Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania
Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
Here in 2023, it's been a while since Konami put out a proper Castlevania game. IGA wandered off to go make the Bloodstained series, while Konami seemed fit to remake Castlevania into God of War for the Lords of Shadow sub-series. Depending on your feelings for those games, the last, "proper" Castlevania entry might be, for you, 2010's Castlevania: Harmony of Despair or even 2008's Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. That's up to 15 years since Konami last visited the Metroidvania genre they helped to perfect. That's a long time.
While the company has flirted with the idea of continuing the series proper, while mostly sticking to NFTs, Pachislot machines, mobile games, and inserting costumes and characters into the games made by other companies, anything approaching a real Castlevania game has remained notably absent. And while, on the surface, Motion Twin's DLC for Dead Cells would seem to take the same tack -- inserting Castlevania theming into someone else's game -- this effort is so much more than just a cheap way to extend the Castlevania brand. This is a loving homage that stays true to the heart of Konami's storied franchise, leading to one of the best adventures for the series in some time. It almost sates the desire for a proper game in the series... almost.
As a DLC for Dead Cells players will first need to complete the main game (at least one loop) for this paid expansion to unlock. That alone may be a steep price for some people as, honestly, Dead Cells is no easy game. I'm not the best at action games in general, but I did love my time in Dead Cells, but even then it took me many, many attempts to progress my way through the game. Even once you've learned to clear through the hordes of enemies, there are a number of bosses in the game that take skill, and rote memorization of their moves, to defeat, and each one will demand a lot of your time before you finally get through efficiently.
If you have the patience for that, though, once you can "Return to Castlevania" (if you will), you'll be greeted by a lovingly crafted entrance into Dracula's domain. The Return to Castlevania section acts as its own side-path through the game. You won't see any of the original plot points, or enemies, from Dead Cells in this DLC as it has its own unique areas, monsters, bosses, and story going through it. That includes its own, unique ending you get for defeating Dracula (of course) and watching the castle crumble. It's Castlevania, through and through, just built on the bones of Dead Cells.
The DLC draws from across the whole of the series for its many touches and references, but it primarily takes design notes from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. Most of the characters you'll meet in the game come from Symphony, with Alucard, Richter, and Maria helpfully guiding you along the way. You will, however, gain additional assistance from the Master Librarian and Shanoa along the way, with these characters taking the place of Dead Cells regulars along your path. You'll go basically the whole run seeing and talking only to Castlevania people as you play your Castlevania quest.
The same is true for the enemies you'll meet. The DLC is packed with the standard, expected enemies. You'll face off against bats and mermen, dodge harpies and skeletons, and duel with Axe Lords and Armor Knights. Some of these enemies are strong, and tough, and attack when you least expect it, giving the DLC strong Castlevania: Dracula X vibes. It all works in concert, though, with the stylish combat of Dead Cells, with the foes being just tough enough but not so bad that you can't ever defeat them.
The bosses, though, kick things up a notch. There's Dracula, of course, who has his two-form battle (both of which are tough but the second phase can be quite a bear until you memorize it all). Death naturally makes an appearance as well, although I found that due to the helpfully strong equipment the game drops throughout the adventure, Grimmy was a bit of a pushover in comparison to some other fights in Dead Cells. Frankly, I had a much harder time dealing with the close-quarters fight against the sub-boss Medusa, who is absolutely relentless in her attacks. It was tough, but in a way I know some people do truly enjoy.
Thankfully, even as you suffer through the DLC over and over again, trying to get through the bosses and sub-bosses alike, the ambiance makes it all so palatable. The game comes replete with a lovely soundtrack full of the expected Castlevania tunes. You'll hear "Bloody Tears" and "Dracula's Castle" as you explore, hear haunting call outs to "Tower of Fiends" and "An Empty Tome" in between levels, and pick up references to "Theme of Simon" and "Vampire Killer" leading up to boss fights. This is a gorgeously arranged soundtrack with a number of songs I want to listen to in my regular playlist.
The graphics, meanwhile, split a nice difference between Castlevania and Dead Cells. The characters and monsters are all larger than they would be in a Castlevania, bulkier in a way that's easy to notice. The graphics are much more rough and pixelated, again like the normal graphics of Dead Cells. And yet, there's the notably Gothic touches, the artistry that draw in that Castlevania influence and makes you feel like you're exploring Konami's castle. It's not a perfect match, nor should it be (although Dracula's chamber does get pretty close), but it works well for the DLC. Maybe some purists would be upset but I absolutely wasn't.
Frankly, this is the most fun I've had with a Metroidvania in some time. The DLC has an honest love for the Castlevania series while, at the same time, still keeping a bit of that tongue-in-cheek humor that marks the writing of Dead Cells. Fans of Motion Twin's game will likely heartily enjoy this DLC, as should Castlevania fans as well. Frankly, until Konami gets back to make these kinds of adventures for our favorite heroes (or until IGA cranks out another in his own series) this is likely the best version of classic Castlevania we're going to get.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
I mean, do we even need to explain this. This is as close to true Castlevania as you can get without Konami making it themselves. It's got the style, the art, the music, and the joy of the series, just in someone else's game. It wears its influence not only in its sleeve but in its name. And it's great.