With a new year upon us, it’s time to explore the hopeful titles that aim to make this a great year for gaming. There’s much anticipation for dozens of upcoming titles for both the AAA and Indie market, with Dead Cells being the shining example for the latter. After playing for more than 20 hours, I can give you my thoughts on this excellent Dark Souls inspired dungeon crawler.

Dead Cells is a rogue-lite dungeon crawler with Metrovania elements for the world design. Simply put, imagine if you were playing Castlevania and every time you started the game, the world would change rapidly with new threats, challenges and rewards. Not forgetting that there is a lack of checkpoints, so if you die it’s a case of starting all over again. So you live, learn, die, repeat and keep pushing forward till the glorious end!

Players will take control of a nameless slime-ball (literally a ball of slime) that couples with a headless corpse to become a fearless warrior. Our nameless hero must traverse a massive castle formed of numerous stages including Toxic sewers, graveyards and sprawling dungeons in order to face an ultimate evil. These beautifully designed areas are rich in secrets and loot with plenty of enemies to fight. Dead Cells has taken inspiration from many sources but its most important aspect in the core gameplay is heavily inspired by Dark Souls. But this time round, you’re collecting Dead Cells, a vital currency for progression.

Dead Cells are glowing orbs are the substance of improvement and the most vital loot in the game. With these you can purchase various perks such as better starting weapons, additional health regeneration, craft new weapons and upgrade the usefulness of various traps and side arms such as grenades and turrets. These upgrades are permanent throughout your multiple playthroughs and with each journey failed; you’ll become stronger through this trial and error adventure.

The dynamic nature to the world is the biggest part of Dead Cell’s appeal and re-playability. Each time you re-enter displays a shift in the world’s design and with this, there are new patterns in the level design, new locations for rewards and loot. There are also multiple paths within some of these worlds that lead to different locations. From the very first area, you can go to the sewers or the graveyard and from there continue to new locations where you can fight new enemies, discover different loot and collect new Runes to unlock secret areas. These diving paths do help break up the repetition when retying as many times as you may.

Now there is a perma-death system that results in players starting from the very beginning when they die with all the Dead Cells you were carrying to be lost forever. I understand this is a mechanic that divides gamers and I’m personally not a fan of it, however Dead Cells allows you to very easily get back on your feet. Unlike Dark Souls, you can’t go and find any dropped Dead Cells where you last died but you can just as easily build up your collection again within a few seconds. This becomes even more fluent when you purchase any perks which help you out with each time you restart. You can buy perks that allow you to start off with 3000 gold or a random starter weapon, ensuring you’re not going in without any support.

Combat is refined and the variation of weapons is fantastically broad, meaning you'll have a great selection to choose from including Electric whips, fire swords, crossbows that freeze enemies, heavy crossbows that act like shotguns and other weapons that'll tear apart your foes. The most useful gear you'll have will be your traps and side arms, from your bear traps and grenades. Combining them together in the right way will mean effective destruction through the levels.

You can buy new weapons, traps and perks at the end of each stage and if you decide to carry any Dead Cells through multiple areas and pass the boss fights, you’ll come across the Black Smith. This chap can for a price upgrade your traps and gear, improving their effectiveness. This includes bigger areal damage from grenades, stronger weapons and more effective traps. However the Blacksmith is after each boss fight and to make a dent in the cost for upgrades, you got to be carrying some Dead Cells with you. This is a nice risk and reward factor that can be daunting but it highly rewarding and beneficial.

The game is fair by many standards, expect for the instances where you can be dealt a poor hand for gear at the start or throughout the game. A lack of formidable weapons and gear can be common with multiple playthroughs and progression can be slow at times. This can be a difficult game and repetition of certain enemy patterns often arise which through the multiple playthroughs can be a little tedious. There’s often the factor of where players will need to decide whether to explore in vast detail for better gear, upgrades and loot or decide to push through quickly to earn big prizes which lie behind various timed doors.

As I said, progression can be slow to begin with and will require some patience until you have a few of the Runes in possession. These Runes allow you to visit different levels and find secret areas in the game. They add more depth to the exploration and revisiting level again can be more interesting if you have multiple Runes. You can either teleport, climb walls or destroy weak flooring with these Runes, adding layers to the level design, much like a classic Metroid game.

But Dead Cells is ultimately gripping and highly engrossing as I found myself playing for hours, dying over and over but ensuring my progression meant something. With a few hours there is no grind as you gain better gear and your exploration takes you further into the world of Dead Cells. The experience is enhanced with the trial and error format of play and for those who love learning and overcoming challenges will relish in this.

What is an issue overall is the lack of creative level design within certain segments of the game, particularly areas such as the sewers and the Forgotten Sepulchre. These areas are just massive labyrinths with plenty of deadly enemies within tight, claustrophobic spaces, making them highly tedious when you’re replaying them over and over. This will be an issue as Dead Cells is a game where you learn from failure and attuning your tactics as you progress and repeat. So when you enter a new area after an hour of fighting, only to be cut down by a new enemy which you know nothing about, can be extremely frustrating. This is even more annoying when you have to repeat the several areas again and even if you have to defeat a boss (which can be tough).

Personally, giving a perk that allows fast travel or skipping a single area would be extremely useful. It could be balanced as well seeing as you’ll miss out on the Dead Cells and vital loot and upgrades. Damage dealt by enemies could also be tweaked as it can be a massive pain when you’re swarmed by various enemies or caught off guard by one single zombie that takes 40% of your health.

Dead Cells is shaping up to be one of the most dynamic and thrilling rogue platformers in recent memory. This title is still in early access and has some way to go before it’s completed. Players can enjoy 15 levels, 3 bosses and whole bunch of weapons and campaign modifiers. I do have to ask if there will be any checkpoints at any stage during the campaign as fighting my way up to the Assassin boss (end of the access version) was quite demanding, then having to continue further will be brutal.

But I can’t deny it’s worth checking out and supporting for its completion. We’ll be bringing you more updates as Dead Cells develops and we strongly recommend this inspiring title if you love Castlevania or the classic Metroid games.

Stay tuned for more updates on Game-News and check out Dead Cells on Steam Early Access right now.

++ Highly dynamic world building
++ Great sense of exploration and refined combat
+ Looks and sounds nice
+ Lots of replay value
- Some grind to progression at first
- Some balancing tweaks

A Steam copy of Dead Cells was provided by Motion Twin for the purpose of this review