Dead Cells

A game by Motion Twin for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS, and Android, originally released in 2018.
Dead Cells is a roguelike actioner with metroidvania elements which stars a glob of sludge that is excreted into a room that contains a headless body. The nameless bit of muck rolls over to the body and transforms to become its head, imbuing it with life. Each death destroys the player’s current body, resulting in the vomitus mass respawning and reanimating another headless corpse, as the surrounding dungeon layouts are rearranged, per roguelike conventions.

The player is given little context for his actions. On rare occasions, the player finds a room that allows him to investigate and learn a few small details about what happened there (with an occasional reward for doing so), but this does not form into a larger narrative. Beyond these special rooms, the player encounters a few NPC’s that offer quips but are otherwise in place to serve specific gameplay functions. The protagonist expresses himself solely with exaggerated gestures.

The player character has a low 0.75x variable jump, which can be extended to 1.5x with a double jump. For the most part, platforming is only used as a means of reaching enemies rather than as a challenge unto itself, although there are a small number of spike-laden environments and swinging spiked balls that test the player’s skills. In addition, the player can perform a ledge grab, ledge climb, and a dodge roll that is primarily used in combat to dodge attacks or get behind shielded enemies, but it can also be used to roll through narrow openings.

Combat is the game’s primary focus, and the player begins the game with a fast but weak sword that he can use to perform 3-hit combos on the ground or in the air, and the player hangs in the air when performing aerial attacks. Unlike combo systems seen in other games, there is no cooldown period from one combo to the next, which allows the player to unleash a continuous flurry of attacks. There is also a very long window for performing a full combo, which means the player may strike twice, wait a couple of seconds, and then unleash a heavier third strike. However, this is not the case with all weapons…

Throughout the game, the player finds weapon pickups, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, modifiers, and status effects. Some weapons allow for very fast slashes, while others are strong and heavy. Weapon effects include the ability to set enemies on fire for continuous damage, the ability to freeze weaker enemies and slow down larger ones, and the ability to cause continuous bleeding damage. Modifiers include damage bonuses against enemies with certain status effects, increased damage output when stringing together multiple kills, speed boosts after killing enemies, or increased damage when the player’s health is low… but some of these come with a tradeoff, such as increasing the amount of damage the player takes when attacked.

The player has two weapon slots with ready access to either via a button press. These slots can be used to hold melee weapons, projectile-based weapons, or shields, and there are dozens pieces of equipment to be found throughout the adventure. Melee weapons come in the form of swords, daggers, spears, whips, and hammers… and a few oddities like knives that grant extra damage when attacking an enemy from behind, and a kick that causes extra damage when knocking an enemy into a wall or off a ledge. There are also plenty of bows, a short-range freeze attack, and a variety of shields that allow you to parry and return with strikes of your own. Ammo-based weapons are replenished as enemies are killed, so it’s possible to run out of ammo if you lack accuracy.

Supplementing these armaments are a number of secondary weapons, including grenades and turrets, each of which has a cooldown period, and the player can carry two of these at a time. Grenades are great for causing heavy damage to a powerful foe or group of enemies, unleashing status effects within their blast radius, and stunning enemies to allow you to follow up with regular attacks. A variety of turrets can be dropped in place and will fire continuously at nearby targets, but the player must remain within their range in order for them to work, and they can be destroyed by enemy attacks.

Enemies are numerous, varied, and aggressive, and many can kill the player within a few seconds if he isn’t careful. As such, it is imperative that players make use of all of the skills available to them. For instance, some attacks can stun or freeze enemies, which allows the player to get in close to deal heavy damage. In addition, many weapons are more powerful against enemies that are feeling the impact of a status effect. Therefore, if you pay close attention to your weapons' modifiers, you can create some deadly combinations, such as having a weapon that burns enemies and another weapon that does additional damage to enemies that are burning.

Between levels, players are able to purchase upgrades using the cells that are dropped by killed enemies (i.e., dead cells). A being known as the Collector will take any blueprints you find, and spending cells eventually unlocks them as drops in the main game. The player can also unlock the ability to retain some currency upon death, start a run with a random weapon or shield, or increase his capacity to carry health-restoring potions. These between-level shops also allow the player to purchase mutations that act as modifiers, such as reducing the cooldown period for secondary weapons, earning small amounts of health upon killing enemies, or even a one-time resurrection should he fall in combat. Once unlocked, a blacksmith allows the player to upgrade his weapons or re-forge them to change their modifiers, for a price.

The starting area in each run is always the same, but it is rearranged with each attempt. At first, the player’s ability to explore is somewhat limited by his moveset. By defeating super powerful elite enemies, the player eventually unlocks several new permanent upgrades that can be used on future runs. These include the ability to grow vines that can be climbed to reach high platforms, the ability to teleport between designated objects, and the ability to smash down through certain floors. Once these abilities are earned, new routes become available, leading to stronger weapons and alternate exits that lead to new areas.

Health restoratives are extremely rare within levels, so players must be intelligent about how they take on enemies. Many environments are open and allow exploration freely in any direction, while others offer one main route through the level with short branching paths extending outward, and a metroidvania-style map helps the player keep track of areas that remain to be explored. There are also numerous teleporters spread around the game world, allowing quick access back to earlier parts of the level if the player wishes to explore another route.

There is quite a bit of verticality to most environments, allowing players the opportunity to drop down on enemies from above, and performing a downward slam can stun foes for follow-up attacks… although falling too far from a regular jump stuns the player character, opening him to enemy strikes. Similarly, jumping up through 1-way platforms allows the player to get up close with an enemy while his back is turned, and unleash a flurry of strikes before he can respond.

Secondary weapons such as turrets can also be deployed from the edges of platforms, allowing the player to toss them down into a group of enemies to unleash damage while the player remains out of striking distance. Still, many enemies are quite mobile, and some will teleport to the player’s position once he has been spotted, or toss projectiles in his direction. There are also some flying enemies that can pass through walls, are hard to hit, and deal a lot of damage if they land a successful strike. Often, the player needs to change up strategies on the fly as enemies move in on him. Occasionally the player encounters training dummies that buff nearby enemies with increased defense, requiring that he move in close to take down the dummy before attacking other foes.

Throughout the game world, the player encounters scrolls that offer upgrades to one of three stats: brutality, tactics, or survival, and each comes with an HP bonus as well, although HP bonuses diminish each time the player upgrades a given stat. Upgrading brutality generally allows the player to unleash additional damage with melee weapons, while tactics increase the power of his secondary weapons, and survival affects shields… depending on their affiliation. Each weapon is color-coded to indicate that its power will increase via a stat upgrade, and some legendary weapon variants are uncolored and are upgraded no matter which stat is chosen.

There are a variety of doors throughout the game, the most common of which are wooden doors that separate rooms. These may be opened by the player or smashed through with weapons. Smashing wooden doors offers an added advantage by stunning enemies on the other side, but opening doors sometimes allows players to deploy a turret and then walk out of the room while it unleashes heavy damage. There are also doors that require currency to open, leading to a reward that is clearly visible on the other side (so the player can decide if it’s worth the money). Some doors require switch presses to open, and these buttons aren’t always accessible with the player’s starting abilities. Some doors require keys to be found within the level, and some of these are similarly inaccessible.

There are also time-based doors, which are affected by a timer that is constantly counting upward when you begin the game (it pauses in shops and certain special areas). This encourages some speedrunning, as making it to a door before it closes generally yields excellent weapon drops, currency, and lots of bonus cells. However, given the random layouts of the levels, moving quickly isn’t always a guarantor of success, as there’s no way to tell whether a pathway leads toward an exit door or a dead end. Time-based doors taunt you a bit by telling you how long ago they were sealed. Oh, and the first door must be opened in under two minutes, so get moving!

Currency is dropped by killed enemies, but cells are only dropped occasionally. In addition to spending money to open doors and re-forge weapons, the player can also spend money in shops found throughout the game world, and there is at least one shop in each area. These shops sell a random assortment of three items, with stats readily viewable so players can determine if they are better than their current loadout. The player also occasionally finds free item drops in the environment, often giving him a choice between two pickups where he may select one and the other is immediately destroyed. Blueprints may be brought to the Collector to unlock new weapons… provided you survive the level. Getting killed causes you to drop all of your currency, cells, blueprints, weapons, and items. Only your progress with the Collector (and the associated unlocks) is retained upon death.

The game is built heavily around risk and reward, and the player is given plenty of opportunities to place himself in danger for the possibility of a huge payoff. For instance, most areas have an elite enemy that is activated when the player gets near. These tough foes have huge health meters, but killing them yields lots of cells, and sometimes additional environmental navigation abilities. The player also encounters cursed chests that give him several items but make him die in a single hit until he kills 10 enemies.

The game features 13 unique areas, with each offering different layout rules and unique enemies. The world is built upon a colorful palette with detailed environments and stylish enemy creatures. The game features four boss encounters against incredibly tough foes, although the tactics used against basic enemies aren’t terribly useful here, as they take place in open arenas without platforms. Most of these encounters are all about dealing raw damage and avoiding devastating attacks in return. The game also features daily challenge modes with leaderboards.

Dead Cells was developed by Motion Twin, a 10-person studio based in Bordeaux, France. Their previous releases include a number of titles for mobile devices, and this was their first computer/console release.