Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
Over the past couple of decades -- basically ever since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night helped to redefine the concept -- the Metroidvania genre has seen pretty constant iteration. Konami's title is, of course, considered a classic at this point (even if it didn't sell as well as the company might have liked during its initial release), and the game has gone on to inspire any number of clones, copies, "inspired by" takes, and just about any other adjective you could think of.
2018's Dead Cells is a pretty obvious clone of the game in a number of ways. It's look, it's feel, its core substance (which, considering it's plot, does imply some pun on my part there) is very Symphony of the Night. That is, with one big exception: where Symphony is considered one of the easiest games in the Castlevania series, Dead Cells is hard. Brutally so, in fact.
That's the point of the game, though. It's meant to be a marriage of the design of Symphony of the Night and other classic Metroidvania titles with the difficulty and "try and try again" game play of Demon Souls and that game's ilk. You live, you die, you go back to start and try again, each time taking the lessons you've learned, and a few permanently unlocked bonuses, along with you on your next trek through the castle.
In Dead Cells you play as a nameless prisoner, just breaking out of his cell. Well, technically you're a blob of goo that inhabits the headless body of the prisoner, but that's all basically the same. Body animated, you leave your jail, picking up some basic weapons -- swords, bows with arrows, shields, grenades, and more -- and then venturing through the castle. It's all presented in the tradition 2D side-scrolling we expect from the genre, with lush visuals and ambient music.
As you progress through the game you'll get upgrades. There are weapons to collect, although you don't have a proper inventory so you won't be taking a whole assortment of items with you (not that it matters as once you die you lose all your equipment). There are scrolls to pick up to "level up" your character and increase their health (although, again, you'll lose all this when you die and go back to being a scrub prisoner again). And, yes, there are permanent upgrades you can buy (via one of the two in-game currencies, "cells") that will make your progress through the game the next time a little easier, a touch more manageable.
The biggest trick the game pulls is that the castle isn't laid out the same way each time. This game takes inspiration for rogue-likes, with a dungeon that spawns differently each time you reset. Once you die, you go back to your body and have to explore a new version of the prison and surrounding levels. Sometimes your path will take you through a completely different section of the game, but the difficulty curve still matches your growth from scrub to warrior god. It's fair, in its own way, even as the difficulty ratchets up and you get abused more and more by the game.
The controls are tight and everything that happens is fair, in its own way. Any damage you take is, frankly, your fault. You weren't good enough to avoid it, and as you play the game you realize that, as everything is tight and responsive so its not the game cheating but you being stupid for getting yourself in a bad position. At the same time, though, the game clearly revels in making you suffer. The difficulty constantly increases, stage-to-stage, and the boss fights get positively brutal. Honestly, I never made it past one of the guardians, the Time Keeper, to even see what the end boss was like. I invested a few hours in the game, realized I was never going to be good enough to get into the end game, and decided that the time I had spent with the game was enough. No need to get frustrated.
It's the same perspective I took on Demon Souls, as well as in later iterations of Rogue Legacy (another rogue-like platformer that shares a fair bit of inspirational DNA with Dead Cells): once I've hit a point where my frustration gets too bad, I just stop. No need to play a game that is no longer fun for me. I'm sure there are plenty of people that find this kind of sloggy grind, followed by brutal boss fights that have to be played like a balletic dance, to be the utmost fun. I'm not that kind of gamer. I'm a scrub, and I know it.
In some ways I struggle to recommend Dead Cells because it's not a game I really want to go back to having no experienced enough of it to realize I'm not going to get past certain roadblocks. At the same time, though, the visuals are gorgeous, the controls are tight, and there's something infectious about the basic game play loop. Plenty will find all the charms Dead Cells has to offer and think, "yeah, this is my kind of game." If you're the sort that goes in for the hardest games the Castlevania series has to offer, this game is likely for you. Me... I'll wait for the next Metroidvania to catch my fancy.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
As noted, Dead Cells is a Metroidvania wrapped around a rogue-like. While the infinite spawning castle and "die, go back to start to try again" game play is outside the norms for Konami's own classic series, everything else about this game feels like Castlevania. It's in the way it looks, how it sounds, how it controls. Its in the map that uses the same traditional blue rectangles to highlight rooms, the way you get in close and relish the quick combos of your weapon (as if you're the lost cousin of Alucard. This game feels like Castlevania, except difficult.
Really, if you updated Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, updated the graphics, had Romania randomly generate each time you played, and then forced Simon back to Jova (or was it Veros?) each time he died (instead of letting him respawn right back where he died), you'd have Dead Cells. Frankly, I'm surprised Konami hasn't made that yet.