A clump of alien matter rolls through a hole in the prison wall, finds a body, and settles in. Suddenly, that body is me, and I scurry to the right, picking up my dropped money and weapons and slamming through doors until my pace is a full-on sprint. I run, roll, and slash from one side of the screen to the other and back again, hoovering up everything that isn’t nailed down. If I do this right, I’ll be done fast. If I do this right, it’ll be worth it.
Dead Cells, the newly completed title from Motion Twin (it was on Steam Early Access for a while before that), is a game about striving toward a goal and losing everything, again and again and again. Set in a slick, fast 2-D world, it’s celebratory of player death and the possibilities that brings for progression, development, and play. You’re already dead, the premise goes, so why not die again?
Dead Cells follows a structure that, for the hardcore game player, is likely familiar: Every life is spent gathering resources and getting as far as possible in a series of stages with randomized level design and enemy placement. When you die, you lose all this progress, but you keep certain resources, which you can use to upgrade your gear and change the loot that will appear in upcoming runs. In this way, you slowly, carefully build a situation where you can actually succeed. Then you do it again, but faster, and better.
This game is typically called a roguelike, and I usually bounce right off of them. As a player, I typically need context, concrete progression, and a clear path to the end. Games like Dead Cells can take an immense amount of time investment to master and understand, and if you don’t reach the critical mass of talent and resource management required they can be basically impossible to beat. And even when they are beatable, they still require copious mind-numbing repetition.
But Dead Cells is different. I cannot stop playing this game, and I think you should play it, too.
Part of its addictive nature comes from the structure. Borrowing from games like Metroid and Castlevania, Dead Cells hides permanent character upgrades in static parts of the level progression, in specific locations and enemy placements that remain as everything around them changes life to life. Alongside that, levels retain a certain design every single time you see them, meaning some locations and general game principles remain even as the specifics are randomly generated. This bit of predictability, far from making the game feel repetitive, makes it feel learnable, slowly turning challenges into exercise. Meanwhile, the specifically placed upgrades become goals to strive toward, linking together many disparate runs into a cohesive narrative: the quest to get a specific power, which then opens up more stages and more powers for further growth.
It’s an immensely clever blending of randomized and scripted elements, drawn from old games that the team at Motion Twin clearly adores and has spent time studying. And it all synergizes perfectly with Dead Cells’ other addictive element: style. Every movement builds on the entire history of 2-D character and combat design, fast and fluid and powerful. Each jump can be turned into a powerful slam to the ground; each roll can be used to knock open a door; each slash of a sword can stun and burst an enemy into a pile of power-ups and pixelated gore. Every single moment feels like it can be used excitingly and efficaciously, as if playing Dead Cells sharpens your hands into weapons.
These two significant changes to the typical formula make every moment of Dead Cells feel immediate. Unlike most games in this genre, it is constantly grabbing my attention. It enthuses at me, tells me about Castlevania and Metroid, hands me a sword, and gives me a hard shove forward. Then I start running—and so far, I haven’t wanted to stop.
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