"Compared to its ilk, Dead Cells is just less."
Dead Cells is a roguelite in the same vein as Rogue Legacy, Binding of Isaac, and Enter the Gungeon in that players die, level up, die, level up, and eventually win. Of course, after winning, more modes and secrets become available, so the cycle continues. Repeat in perpetuity until completing the game in its entirety or getting so bored with the repetition that you move on to something more thought-provoking and engaging.
Roguelikes tend to fall into two categories of game design: true roguelikes that have no leveling up component and modern roguelikes that boast unlockables that carry over from one playthrough to another. Dead Cells is in the latter camp, and, to be honest, roguelikes were an obscure, niche genre up until the advent of titles like Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy. These titles offer something most people enjoy, and that's leveling up. Human beings are wired to enjoy progress. Traditional roguelikes offer progress in terms of strategy and learning about the game's design secrets, while modern roguelikes straight up give you new items or stats. While the aforementioned titles achieve this commendably, Dead Cells falls short. Why?
Most modern roguelikes that maintain player engagement for hours upon hours offer such variety in gameplay that the whole dying and replaying aspect tends not to offend. Dying and starting over is rarely fun for gamers, but these titles provide enough variation that each run feels unique. Dead Cells, unfortunately, does not. Every run feels the exact same, because it basically is. Players always start in the same area, and while the maps are procedurally generated, they feel almost identical. The most egregious offense is the repetition in enemies. Each area hosts a handful of enemies that players will initially stumble in defeating, but eventually learn the pattern and flawlessly execute it upon subsequent playthroughs. This would be fine if there weren't so many enemies. In addition, each run through the game takes about 45 minutes to an hour, so if one dies against the final boss or last area, it's back to the beginning to fight the same archers and zombies ad nauseam.
For those unaware, Dead Cells is a roguelike metroidvania, meaning the combat is entirely two-dimensional and various powers are unlocked that allow players to find new secrets and areas. Most of the combat involves dodging at the right moment or taking advantage of one's position in the environment to overcome an enemy before they even notice you. Dead Cells' only bragging rights lie in its slot machine. Figuratively speaking, this slot machine comes in the form of legendary drops. Players can get pretty far without legendary items, but these items are of a higher quality and not only deal more damage, but contribute added effects that can be modified at random when reaching the safe zone after each level or boss. When effective drops don't reveal themselves, rather than feeling like a gratifying puzzle that one has to solve with the current toolkit, enemies become punching bags that never die — and eventually swing back. Legendary items made me feel invigorated and like I could truly exploit the enemies efficiently.
One might argue that Binding of Isaac can feel like a slot machine — if certain items don't drop or all of the drops are terrible, the game becomes virtually impossible. The difference here is that while each level in Isaac has a family of enemies, so to speak, every run feels like a satisfying puzzle to solve because of their sheer numbers and the high importance of the room layouts. While Dead Cells has a decent variety of items, none really blow the game wide open or harbor a sense of imagination. Swords are swords, shields are shields, bows are bows, and traps are traps. They're all just different flavors of the same thing.
Like I suggested earlier, Dead Cells is certainly not all bad. Getting the right set of items at the right time makes the game feel rewarding in its challenge and made me feel smart when I figured out a new way to thwart a foe. Secrets lie throughout which encourage close observation. Unlockable areas feel wonderful to explore once a new power is retrieved, but this might just be because it's an opportunity to break the monotony. When runs are good, I'm loving Dead Cells, but most of the time, I get irritated that I have to start all over, and frequently can't bear to do another run and have to put it down. This typically occurs after a frustrating death.
But why would deaths be frustrating? Beyond the fact that rushing through purportedly easy foes can lead to stupid deaths because of the sheer boredom, Dead Cells can feel sluggish, and I don't just mean when wielding a giant broadsword or channeling a spell. Even with fast equipment, I have difficulty dodging, and it's not for lack of timing. Sometimes after a swing appears to be completed, I hit the dodge with a decent amount of time before an attack occurs, and my character just stands there. Dodging is critical in this game, and the enemies hit so hard that for dodging to inconsistently occur is borderline unforgivable. I even tried changing my controls, using a mouse and keyboard, and practicing without any enemies around. The fact is that what is graphically intuitive — a completed attack — does not mean that one can dodge in time. Maybe this is more of an issue with design than controls, but this simply can't happen in a game where runs can last an hour.
The presentation is fine. Dead Cells' protagonist is lively and has witty banter. Most of his personality is conveyed through nonverbal means, such as shrugs, frustrated kicks, or flipping off an NPC. It's certainly charming and makes me enjoy an otherwise silent-ish protagonist. The world is engaging enough, I suppose, but, again, with a procedurally-generated game, variety is an issue. Enemies animate well and appear intimidating when they should. Overall, though, Dead Cells doesn't really do anything above and beyond in terms of its art direction and isn't an incredibly memorable world. Audibly, I'm typically listening to streams on Twitch or podcasts. Dead Cells doesn't contain engaging music or necessary audio cues.
Oh, right, the story. Dead Cells, like many roguelikes, isn't about the story. Some areas randomly appear that trigger dialogue either internally or between the protagonist and another character. The game likes to be cute with dropping little tidbits of insight into what happened to this world and why everything is either diseased, undead, or just plain hostile. I haven't unlocked all of its secrets, because I'm not sure I'll ever complete the game, but I can't say I'm hungry to know what happened, either.
Dead Cells is an absolute blast when the stars align, but that only happens every four or five runs. Everything else feels like a waste of time. I truly don't understand the phenomenon behind this game. Compared to its ilk, Dead Cells is just less. Enter the Gungeon boasts a detailed environment, perfect controls, and such variety of weapons that, even though they're all guns, I love using each one. Take any other example of a modern roguelike, and they're doing something better than Dead Cells. I'll probably still play it for a little while, because when I get 7-7-7 on the slot machine I'm grinning from ear to ear, but the stakes are just too high: my time is on the line.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.