Dead Cells - Motion Twin
Should You Wait?
Release Date: Tentatively 8-12 months after EA launch (5/10/17)
On the outside looking in, Dead Cells is the game of the month, the title that people will talk about for 30 days and will more than likely forget after. I had the same opinion until I watched one of my favorite YouTubers play it in a one-off video and used all the buzzwords I care for. Rogue lite. Dark Souls-esque. Metroidvania. Having stepped away from The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth after 350+ hours, I’ve been craving something to fill that void. As I watched the video, I noticed a few other things: the player can engage in combat at their own pace, and promises truly interesting new items as you progress. So, what the hell? Its $16.99, and if I sell some CS:GO skins, I can get it under $10.
Upon starting the game, a rolling pile of waste bears the husk of a fallen warrior to a dungeon garbage heap. After selecting two of the three initial offerings (sword, shield, and bow), you traverse the side-scrolling pixelated gothic world. After a few minutes of play, the game becomes intoxicating with its simplistic and precise controls. This is the essence of “easy to learn, difficult to master.” Enemies telegraph their attacks with both visual and audio cues without overwhelming the player, with the caveat that different enemies have longer or shorter tells, and the variety of tells encourages the player to learn the best response to each as quickly as possible, whether it's blocking, rolling, or attacking through it before the animation finishes. The myriad of weapons and items with unique and meaningful properties that influence playstyle deepens the complexity of combat. For instance, the electric whip stuns targets with consecutive attacks, and has great range against both ground and air, while the rapier is extremely short in range but attacks after a roll are guaranteed critical hits. Currently, playstyle is dictated by item drops unlike games like The Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, or Risk of Rain that allow for more choice, although there are shops that sell various weapons and items dropped by enemies or hidden in secrets, helping to mitigate that element of randomness, to an extent. It also helps that you can come across pure statistic upgrades where you can choose between health, strength, and active (skills) to help tailor the run.
If you’ve played a rogue-lite, you know that progression can make or break the game. Dead Cells has that down pretty well. As you go through levels, enemies can drop blueprints to weapons or items, and if you survive to the intermediary area, you have the opportunity to unlock it. This is where things get a little grindy. Before finding these items through random drops, you have to put a certain number of cells into them, which is basically the Dead Cells of souls in Dark Souls. They’re usually how much you’d get from killing everything in the first level, never an outrageous amount. Beyond that, you can dump more cells to upgrade the effectiveness of these items at an exponential rate. Further, cells are used to upgrade the charges of your health flask, gold recovery on death, or starting items. The page of unlocks and upgrades can be daunting to start, but you’ll figure out where to dump your cells after a little experimentation. Cells are easier to come by on the later levels as your foes increase, but without utility that complements your playstyle or proficiency in the mechanics, it is difficult to get far. Sounds discouraging, but once you learn the fundamentals of the combat, it becomes easier to adapt and push through obstacles, essential for a rogue-lites and roguelikes.
Where the game shows it's still in early access is in its nuances. One of these is the length of finishing runs. From start to end, there are seven levels to fight through, two of them being solely boss fights. It's not exactly a lot, but it's a little deceptive. The first group of three levels have three differing paths that open up after defeating specific elite enemy spawns which drop runes, the keys to those paths. These paths feature unique settings and difficulties--high on the ramparts of the castle, down in the sewers, or in the haunted depths of a prison-- but, more importantly, yield greater rewards. After the fourth level, a boss, levels don’t have that choice. There are also some features one would assume would come with the incredibly robust controls, like the ability to deflect explosives to damage enemies, but they don’t. I understand that they still affect the player, but it's a minor annoyance that the developer has already addressed and has already fixed for an upcoming patch. Whether the construct of the later game will also get an update is up in the air, but considering I’ve made it this far once in 7.5 hours and died about 10-20 minutes in, I still have a way before it really affects my time in the game. In terms of performance, the game is solid. It seems to be capped at a steady 60fps, and the only times I’ve seen it dip is when I have a Twitch stream on my second monitor (40fps at the lowest) or, oddly, when my blue light filter kicks in at night (15fps). Dead Cells is the only game that I’ve seen affected by this. If anything, it's just another sign that it's early access.
So, should you wait until it's released, or later? Taking into account the price and the time I’ve gladly spent on the game, I say it's worth it. It's hard to put into words how great the game feels to play, or even show in a video. You just have to play it yourself and find your rhythm to entirely grasp how robust it is. There are a number of unlocks that provide different experiences, and to see it all, you have to put in time and develop your skills. Honestly, the game is as rewarding as Dark Souls. You come to a roadblock, die, learn what you did wrong, face it again, progress, and maybe find a new item along the way. If you don’t feel the same way, you probably won’t enjoy Dead Cells because that's it at it’s very foundation, more so than The Binding of Isaac where there are pure bullet-hell moments. I wouldn’t be surprised if this climbs the rankings over the months. It's had too much time in people’s hands between the original flash, Wrath of the Lamb, the remake Rebirth, Afterbirth, and Afterbirth + and its booster packs. It’s been added to and refined for so long, a new IP isn’t going to take its place in its first year, or even second, but if Dead Cells continues to see growth after that, it could have the potential to unseat Isaac as king.
- Alex B.