You don’t often see games these days that do something new on the first try and utterly succeed. Not that Dead Cells is entirely made from new stuff, it’s at best described as a roguevania, taking inspirations from the castlevania-side of the metroidvania genre with its bigger focus on pure combat and different weapons types and slight RPG-like elements. The only other game where the genre-moniker roguevania applies is Rogue Legacy, and its an entirely different game.
Sure, both are about entering a castle full of enemies where certain elements are randomized, both items as well as the level structure (although Dead Cells has parts of each level that are fixed, which is especially noticeable if you play it a lot). But where Rogue Legacy’s controls are kinda floaty (depending on the abilities of your current character) Dead Cells controls are perfect and snappy. Your character has exactly the right amount of weight, heft and momentum to feel just perfect. Every attack, parry, counterattack, jump is perfectly balanced to make you feel utterly in control of your character.
This is basically what every 2d-game or platformer aspires to do, but few manage to hit that sweet spot of being really in control as Dead Cells does. Which also means, if something goes wrong, it always feels like it was an error on your part and not because the game was unfair or put you in a situation you couldn’t have dealt with. Dying in the game, failing to do something means just that you strive to do it better the next time, not that you’re put off by a game dealing you a bad hand.
And while the game is a lot about collecting cells to unlock new items and abilities between each level, the real growth in the game comes from learning how to deal with enemies, when to back down or attack from afar or just when to avoid them, which is very much in line with the roguelike genre. Dead Cells isn’t a roguelike, but like other roguelites, it really has that aspect covered. I still remember how weak and pathetic I felt at my first attempt to get anywhere in the game and how impossible some of the bosses felt, only to realize after playing a lot and understanding good builds just how simple and easy some of them were to beat, at least on the lowest difficulty.
With training and patience, everybody could beat the game on normal difficulty, but then you get your first and maybe even second boss cell and the difficulty ramps up massively. There’s one extra level and a true boss that most will never see because you have to get five boss cells to even enter that, and honestly getting there is almost impossibly hard. That said, the core game with the normal boss offers already enough variety and content to not get too salty over how hard it is to get to the secret final level and boss.
So what’s really new in Dead Cells is how all those aspects come together to form something that feels fresh and new. A rogue-lite with a metroidvania influence to unlock new paths through its various levels that also evokes the combat scheme of castlevania with various weapon types having entirely different reaches and response times and general handling. And the combat doesn’t just feel like a win button, but really requires some skills to beat the bosses or even reach them.
The game like a lot of roguelites is also pretty addictive, both because the combat feels just so satisfying and there’s just so much stuff to see and unlock, from new enemies to new weapons types that open utterly new strategies to new abilities. And the visuals are also pretty damn great. Overall, one of the best games I played in recent years that offers something few others games do (there are a lot of roguelites these days, but far fewer are 2d-action games and none of them is even close to being as good as Dead Cells).