There’s something oddly brave about a game that eschews a fuller narrative. Not that it was always this way, but certainly nowadays it’s a statement. It’s a declaration that it doesn’t need one. The gameplay carries it and sells itself.
Enter Dead Cells, an Early Access game from French studio Motion Twin. It’s about (and even saying the word “about” seems generous) your lack of a head and your unending desire to not decay any further by reclaiming cells for your body. It’s possible that there’s a later, non-Early Access version of this game that includes more story, but I kind of hope it doesn’t.
The key to Dead Cells is that it plays like a nimble but speedy V12 Camaro that runs on the toxic waste of a crayon factory. It moves with a sense of style that overdosed on rainbow hearts and hits with mobile power, every action crackling with purpose and raw efficiency. And it only builds on top of that with some of the best weapon and mechanics interplay since Bastion.
The randomness of it all as a roguelike elicits better comparisons with BioShock Infinite‘s combat, though. In the same way that the random draw of what Gear you’d find would influence your playstyle, how you fight in Dead Cells is necessarily a matter of circumstance. The weapons you get are so vastly different from one another but all equally effective at dispatching the hordes before you.
They also demand commensurate awareness to achieve that effectivity. The whip is perhaps my favorite example. On the surface, it seems just…fine. It snaps quick, does okay damage, and looks pretty cool. But if you manage to catch an enemy with its tip, it’ll do savage-level critical damage. You can be deadly with this ostensibly beginner weapon, but you can also be a demon to these, uh, demons if you both understand it and are capable of playing it.
Success in this game is half stumbling into the right weapon and half adapting to the wrong weapon into the right one. I had been so locked into mastering the aforementioned whip until I found knives that do bleeding damage over time. It altered my strategy to lay into as many enemies at once and as quickly as possible to let time defeat them rather than myself with single and well-timed cracks of the whip.
That’s not to say you have to just pick one way or the other. With two weapons and two skills at any one time, you can outfit yourself with multiple and interwoven ways to kill. With that knife, you can also equip a sword that does bonus damage to bleeding enemies, so then your recourse isn’t to dodge and survive but to explode into a whirling series of blade strikes once everyone starts leaking health.
The weirdest part about this game is how it views itself. It throws a lot of labels around like “Castlevania-inspired” and “Souls-like,” but none of it quite fits in the ways you’d think. There’s no ability gates, per se, as you would expect from a Metroidvania game. And while you do collect cells as a souls stand-in, you can’t retreat and bank them or even recollect them if you eat it. With such significant hallmarks missing from the genres, it’s odd it would even try to align itself as such.
It’s those differences that actually make a lot of its structure so engaging. Not being able to move back through sections of the world (doors lock behind you) means you always have to push forward, a physical representation of the psychological fortitude you’ll require when you die and you can’t recover any of what you lost. And with the ability to pump cells into powering up any of your weapons forever, this is a roguelike that screams at you to move on. Death is only defeating if you stop playing.
That’s not to say this game has nowhere to go as it continues development. The engine that lays out levels can be rather quirky, leaving you to explore areas that either result in no rewards or punishment except for some protracted backtracking. It’s especially upsetting since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of variety in the basic blocks it’ll use to build the world.
Some mechanical balancing would be choice, too. Shields, for example, have far too much risk for too little reward to be worth it. Then again, if you’re good at them, any benefit would be worth it, I guess. But other weapons are simply overpowered, like, say, most of the grenades.
But even in the face of such foundational complaints and an early state of development, Dead Cells shows a lot of promise. And the updates are potent, too. The first one included elemental interactions like lighting oil patches on fire and electrifying water. The developers have estimated an additional 8 to 12 months in Early Access, so at the very least, this is something to keep an eye on if not play outright.