Dead Cells Nintendo Switch Review by SwitchWatch

Developer: Motion Twin

Publisher: Motion Twin

Release Date: August 7th 2018

Price as of Article: £22.49 GBP $24.99 USD

Game code provided by Motion Twin for review

Introduction

Dead Cells has been on the radar of many an indie connoisseur for quite a while. Released on PC in early access last year it’s certainly won the admiration of the majority of those that played it. It’s now ready to come out of Early Access to be a fully fledged game and releasing on consoles too, including the Nintendo Switch. Has it been worth the wait? 

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Story

There isn’t much of a story to Dead Cells. The game begins as a corpse plops down into a decrepit dungeon. Without much explanation or narrative the corpse is reanimated and is in your hands. This being (or former being) is in a perpetual state of non-death. When he dies, he is reanimated to try and escape again. You will meet a small handful of weird, fantastical characters but they do little to advance any sort of a story which is mostly left up to the player’s imagination and in some secret areas of the environments which may provide some historical lore here and there. It would have been nice if there was a little more attempt at story telling for me personally but it’s not a huge deal.

Gameplay

Dead Cells is a Roguelite action platformer as your zombie-like warrior hacks and slashes his way through demons in a procedurally generated landscape. In your arsenal you have two weapons; a starting sword and then usually a choice between a bow or a shield for your secondary, at least initially. Beginning in the dungeon prison you fight the monsters that plague it and move on to the next area, rinse and repeat. That’s if you get to the next area, mind.

Eventually, you’ll probably stumble across some new weapons that you’ll want to pick up and throw your old one away. There’s lots of variety but many of them need to be unlocked by finding blueprints in order for them to appear. I love how different every weapon feels. Whether it’s the whip, the shields, throwing knives or hammer, everything has its tactical use. Their stats won’t always be the same either. You can find two of the same type of swords, for example, while one may have a slightly different perk than the other. Maybe one will burn enemies while another may make them explode after death. 

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I like the fact that weapons aren’t exactly common either. You’ll find some in treasure chests, maybe you’ll find a dealer in one of the levels form whom you can purchase, or from a secret hidden area stash. As a randomised Roguelite, it’s like being dealt cards, sometimes you’ll get a great hand, others you just have to work with what you’ve got. It’s fantastic and keeps you on your toes every play through.

The combat is glorious. It’s free flowing, snappy and makes you feel totally bad ass. There’s not a tonne of things you can do aside from using the plethora of weapons: You can double jump, ground pound and do the classic dodge roll and it feels fantastic. Once you’ve settled down with the controls, the weapons and the accessories like grenades or turrets and know some of their attributes, you can feel like you’re absolutely decimating the enemies thanks to how responsive the controls are. Freezing the enemy, dodge rolling behind them to slash away at their back, jumping through to the platform below and ground pounding another enemy to oblivion while dodge rolling again hacking at a third enemy before they get their attack off. Oh it’s so, so good.

If you die, you die. It’s back to the beginning of the game. No, save points or anything. It’s not a full reset though. This is Roguelite, not Roguelike. If you make it to the safety area between each level you can cash in your blueprints to make items permanent as well as your Cells which are used to unlock permanent upgrades or allowing more weapons or items into the system. This is a great way to have a slow yet engrossing progression. You are always making progress and each time something new comes along you feel like you’ve achieved something and made a huge step further within the game.

Dead Cells is a tough game despite being able to feel unstoppable at times. But it’s the kind of tough game that always feels doable. While I obviously perished a lot I never felt like I was hitting a brick wall when it came to my morale with the game. Despite death, I was still in an enthusiastic mood to think I would do better next time. Still, it’s a game that requires skill, reflexes and learning enemy tactics. Grinding the permanent unlocks will certainly help too. I will admit that even at the time of this review I haven’t completed it, but that’s not going to stop me once this is over. Even well after I’ve finished this review and moved on to the next game, Dead Cells is still going to be played until I take this bad boy down. It’s a challenge and one that I’m not backing down from.

I have to say it’s such an addictive game. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game of similar nature to Dead Cells that has the same “just one more run” scenario. Obviously, games like Mario Kart and Splatoon have that, but those are quick online competitive games. Dead Cells’ nature and genre make that a far more difficult prospect but it succeeds magnificently. Now staying up until 1 am may sound like baby talk to some of you young folk, but as a slightly older gentleman with a young family, it’s pretty unheard of for me these days. Well, Dead Cells succeeded and dug its claws into me. I fell asleep thinking of Dead Cells, I woke up thinking of Dead Cells. I had to force myself to put it down in the early hours of the morning for three nights in a row. I knew I would get further in the next run!

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Complaints are minor at best and any complaints I did have were often proved wrong. My first complaint was in the seemingly strict order of the levels. I was going to bemoan the lack of choice in which stage you were allowed to take on, only for later experience to show that actually, there are loads of opportunities to choose a fork in the road thanks to gaining new abilities to find new exits. It’s not a huge choice, but it’s an effective one that allows you to consider which route you want to take depending on your loadout. The alternative choice for the second level can be much more challenging than the standard one, at least until you find out which weapons are more effective there.

My second complaint was going to be the lack of guidance in certain aspects of the game. In your first few playthroughs, you’ll be bumping into things that are seemingly interactive but don’t do anything. You’re told diddly squat about it and at first, I felt these could have done with a little more signposting. Am I missing something that I should have already? Or will this open up at a later date? Once I’d played longer, however, and found the solutions to these things myself I really began to appreciate this choice by the developers. It felt far more satisfying unravelling this game by myself.

So yeah, two minor nitpicks that were overruled just by playing the game further and seeing exactly what it had to offer. The only small point that didn’t turn out to be disproven were the enemy attack patterns. I think there could have been a little more variety in enemy attacks. It’s very quick and easy to become familiar with their every move. I know to add more attacks to the mix would have increased the difficulty even further but I really feel one more attack to their repertoire could have done wonders.

Dead Cells is the game that just keeps giving. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, just when you think there’s no more left to see, just when you think you’ve reached your skill limit; Dead Cells tells you you’re wrong and shows you more. I reached the final level of the game before the final boss (which I still haven’t seen yet by the way) and I thought I’d seen pretty much everything. Nope. There were still a good few alternative paths and areas I had no idea about until I stumbled upon them. Sure, while it seems there are guides and wiki articles out there, don’t take a look at them until you’ve completed the game once as doing so will probably take some of the magic away from it.

Visuals & Performance

As you will see the game is utterly gorgeous. The dense, detailed pixel work adds so much to the atmosphere and actually helps fill in the missing story somewhat. As you make your way through the environments and the dungeons, everything seems to tell its story. Sure, you’re often making it up in your head but the visuals help inspire the narrative and history of the game for you.

It’s a fairly dark, bleak looking game but the use of colour is incredibly effective. The strong hues from the background, whether it be a toxic green or a dawn bringing orange, they just add so much depth and visual flair to Dead Cells.

If there was to be a modern day 2D Castlevania game made today, this is what it should be looking like. The details in the background, the little environmental details, the layers of parallax scrolling and the incredible cohesive art style make it one of the nicer looking modern 2D games out there.

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While all the environments are packed with details and character, for me it’s the simplest and shortest one of them that really struck me the most. During the meeting with a mid-game boss on the Black Bridge, you’ll notice just how absolutely stunning this small area is. It’s some of the best retro artwork I’ve ever seen.

The character art is absolutely sublime. It’s not the most detailed sprite work, in fact, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a sprite. It could be 3D disguised as pixel work, it looks like a mix or something and I really like it. The style of your character really reminds me of those old rotoscoped games like Another World and Flashback only a million times more smooth and responsive.

Performance is almost perfect. I say almost because every now and again the screen would judder just once or twice during a level as though it was loading something or other. It happened infrequently although it was more prevalent in some runs than others and I’m not sure what caused it. I think it’s something that should be able to be fixed, but if not it’s not actually much of a complaint since the game runs fine 99% of the time. Looking at my capture software Dead Cells is aiming for 60 fps which it doesn’t always achieve, often being in the 50’s when the action kicks off. It’s not noticeable though during gameplay and I didn’t notice anything to be considered actual “slow down” that affected my experience. Sure it’s not perfect, but it wasn’t noticeable during gameplay.

Audio

Audio is absolutely fantastic. With some dark, brooding atmospheric tracks, some pounding drums as though you’re in the middle of a siege and even some melancholy pieces with a haunting cello or two. It’s incredible and adds so much to the experience. I would say that the sound effects do overbear it a little so I did turn down those a notch but that’s just my personal preference. I would highly recommend playing this game with headphones so you can truly take it in.

Value

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Value-wise, Dead Cells comes in with a standard price of $24.99 and £22.49 but there is a pre-order discount of 20% which you may want to jump on if you plan on getting it. Is that good value for money? Yes, yes it is. Depending on skill and luck of the dice I could probably see you getting through this in a dozen hours or so with room for plenty of replayability. There are daily challenges you can participate in although that’s really not the mode for me, I’ll be happy grind out all of the weapons and upgrades this game has to offer and trying out new combinations of weapons. I also wouldn’t mind starting from scratch and seeing if I could complete the game even quicker than before.

Pros

P

Smooth, responsive combat

P

Gorgeous presentation

P

Loads of variety and secrets

P

The progression system

Cons

P

Unvaried enemy attacks