You can’t keep the Roguelike down, it seems. Aptly enough given the nature of the beast, just when you think it’s finally given in, along it comes again for another go. Arguably, the success of the Souls series (a franchise so iconic that the term ‘Souls-like’ is now used frequently) has spurred this on: players are gluttons for punishment, and the reward – even if it’s nothing more than pride – is evidently worth the considerable struggle. Here, then, is Dead Cells: a Souls-like Roguelike.
The handful of areas I was able to reach in my many reckless attempts at progress ranged from eerie, twilit castle ramparts, to gangrenous green-hued sewers.
The game opens with a green blob of indeterminate, slimy matter slopping out of a tube into a prison cell, where a decapitated corpse lays by a bloodied block, executioner’s axe still firmly embedded within. That blob, as it happens, is you, and the creature wastes no time in forcing itself down the body’s mangled neck-hole and controlling it from the inside out. The body stands, stretches, and bursts into life with a roar of blue flame – and that’s all the explanation you get.
It’s an auspicious start, as the game – like Dark Souls before it – is really in no rush to give you any more information than you need. One button for primary weapon, one button for secondary; here’s jump, here’s dodge, and away you go. The setting – a towering, labyrinthine castle on a lone island – is as diverse as it is mysterious. The handful of areas I was able to reach in my many reckless attempts at progress ranged from eerie, twilit castle ramparts, to gangrenous green-hued sewers, each rife with some recurring enemies and some that were unique to their home area.
The enemy types are impressively varied, and are guaranteed to keep you on your toes: you’ll be struggling to remember whether this particular flavour of zombie charges at you or launches a projectile, even as it hurtles through the air towards you, sending you back to the cell from whence you came with a decisive fatal blow.
Speaking of which, this cell will quickly become a familiar sight, as dying in Dead Cells is incredibly easy. It’s just as well that the game’s first area boasts a frankly delicious soundtrack, as you’ll be hearing it a lot. As a long time fan of Hotline Miami and Dark Souls I don’t tend to frustrate easily with games like these where life is cheap and the restart button is used more frequently than ‘attack’, but I found myself irked a little at how quickly you could lose all progress when that progress, more often than not, was quite hard-earned in the first place.
Death is still very much a punishment, but it’s enough to keep you coming back for more each time your amorphous body drags itself back into a fresh meat puppet for another go at the gauntlet.
Thankfully, Dead Cells has anticipated this at least somewhat, and so there are certain things death can’t take from you. The eponymous ‘cells’, akin to Dark and Demon’s souls in more than just the sound of the name, allow you to invest in upgrades between levels; these upgrades, once purchased, are yours forever. They range from individual weapon damage increases, to extra charges for your health potion, and they do alleviate the sense of teeth-gritting futility that otherwise hangs over the Roguelike genre.
Death is still very much a punishment, but it’s enough to keep you coming back for more each time your amorphous body drags itself back into a fresh meat puppet for another go at the gauntlet. I found myself playing long after my patience should have ran out, craving just one more crack at the castle’s secrets.
The game sells itself with the ‘adrenaline pumping threat of permadeath’ and this should be taken as much as a caution as anything else: if dying, dying and dying again put you off other Roguelikes, you’ll find nothing to like here. However, if you’re the type who appreciates being put through your paces for a reward which is sometimes hard to see the value of, Dead Cells is very much for you.
A warning on the game’s loading screen advised me to be wary of bugs when playing, but this was never a problem I ran into, suggesting an impressive measure of polish even before release. Dead Cells is plenty of fun: moreish, mindless and often masochistic, with its finger held close to the pulse of its target demographic. You might find yourself wondering if the effort is worth it sometimes, but trust me – you’ll never be bored.
This copy of Dead Cells was provided by developer Motion Twin. Contributor James McCoull spent 3 hours throwing himself again and again at the castle’s dungeons like a fly trapped on the wrong side of a window.