Metanalysis: Dead Cells

“Early Access Adopters Get A Win”

Dead Cells is, at its core, a loving homage to the best parts of some of the most influential titles and genres over the last 20 years. Taking cues from Castlevania, Metroid, and more recently Spelunky and Dark Souls, this game serves up a compilation of classic ideas in a fun and engaging way. What’s more, if you take a break, you may come back to find additions to the experience that make an already great game into an even better one.

Of personally delight is how the developers were able to successfully execute early access, a rarity on Steam.

The Framework

Dead Cells is a 2D rogue-like (or a rogue-lite, or a dungeon crawler, depending on who you ask). If we avoid genres all together and describe the aspects that make up a playing Dead Cells, then we get the following key features:

  • side-scrolling 2D exploration
  • RPG elements
  • permadeath
  • different biomes
  • procedural generation
  • currently in early access

Dead Cells takes a thematic approach in implementing these ideas. Every run starts with the main character in the depths of a prison, with the actual player being some sort of moss/slime like creature that takes possession of a recently decapitated corpse (there appears to be no shortage on supplies of corpses). Once you assume control of the main character,  you’re encouraged to pick up a weapon, to cross the first threshold and begin to slaughter or scurry your way through the prison, hoping to find an exit and bolster your stats along the way.

Dead Cells approaches movement with agility in mind, giving you a double jump, a mid-air drop, and a roll to maneuver around the world. Your choices for confrontation are a main and secondary weapon, which can be swapped at any time, and 2 support items, which dish out either immediate damage or DOT (damage over time). The existing arsenal is vast, and the game supports dozens of combinations for cautios snipers and in-your-face brawlers.

The RPG elements give way to a progression system that leans heavily on your equipment, rather than the main character. As you progress through a level, the monsters you slay will either drop cells or gold; the former is used to unlock equipment that can be used in subsequent playthroughs, and the latter allowing you to purchase aforementioned items to better tackle stronger monsters. This provides a happy middle ground between Metroidvania gameplay and rouge-like elements. This combination allows a player to still feel like they are making progress, while forcing players to adapt to what is generated each run.

The game currently sports 9 zones and 2 bosses. And while the bosses are the same every run, even starting area is generated randomly at every run.  As you progress, the areas become increasingly larger and sport more forks, making a particularly cautious run to the second boss an affair that could take up to an hour, often times more. The areas are built of “blocks” that are randomly stitched together, meaning you never truly know whether the direction your’re going will lead to a dead end or an exit. A very forgiving warp gate system means that you are never too far away from a fork, which is very appreciated as you wander the ever-growing labyrinth.

All of these pieces are expertly woven into an experience that shows the developers had intimate knowledge about what makes a game like this work. The most exciting aspect about playing Dead Cells is that this already hefty experience promises to be double the length by the time the full release drops. As of this writing, 3 major content updates have been added to the game, all which have felt like obvious additions to the formula that have strengthened the core experience. The developers have also addressed bugs, exploits and issues that the community has reported in a meaningful way which has made it feel like they are listening to their audience.

The final component is transitory, as the developer plans to make available a full version later down the line. Early access refers to a game that is incomplete but promises eventual completion using the funds gained by releasing the title early. By releasing this version to players, the developer is able to fund a bigger end product and generate hype and media coverage that would otherwise only be available by producing a demo.

 

The Execution

Because the game launched as an early access title, I was hesitant to buy into the praise and hype it was receiving. The more coverage the game got, the less likely I felt I was to buy it. Serendipity gave me an opportunity where I was able to sit down and play it. In just 60 seconds I was sold on this game.

While 60 seconds was all I needed to want to own Dead Cells, in 15 minutes I was able to visualize the gears turning that allow this machine to march forward elegantly and confidently. I am not a speedrunner, and I have a hard time getting caught up in the notion of speed. But Dead Cells gave me the tools to weave my way through its sprawling map with such fluidity that every time I met an untimely demise I was compelled to begin again immediately. Every time I started over I was that much more equipped to handle the game’s hordes. The progression was quick and satisfying, the stress of losign a weapon blueprint or a stack of cells made every step nerve-wracking.

Dead Cells does not demand you posses speedrunner-like qualities. While some of the blueprints are invariably locked behind a time gate, the time limits are not unreasonable, and you can absolutely rush a gate and take your time getting through to the end of the level in order to collect your prize.

Dead Cells has given me more than just a new way to play the game. As of this writing, there have been 3 major updates to the game:

Each of these updates include a slew of minor additions or quality of life fixes that have changed the game in meaningful, but bite-sized ways. In the “Who’s Your Daily” update, the developers included a speed multiplier that triggers upon quick successful kills of enemies, a suggestion that came from the community. This sped the pace of the game up significantly, almost to the point of feeling like an entirely different game. I, like many in the community, had reached a burn out point where the game felt like it was not rewarding expert knowledge of a biome, making the traversal of the larger, end-game areas a slog to get through. By rewarding both skillful and risky play, developers gave veterans and newbies alike a tool that improves the flow of gameplay.

So far, each update has dropped during a point where I was ready to take a break from the game, forcing me to come back and dive back in for another 5+ hours (a significant amount of time for an indie title). While I have finally been able to break away to continue to tackle my backlog of games, I eagerly check in once a day to complete my daily run and see if any new content has dropped.

While the game is very successful in a lot of ways, there are still a few flaws. With a continually increasing supply of weapons, the chance of getting the one you want continues to decrease, making the player think twice about spending cells on improving a particular weapon type that will only see a 5% damage buff. Speaking of cells, I don’t feel at all compelled to spend them on weapons, and every opportunity to do so is just me going through the motions because it is a mechanic within the game. With the majority of the weapons in my collection, the excitement of collecting a blueprint and unlocking it has slowed to a standstill. I am able to complete the first area absentmindedly, feeling more like a chore to get to the good bits than a warm-up. I no longer have any reason for going into some of the early areas, save for fruitless attempts at finding more weapon blueprints, and really even stopped facing the first boss. Of note in a game that was able to build such a successful framework for procedurally generated levels is the lack of a unique feature given to the bosses during each run. With only 2 to face, and one being entirely optional at higher level play, the rate of new content feels lacking. Only one new area has been released in updates, despite existing teases for more areas to explore.

The most egregious of the teases is a zone that is blocked off by a timed door, albeit with a time limit that requires a great deal of skill to reach in time. Reaching it proves to be fruitless and pointless, which makes me wonder why include it yet at all. Beating the second/final boss gave me a similarly embittered feeling after having my run unceremoniously ended with a cutscene, forcing the player back to the beginning of the game with no reward.

 

 

The Verdict 

I don’t believe in a truly flawless game. Instead, I believe we should seek out games and developers that go out of their way to give us a truly engrossing experience.

Some games can tell a beautiful narrative, others can provided a power fantasy that would be otherwise unattainable in real life, and still others can be so mechanically sound that success in the game gives us the same level of completion and satisfaction others find in something like puzzle solving. There are a lot of reasons to love a game, but at the core one must find an experience that is fun or enjoyable.

Dead Cells offered me 3 things. The first was giving me my first real taste of a 2D, dungeon crawling, Metroidvania-like game that was challenging, unforgiving, but provided me the tools to become skillful at something that otherwise falls outside my normal scope of games. Thanks to this, the second thing it provided was a newfound love for speedy playthroughs, setting the stage for me to enjoy old games in an entirely new way. Few games have provided me with a rush when I blast past enemies, narrowly skirting danger, even when I get punished for a misstep. As a normally cautious gamer, this has been wonderfully out of my comfort zone. And thirdly, Dead Cells gave me my strongest pro argument in the discussion of early access games. The developer has given me more with less, and as mentioned above, I have never been convinced so quickly that I needed to own a game.

Dead Cells is not flawless, but its damn close, and I can’t wait to see what the game looks and plays like upon full release.

 

-Brian Perez

 

The Brief

PRO:

  • the gameplay of a Metroidvania, the atmosphere of Dark Souls, and the replayability of Rogue Legacy
  • above average length (15+ hours)
  • continued updates have strengthened core and supplementary gameplay
  • developers have applied community suggestions to game

CON:

  • large armory winds up discouraging investment
  • some weapons are either too situational or overshadowed by significantly powerful combinations/effects
  • end game content is lacking, as you spend a large majority of your time in the first 5 zones
  • no concrete time table for updates or full release