Dead Cells was released to early access in May of last year to critical and popular acclaim. It was praised for its responsive but punishing combat. Ten months later, Dead Cells is still seeing over 600,000 players a week. Finally, a Dark Souls take on the roguelike genre. However, it has become clear as the game has been updated that these may not be compatible philosophies.
Combat remains fresh and still feels fine. Animations are smooth, and most frames can be interrupted to execute your defensive maneuvers, rolling and parrying. Weapons, as long you’ve stayed on the power curve, have a reasonably short time to kill and look great. Enemies clearly telegraph attacks, and sequential kills trigger a speed buff to keep the carnage going. All of this results in satisfying moment to moment gameplay. At least at first…
Design conflicts become increasingly apparent the more you play. The soulslike design means you’ll die frequently, especially in unfamiliar areas. While the roguelike design demands that doing so restarts the player from the beginning. This wasn’t particularly problematic at the debut of Dead Cells as it was a much shorter experience. You could either quickly return to where you were, or simply beat the game. But updates have consistently added new levels and bosses. The initally interesting additions quickly become rote once mastered. The levels lack variation in geography, enemies, and treasures, and even become tedious and time-consuming skill checks. You must snooze through them every time you fail.
Of course, failure is intentionally easy to stumble into. Enemies are capable of dealing a massive amount of damage in a short period of time. The camera is just a touch too close in to recognize threats quickly while running and jumping at full speed. Any small slip of attention is enough to destroy a run, even on levels you’ve otherwise mastered. It’s difficult to maintain constant attention when you’ve slain these same few enemies hundreds of times.
Player power level is also discrete. You aren’t exploring levels you’ve mastered to seek powerful or interesting upgrades for later. The only improvements you may find are pendants with minor buffs, or slightly stronger or more preferred weaponry. Weapon modifications are minor and interactions are almost non-existent. Even your performance in each level is almost irrelevant because the player is fully restored between levels. The best to hope for is a whole extra stat point or two if you choose to play quickly or thoroughly. The player will be repeating almost identical levels with the same enemies and with weapons and skills that do not meaningfully evolve.
The only benefit you may scrounge from this repetition is the collection of blueprints and the titular dead cells to unlock them. This often feels like little more than a consolation. Without compelling interactions or modifiers, any weapons beyond your favorites are pointless. Passive mutations are so weak as to be irrelevant. Even upgrading weapons makes no significant change. The result is that runs rarely feel like investments to make future playthroughs more interesting.
Motion Twin has added some Metroidvania spice in an attempt to make these disparate genres blend. Hitting milestones permanently unlocks abilities which can be used to access new areas. Although this does open up new routes, that’s about it. The player can also access disappointing secret areas that contain nothing other than a new weapon or skill. These are either barely better than what you have, or simply worse. In that case, you must convert them to cash. The money resource carries the same burden as the rest of the progression; it’s used to replace, not evolve.
Dead Cells has grown into a game with too many genres competing for design space. You’ll die because it’s a soulslike. You’ll restart from the beginning because it’s a roguelike. You’ll be bored for the repetition. Levels are too long. Enemies are too predictable. Player capability is painfully consistent. Progression isn’t interesting or meaningful. The initial kinetic joy of the combat erodes into tedium due to a lack of surprise. I struggle to recommend a title that doesn’t understand the genre while there are so many great roguelikes available.
Dead Cells could be a masterpiece if it abandoned being a mess of a rogue and embraced being an imaginative and responsive 2D soulslike. A linear design would also pry open the gates for a true narrative. Motion Twin would be free to shove in as many new levels and bosses as they please without smothering themselves. Alas, I doubt such drastic changes will occur. Dead Cells is set to leave early access sometime in 2018.