenre of 2D action games dubbed “Metroidvanias” that pull from the open-ended structure pioneered by Metroid and later expanded by Igarashi’s Castlevania. It’s not hard to find a game inspired by Castlevania, but it is hard to find one that evokes the same tone and feel. That’s what makes Dead Cells so interesting.
Dead Cells isn’t exactly a new game; it’s been available on PC as an “early access” title since last May, but tomorrow will be the release of the full version of the game on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and the Nintendo Switch. You play as an unnamed warrior who awakens in some kind of dingy dungeon, and, with little explanation, you’re forced to fight your way out. As you progress, you’ll come upon new locations — toxic sewers, sunlit castle rooftops, unsettling graveyards — and find new horrors to fight. Along the way, you’ll gain new abilities and weapons that make you stronger and let you venture to previously inaccessible locales.
This is all par for the course for a Metroidvania. What makes Dead Cells feel particularly Castlevania-like, though, is its style. The side-scrolling, pixel art world feels like it could be another elaborate Dracula castle. There are all kinds of weird, gothic creatures crawling about, from giant, exploding slugs and undead knights to more exotic fare like massive alien eyeballs chained to the wall. Even the people there to help you are creepy; the hooded shopkeeper has a huge glass canister chained to its back. Exploring Dead Cells’ haunting crypts reminded me a lot of playing Castlevania III as a kid. You can even wield an electric whip and eat turkey legs to regain health.
But as much as Dead Cells can feel like a long-lost Castlevania, it’s also a very different game in many ways. For one thing, there’s the structure built around permadeath, a subgenre known as a “roguelike.” Whenever you die in the game, you’re forced to start over from the beginning. Every time you start up again, your oozing green head crawls into a new body, and the crypts around you change slightly. Each playthrough teaches you new skills, and you’re also able to unlock new abilities, some of which carry over to future lifetimes. It’s an intriguing mixture. Typically, Metroidvania games are defined by a place, a location that you slowly learn about by uncovering all of its secrets. There’s some of that in Dead Cells, but because the world is constantly changing, you’re never quite sure what to expect.
It’s also much faster paced than most of its contemporaries. Combat requires you to be constantly alert and quickly dodge and defend against surprisingly clever enemies. Dead Cells is a game that forces you to experiment. You can’t just find a weapon you like and stick with it; once you die, that weapon will be gone, and you never know what items you’ll pick up on the next playthrough. At one point, I found a lot of success combining a powerful broadsword with a freezing attack, but I had to completely switch up my strategy the next time I made my way through the castle. Each weapon has its own distinct feel, as if the tiny pixelated swords and hammers each had a real weight to them, and it requires practice to get the most out of them.
Dead Cells manages to evoke the same feelings I used to get when I played Dracula’s Cure and Symphony of the Night, but it still offers its own distinct and engrossing take on the genre. I’ve been struggling through the crypts for a week now, and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. Tomorrow’s release of Dead Cells will soon be joined by the second season of the Netflix anime, which is due in November, while Igarashi’s own promising Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is also on the way. As it turns out, it’s actually a great time to be a Castlevania fan.