These days, the Metroidvania genre — exploring an open world within a 2D environment — is really getting some unstoppable traction in the indie scene. Just over the summer alone we’ve gotten games like Iconoclasts and Chasm that show just how well structured a game like this can be.
But I’ve been excited to check out the console edition of Motion Twin’s Dead Cells. Ever since its introduction on Steam earlier this year, I’ve been hooked on its Metroidvania approach. Everything about it just clicked so nicely. And now there’s the option to take it with you wherever you go on Nintendo Switch.
Granted, Dead Cells is also available for other consoles and is equally great on those platforms, so don’t think you have to go get a Switch to get an ultimate experience. But it’s the sort of game that you’ll want to invest hours of time in, if only to see what different choices are available to you as you make your way through a world with someone else’s body. So being able to take it on the go with you is something special — and gives you something to do on that next road trip.
Oh, yeah, it’s not really clear just what you are, as you emerge and practically slip into the first body you can find. I was immediately reminded of the 1980’s classic The Hidden (look it up, Kyle MacLachlan fans).
But this is no cakewalk. Just seconds after inhabiting this new body and getting the lowdown from a nearby secondary party (or someone that, hauntingly enough, tracks your progress), you find yourself facing off against foes aplenty. These include teleporting madmen that keep on you even after you try to escape onto upper platforms; a defenseless figure that actually works as a shield to protect others (so destroy him first, yeah?); and other unspeakables such as slugs with explosive tendencies and flying grenade-like things that serve as a nuisance from above. Your mission is to endure long enough in your new form for the next health refill while attaining new runes, weapons, gear and so much more. With a game like this, that’s a tall order to fill.
At first, it may seem like you’re not making too much progress after death. You return to where you once were and inhabit another body. But Dead Cells is built with a greater endgame in mind. Soon you’ll open up other places that you could begin your journey, as well as long-term ability building that you don’t have to grind to get back up to speed. Motion Twin knew what it was doing with this system, and it truly shows.
Like Dark Souls, you actually learn a thing or two from death. Not only can your progress your character in a different way the next time around, but you can also discover a new area to explore, like an underground cavern you may have missed the first time around while hacking away at monsters. (How little we forget you can drop through some platforms.) Its replay value is imminent, even if you think you’re not making any progress. You actually are.
Surviving does reward you, however. You’re able to use Cells that get picked up over the course of the game to gain some special goodies, such as healing items that, surprise, keep you alive a bit longer when the scenario calls for it. (And when you run into your first high-powered boss character with a high level, you’ll bless its presence.) Attaining new gear is also key, even with something as simple as a weapon change like a bow and arrow set (ideal for long-range foes and enemy archers). Sure, the sword can do a world of good, but giving a new weapon a shot can almost change the way you play. It never hurts to keep an eye out for occasional vendors that may have key items for you as well.
What’s great is how the challenge in Dead Cells builds you up for combat. Sure, some enemies are easygoing, like a green-ish oaf that will try to lunge at you — something you can avoid with a simple defensive roll. But before you know it, the enemies pile onto the screen, and soon you’ll realize that you’ll have your work cut out for you. But, again, it’s part of the learning process and this portion of Dead Cells really ties into an ingenious aspect of the game — the combat.
This system is absolutely stunning, as it really feels like each encounter delivers. Not even just the boss battles, either. When you destroy enemies they practically explode and, on occasion, leave you some precious cells to stock up on.
No matter which weapon you go with, Dead Cells’ combat feels natural and inviting, while at the same time having its challenge with particularly overpowered enemies — some even two or three at a time. Hey, you don’t know what you’re going to get until you jump in and take them on, right? Live and learn. (Or die and learn, whatever.)
Defensive skill is also vital in Dead Cells. Acquiring a shield may not sound like a necessity but you’d be surprised just how helpful it is to utilize it to fend off an enemy’s attack. On top of that, the roll technique is wonderfully implemented — and still not quite perfect. For instance, if you’ve got multiple enemies on you, there’s only so many times you can use it while still getting hit. Still, it does help you out of a few fights, so keep that ability on hand.
The platforming also feels terrific. Getting around is fairly easy, including reaching new areas by climbing up chains or grasping onto ledges. Motion Twin definitely did its homework when it comes to realizing the importance of feel in a game, as Dead Cells never feels sloppy or second-rate. It’s focused and super responsive, just like a good Metroidvania game should be.
Slide 3 of 4A Fantastic Presentation
You’ll also need to watch out for other obstacles in the game, including consistently lined floors of spikes, toxic pools and a whole lot more. They’re part of the dangerous world your dead-alive soldier has to work his way through in order to make any kind of progress. And that ties in with a truly unique aspect of Dead Cells — procedurally generated levels.
Sure, some areas are recognizable based on their decor, but other than that, getting a lay of the land is a tough act mainly because things change around so much. That said, Motion Twin again did its homework, making each level worth exploring each time around. This is mainly due to an occasional hidden surprise or two, as well as locating new areas. The visual design is absolutely splendid, and this is accounting for both handheld and TV mode. No matter which way you play, the visuals really pop on-screen.
The only downside is occasionally coming across a door that won’t open unless under special circumstances. For instance, you’ll hear, “Well, this door was open 33 seconds ago!” and you’ll be like, “But I was here 33 seconds ago!” Still, it’s enough to tempt you to come back, and I think that’s the idea Motion Twin had in mind with it.
It also helps that the animations are incredible. Watching an enemy explode in different ways is a sheer delight, even as you wade through what remains of their…remains? It really makes the game pop to life, adding to that overwhelming feeling that you’re making progress — even if you do end up dying in the next room. Hey, with a game like this, it happens.
Dead Cells also gets strong support in the audio department, between atmospheric sound effects that are splendidly done and a music score taken straight out of the old-school book. That’s not to say it matches Symphony of the Night by any means, but it takes inspiration from it and rolls into something not only listenable, but favorable. I would totally dive into this soundtrack any opportunity I can get.
So is Dead Cells recommended for everyone? Not quite. While some rookies may like the idea of jumping in and hacking everything, they may have some trouble accepting the definition of progress here. You’re going to die — hell, it’s going to happen. The game is literally called Dead Cells, not Maybe I’ll Survive Cells. (Though that’d just be silly.)
But how that ties into the endgame and gives it so much replayability (for a 2D game, no less) is extraordinary. You’ll be going back for more and still trying something new to experiment after several hours — and deaths — in. And then you’ll come across that rune-based upgrade that makes the whole “permadeath” system balanced out, even if you feel like you’ve lost everything. We won’t spoil it here, but you’ll reap the rewards from this journey, whether you prefer Tactics, Brutality or whatever suits you. There’s something for all here.
There’s no shortage of excellent Metroidvania games for the Switch, but I’d make Dead Cells the priority. It feels like a necessity for the genre, a game that does something bold and runs with it more successfully than you could possibly imagine. The combat is superb and buttery smooth; the platforming and level design really open up exploration and revisiting something; the ability to level up your character and attain skills for the long haul is remarkable; and the presentation is a tour-de-force.
Everything just about comes together for this game to create an experience that no fan of the genre should be without. Hell, with Dead Cells’ utmost quality, we may get some new fans coming into the fold. And that means more of the same. Listening, Motion Twin?
WWG’s Score: 5 out of 5.
Disclaimer: A review code was provided by the publisher.