There they dangle in the jail where you begin each run: a galaxy of smoky coloured icons, sealed in jars that are chained to the ceiling. Bounce into them – one of my personal rituals, before I venture into the dungeon beyond – and the jars chime together ever so gently in a way that makes my skin crawl. I’m not sure the resemblance to a mad scientist’s anatomy collection is deliberate, but it’s compelling all the same. Dead Cells is a triumph of shockingly good game design: the ever-changing guts of its beautifully illustrated levels, a staggering array of game-changing weapons and gadgets, and its breakneck motion fuse into an engrossing loop.I rolled and jumped around a bunch of archers, mutants, and weird bomb-throwing pink creatures. I picked up some scrolls that increased my character’s damage and hitpoints. I killed a bunch more archers and mutants, then made the mistake of dropping into a larger group of them than I’d intended.
From Diablo it inherits weapons with randomised effects and deep combo potential, and from Spelunky it learns how to create that ‘just one more run’ feeling with new surprises and challenges to discover the deeper you go. This is an ambitious act of synthesis, successful because each of its component pieces has been executed beautifully.Only in the hands will a game reveal its unspoken character, its pitch and responsiveness, the time a thought takes to travel from the fingers into the buttons of the controller, through the underlying code, to explode on the screen as action described by light. “Game-feel” is a nebulous yet numinous thing; it’s here that a video game’s essential character, its tics, rhythms and, ultimately, class, is found.Which isn’t a criticism; new ideas are often overrated as a measure of new releases. What’s important is that Dead Cells steals good ideas from beloved games and executes them well, mixing well-worn concepts together in a way that feels familiar in tone and content, yet still provides the thrill of exploration and progress.Die in your efforts to escape, and the parasite squidges back through the island’s plumbing to the prison, where another corpse is always, somehow, waiting. Fortunately, once plugged into a torso the character is a formidable martial artist and a delight to control – able to perform brisk three-hit combos, double-jump, block or parry, slither around ledges, kick down doors to stun nearby foes and slam earthwards mid-jump to pulverise anything beneath.At its surface you’re a decapitated prisoner reanimated for some unknown reason to run through a dozen levels that are gorgeously detailed — even though they’re procedurally generated — only to die and use what you’ve learned and collected to get a little farther the next time.
I picked up a powerful broadsword and an Ice Bow that would freeze enemies in place, and began my escape attempt. I dodged and jumped around a bunch of archers, mutants, and weird bomb-throwing pink creatures, slicing through them with ease. In minutes I had traversed the entirety of the level, picking up every upgrade material and scroll in sight. Using special abilities I’d unlocked, I conjured magic vines to climb and located weak points in the floor to blast through, fighting my way through five more areas, from a toxic sewer to a creepy pirate town. I defeated a hulking boss on a bridge.You have a double-jump and a dodge-roll that grants a brief but vital window of invincibility. You can chain these into mid-air dodges and powerful ground-slam attacks.It features yet another whip-quick protagonist who, armed with a sword and a bow, must scurry, leap and climb around a sunset-draped island, shimmying up vines, tumbling heroically through doors and grasping endless treasure that makes him, piece by piece, incrementally better equipped to face the game’s ever-escalating challenge. But in the hands, Dead Cells reveals a singular quality.It’s as if even the development team knew it didn’t really matter why this character was doomed to live forever, dying in combat endlessly, and would rather poke fun at you for trying to figure out why. The words “git gud” are found written on a wall, for instance, and the shrugging character states that it’s probably an incantation. Besides looking tremendous, it succeeds in being thoroughly readable for all the quantity of bodies, gibs and damage numerals on show, helped no end by sound design that excels at conveying nuances like the difference between a normal and a critical hit. Also captivating: the level art, which combines the sunset palette of a Mike Mignola comic with the filigreed touches of vintage Castlevania. One stage is a hellish clocktower, cogs spinning inside walls and fragments of masonry drifting against a burning cloudscape.It’s what makes every run different enough to be consistently tense and surprising and what challenges the notion you’ve seen it all when you’re dozens of runs through. You simply don’t know what you’re going to find, because it could be anything from a huge pool of equipment that’s delivered with perfect pacing.
As soon as you’ve grown familiar with one area or set of enemies, it will reveal new ones, stitching its level geometry together just randomly enough to make each new encounter feel slightly tweaked. And for all the permanent skills and item upgrades I’ve unlocked between that first playthrough and now, my skill with the game is the thing that’s changed the most.These can be spent in safe areas on various permanent upgrades—like more uses of your health-regenerating flask, or the ability to hold on to more of your gold after you die. Most importantly, you can invest cells in item blueprints. You’ll find these as you explore and kill enemies, and once you’ve spent enough cells you unlock a new item which can then be found in subsequent runs.As you can carry just two weapons (and a further two traps, turrets or magical grenades), you’re constantly reshuffling your inventory, trying to find weapons that augment one another. While, on death, you lose all of your loot and must begin again empty-handed, any blueprints for new weapons, which range from slow, powerful broadswords to poisonous twin daggers to icy whips, plundered from treasure chests, are permanent acquisitions and in this way the game’s interactive vocabulary expands with time.I found myself rolling past arrows shot at me to throw a grenade in one direction while slashing with my sword in another to clear out a room in the first few hours. It doesn’t take much time to learn how an enemy attacks, but it is hard to maintain composure and stick to your plan when the game throws larger numbers of mobs at you. You’re rewarded for both sticking around to try to garner as many rewards as possible from an area and for speeding ahead. Dead Cells’ strength as a roguelike comes from the way it lets you choose the kind of run you’d like to embark on—levels are rearranged every time you die, but not to the extent that they become unrecognisable. Instead, mastery means discovering what the quirks of a given environment are and how to recognise areas where the best rewards are likely to appear.
The Verdict –
Donut County, a game in which you guide a small hole around a desert town while swallowing boulders, chickens and cars in order to expand its circumference, majors on the former quality. Like the game’s Japanese inspiration, Katamari Damacy (in which you roll an adhesive ball around in order to clean up the world), this is catnip for obsessive tidiers. As your famished hole expands, you are eventually able to gulp down entire homes and ranches.With experience comes knowledge of which weapons and encounters to prioritise, which routes to take, and how to get back to those tricky boss battles faster.