Arts video game review

The first 48 hours of ‘Dead Cells’

You die a lot

8646 dead cells
The protagonist reawakens in the prisoner’s quarters.
Courtesy of Motion Twin

Dead Cells
Developed by Motion Twin
Rated T for Teen
Available on PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and PC

Dead. Again. A glob of green goop oozes back into our corpse (rotting beside an even larger rotting corpse). Our character ambles up and, in a flash of blue, we’re alive. Again. And it’s back into the breach again, dear friends.

I’ve spent the last three days after REX dying in Dead Cells, a roguelike, metroidvania (a term I learned researching this game) sidescroller. You play the cheeky glob reanimating prison corpses and slashing through a monster-ridden world. As a roguelike, every death is a restart, and Dead Cells is hard, so you die a lot. And restart. From the beginning. A glob of green goop falling into a corpse. Again and again. But Dead Cells is about restarting over and over. Each run is about getting good for the next run, but restarting is not as frustrating or as repetitive as it may sound.

Dead Cells thrives off its replayability. The same map’s twisting corridors and hidden secrets are different each time around, being procedurally generated. While on the rare occasion you’re thrown into a map you can’t finish, the mutating world makes rediscovery exciting and challenging. You’re not merely running through the same map over and over again. With the changing environments, you pick up different weapons and blueprints. You can vary your arsenal to adapt to your play style or simply your mood (want to run shields only? You can!).

Each death is not a complete reset, though. While each death wipes you of all the cells, stat boosts, and weapons you’d collected, you can invest in permanent perks or upgrades. Weapons unlocked remain discoverable in subsequent runs. Additionally, while maps reconfigure themselves, they retain similar features and types of monsters encountered. Knowledge of monster attack patterns and strategies to approach them is useful from run to run — the Ramparts are separated by gaps, and the Clock Tower is mostly climbing — and learning what weapons synergize well, how to combo, and other skills allows you to improve.

Dying is frustrating and easy, but the game assures you of progress and promises even more if you just try again. Each new map discovered, rune absorbed, and blueprint unlocked attests that I’m getting closer to the end. And, in general, play just feels good. Every swing of a rusty sword and parry of a greed shield III feels incredibly satisfying. The basic controls (I played on PS4) are intuitive and also clearly laid out on screen for the forgetful. A run or two in and the controls become instinctual. Some techniques like downward smashing are not explained but can be intuitively discovered by those familiar with such moves. Dead Cells keeps me hurling myself in again and again to get better and better.

The world of Dead Cells, while infested with zombies and teleporting swordsmen, is gorgeous. The story is subtly integrated into the mutating environment with varying examinable artifacts and characters. Story elements are optionally accessed as well, so speed runs are not impacted. Your character’s expressive gestures also render an entertainingly sassy personality (surprising for a green glob). While I have yet to beat the game (or ascertain why our single celled organism keeps trying again and again), Dead Cells’s environmental storytelling and gameplay, put simply, is fantastic. Maybe it’s trying to find a non-infested, Malaise-free paradise. Or maybe it just finds each run as invigorating and fun as I do.