Gooey Centre

I do enjoy a metroidvania. I’m not good at them, but I do enjoy them. I recently spent about a month playing Hollow Knight. However, I didn’t finish it due to lacking certain skills which that game demands. It’s a shame, but there we are stuck. In a frustrated rage at dying for the umpteenth time in the same area, this time losing a bunch of money I’d been saving for a big upgrade. The game is beautiful. The music is stunning. The mechanics can kiss my heart-shaped booty while I’m mid-poop, the morning after a particularly lively dopiaza.

And so it’s gone. It’s only legacy, a stain on my heart and gnarled fingers and a cloud with an arrow icon showing on my Switch menu.

So what now? I’m still craving that kind of game, Nintendo Online hasn’t updated to include SNES games like Super Metroid yet and I can’t be arsed to fanny about with emulators, especially with a bunch of new games coming out in the run up to the primary commerce period of the year.

I’ll tell you what now – Dead Cells.

I’d seen stills of the game and thought it was another, pretty enough, pixel graphic affair with (*big sigh*) procedural generation. Don’t get me wrong procedural stuff can be interesting, for a little while, but I often find it turns to boring mush before too long. Dead Cells, however, has done a good job making a game that is very playable, pleasantly different on each run, and with enough difference between the stages to keep it fresh as your make your progress in the world.

You start the game as a rolling ball of mush, which slithers into a body of sorts and is ready for the next run. One of the few characters that you encounter seems to imply that even on your first run, that this isn’t the first time you’ve done this. Like you’ve been here a while, and only just becoming aware of that. This is fairly typical of the way the world in which you find yourself is introduced. Prison cells containing notes, hidey holes, little clues as to what has happened here.

As you move through the levels, you’ll find a variety of different enemies. Some will drop gold for your coffers, others leave jewels which can be sold for profit, or even minor health items. If you’re very lucky, enemies will drop, or you’ll find weapon blueprints. These can been handed into the blacksmith. Once they’re safely handed in, you’ll start to find these weapons in the world to collect on future runs. Arguably more important than all of these are cells. These glowing orbs are the key to paying for the game’s permanent upgrades.

In addition to enemy drops, you’ll come across weapons like swords, bows, and whips; shields; and special items, like grenades, deployable arrow launchers, and bear traps. Lastly, you’ll find scrolls to power up your weapons and abilities. You can choose to power up your brutality – represented by things like grenades and swords, survival – shields and bear traps, and tactics – bows and arrow launchers. They will also provide a helpful percentage health increase.

Once in a while, you’ll come across vendors selling weapons or special items. These are bought with gold and there’s usually something worth grabbing to help on your journey.

The other way to spend gold is to open the golden doors which you’ll run across. I guess it’s like a money box that you put your cash in until it opens, because otherwise I have no idea how paying a door to open would even work (unless maybe it’s sentient and has a better minimum wage than any country I know of). There is the advantage that you can see the item type on the other side before you decide to spend the pennies, but there’s no guarantee of what level said item/power-up may be. That said, the game feels like it’s skewed towards moving you on to better things, rather than offering crappy items at inflated prices.

As I mentioned earlier, cells are the most important currency, but these are only spent between levels. Here you can buy those vital permanent upgrades. Want a health potion or two? Spend cells. Want to be able to keep a little gold for your next run? Cells. How about powering up the quality of weapons you find during your runs? CELLS (and plenty of them!). The more unlocks you buy, the more will open up. Behold the cycle of cell based capitalism!

Something else you’ll spot in the safe zone between levels is the chance to mutate (I crossed my fingers that I’d be getting tentacles, but sadly I was disappointed. Watch now as I don’t get on twitter and shout at the devs like some entitled twatbag. Marvel as I don’t harass someone off the internet because this one thing wasn’t specifically taylored to my desires. You too can achieve this level of chill). There’s a good selection of options, each influenced by how you’ve powered, up using the scrolls you’ve nabbed. Do you want to do more damage for a few seconds after each kill? Take a 30% health bonus? Grab a little health after each kill? These handy little bonuses will only stay with you during that run, but they can really make all the difference. Especially as you gain more mutations and power them up further with scrolls.

You’re going to die a lot in this game, it’s half the fun, but the fact that you can leap quickly back in, and eek out a little more distance on your next run is what really makes this game. And you certainly will be getting a little further, by virtue of having earned and spent your cells or beaten certain enemies. Relatively early on you can pick up a health potion that will refill between levels, a chance to carry some gold over to the next run, and – possibly far more important – the ability to access new areas by tickling moss (which is my new favourite euphemism).

The game is quite pacey. Your character runs everywhere, combat is fast and fluid (unless you’re using a particularly heavy sword), special items have nice short timers so you can be ready to use them again in ~20 seconds. Even death and revival feels like a minor trip, rather than an agonising fall into the void where you must plead for resurrection. For me, that really helped keep the rhythm of the game going.

Everything is beautifully animated and despite pixel art being fairly overused of late, it’s very well done here. Lots of bright colours, beautiful lighting effects and well-designed scenery. Enemies are bold and easy to identify. A few runs in and you know how that enemy attacks. You know how to take it out, without suffering too much, or any damage. Each enemy clear and distinct, but very much a denizen of the world.

Controls are tight, you never feel like death was the fault anything other than rashly running into a densely populated area or overestimating your skill. Primary and off-hand attacks on Y & X, jump and dodge on A & B, specials are on the shoulder triggers, and interact is the R button (Quick note – I’ve only played the Switch release).

Pros:

  • Fast paced.
  • Very replayable.
  • Fair price for a lot of game.

Cons:

  • Loss of sleep due to the endless ‘one more run’.
  • Once the initial power-ups are purchased, perm upgrades can feel expensive.
  • I had to stop playing to go to work.

Overall Score: 9/10

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