BCG Review - Dead Cells
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
BCG Verdict: Over a year after it’s early access release, Dead Cells has taken a very good game and made it great. The attention to detail and polish on this unabashedly in-your-face roguelike metroidvania really shows. In a time where there are plenty of options for roguelikes and metroidvanias, Dead Cells shines through as a best of both worlds alternative, providing fast-paced action and configurability for just the right price.
In episode 38 of the BCG podcast (June 2017), I gave my initial impressions of an interesting early access game that showed great potential. Fast-paced roguelike gameplay combined with the exploration components of a metroidvania not only proved to be a unique blend of two well-loved genres but also showed how a challenging game can also be actually fun--especially to a Business Casual Gamer. At the time, I spoke positively about the game; however, I had no idea where a year’s worth of feedback and refinement could take the experience.
Frequent listeners to the podcast will recall that BCGers tend to have a love-hate relationship with roguelikes. While we enjoy games like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon, play sessions can very quickly devolve into the nightmarish, “what did I accomplish in that last hour?” situation. As business casual gamers, we like to see the fruits of our--admittedly abbreviated--labor, and losing an hour to a roguelike with little to show for it (a common occurrence) is not an ideal outcome.
What’s so fascinating about this game, in fact, is that I never got that feeling, even after multiple deaths. The game seems to accentuate two things: velocity and power. Even in the face of a clean restart, it’s quick to present to you a (likely new) way of mangling the hordes of enemies in your way as you explore complex labyrinths sprawling about. Where games like Enter the Gungeon seem slightly afraid to offer you too much too soon, Dead Cells is all about acceleration, accentuating your endurance and brutality at a relatively frequent pace. Those that study theories of fun will certainly recognize this style of leaving breadcrumbs at short intervals to help keep players engaged, and it works. This is one of the first roguelikes where death simply means more time to have fun as opposed to a driver of mounting frustration.
And it’s good, too, that Dead Cells has struck this chord so well, as without it, the experience would almost certainly fall short for BCGers. It seems that the last year has found ways to reduce overall difficulty without making it feel less difficult. I quickly learned to hack through enemies with great elegance, all the while distinctly conscious of the fact that my run may be quickly ended with one simple lapse of concentration. The game somehow bolsters that feeling of power while providing an undercurrent of challenge.
Dead Cell’s pixelated graphics really suit the experience. Sprites are crisp and colorful, and animation is fluid and engaging. Many times during my playthroughs, I found myself enamored by the attention to detail: hanging cages that swing when touched, pulsating things on the ground that seem to react to your very presence, and unique lighting to help further sell the mood. Likewise, sound effects are crisp and well done. The soundtrack is strong as well, though I often found myself unintentionally disregarding it as I focused on the immediate tasks at hand. To that end, I think it hits just the right spot: not too intrusive, but there to do its job when needed.
As you’d expect in a game of this type, controls are precise and responsive. I found playing with an Xbox One controller to be a pleasant experience. There’s little to no lag with inputs, which is of particular importance in a game where you only have a few hits until your one life is expended. A large portion of the power a player draws from the game is directly related to their ability to attack, dodge, and maneuver their way in and out of peril, and I’m very happy to see that developers Motion Twin got this dialed in correctly.
It may go without saying for a roguelike, but all of these aspects, combined with typically short play sessions, make this game a great consideration for business casual gamers. I’ve had no problem starting and stopping many times, each iteration (read: death) bringing me closer to upgrades and new weapons, each of which persist across runs. It’s these small carrots that keep the game compelling, and as mentioned earlier, Dead Cells has no issue doling them out fairly liberally. That said, all of this feedback to the player doesn’t dilute the challenge component of the experience. All in all, it’s still a rough game to tackle, albeit not as difficult as some others of its type.
All in all, I was surprised to find myself stuck to the screen when playing this game. While I can appreciate the amazingness of games like Enter the Gungeon, I rarely ever find myself choosing to play that game when I have 20 minutes to kill. With Dead Cells, I’ve had no problem doing just that, each time approaching the game with intent to just have some fun for a short while. I think this--more than anything--speaks to why this game is likely to be remembered as a true classic in its time. If you’re looking for a fresh introduction to roguelikes, I’d definitely recommend giving this one a try.
Multiplayer Fun: N/A; streamer mode untested
Time Sensitivity: Excellent (Start and stop quickly)
Duration: Short, excellent replayability
Family Applicability: Teen and Interested Gamers (Not for young children or non-gamers)
BCG Ratings are our attempt to summarize a game’s most critical factors for the business casual gamer. See the descriptions below for details.
Multiplayer Fun - This attempts to measure the fun factor for business casual gamers that don’t have hours to sink into a multiplayer experience. Ratings of “BCG Friendly” are games that are casually-focused in multiplayer environments, whereas “Hardcore Only” ratings are generally more challenging to approach from a BCG angle.
Time Sensitivity - This measures the game’s ability to be started and stopped frequently at relatively small (e.g. 30 minute) intervals. The best games in this category offer meaningful fulfillment even in short play times, whereas games that require two-hour sessions to make meaningful progress score low in this category.
Duration - This measures the overall length of the game to complete casually on a first playthrough. While long durations don’t necessarily mean a bad game, some players may opt to steer clear of games requiring too much of a time commitment.
Family Applicability - This measures the applicability of the game to family gaming sessions, particularly with younger children or non-gamers. A full “Family Friendly” rating means that everyone will find some fun in the game, whereas “BCG Only” is more likely to be enjoyed only by gamers themselves.