Dead Cells Review
2018 has seen a plethora of roguelikes hitting the marketplace, and (nearly inarguably) one of the most publicized and generally praised has been Dead Cells. Though it originally came out mid-2017 as an Early Access game, its official 1.0 release came in 2018, so here we go! A 1.0 review of this much beloved game! I am personally a huge fan of roguelikes, and one of my favourite games of all time is Rogue Legacy. When I heard that Dead Cells was going to have some of the permanence/between-run upgrades of Rogue Legacy combined with brutal difficulty and fantastic 2D combat, I was immediately on board; but exercised self-restraint, and waited to play the game until 1.0. I read all of the dev updates, as well as checking in with friends' opinions on it. When I finally played it, I went in while actively refusing to look up guides, so as to learn everything by experience. After having beaten the game and done many runs (including a few boss-cell runs), here are my thoughts.
Dead Cells is masterfully executed in a lot of ways. Its combat is, perhaps, some of the best 2D combat that I've ever played. The way your character feels when jumping around the maps is wonderful. The randomly generated levels feel natural. The portal/fast travel system is executed very well. There is a lot of charm to the animations. The art style is really pretty and colourful. The sound design and music is all great.
By this point you're probably wondering "Okay, that all sounds great... So why did you rate this as a three star game?"
Well... In all honesty, Dead Cells is my most disappointing game of 2018. I considered rating it two stars, but felt that it did some things too well to deserve that score; but I think every one of the positives I listed above has an equally awful counterpart. Dead Cells is masterful with its mechanics, but it is often abysmal in its game design.
While the 2D combat feels fantastic, there are a large number of weapons and items which leave a lot to be desired. I would say that of the weapons/items I unlocked, I actively avoid using about half of them because they feel terrible. There is no way to try out most of the things you're unlocking (unless you're in the latter stages and happen to get one of them to drop off of an elite character/boss). This means that when you invest your hard-earned cells towards a new upgrade, you are often doing so to unlock an unknown quantity. This becomes a problem when the things you unlock don't behave how you expect, or they generally feel like crap to use.
One of the prime examples of this in my playthrough was when, early on into my runs (probably after run 4 or 5), I got a blueprint for the Vampirism skill. I thought "oh sick!! Lifesteal on a cooldown? That sounds like a perfect way to use a slot, especially because it means I don't have to worry about the mutator that gives you 4% health back per kill! Yay!" So I spent all the cells I was earning towards it. Well, surprise, that isn't how it works (and the game doesn't let you know that until you unlock it). You can only use it once per biome/stage, and it only lasts 10 seconds. It is a way to get out of a bind; but, other than that, it is borderline useless. I felt like I wasted a ton of cells on something I actively disliked. Since this was early on in my runs, I didn't have too many skills unlocked. That meant that, proportionally, Vampirism was coming up all the time; but I never wanted it, so I'd essentially created a wasted item with a high chance to spawn. Vampirism was not the only item I wish I hadn't unlocked, it is but one of many examples.
Speaking of earning cells... This game is a grind. In a really bad way. Before you beat the final boss for the first time, you'll be coming out of a run with maybe 60 - 80 cells tops (and that is if you reach the end boss every run). This is not enough to make a significant dent to any major upgrades on a single run, really (some ask for ~3000+ cells). Given that each run can take upwards of an hour, this makes it feel like the game is wasting your time. Ironically, there are certain rooms which contain a fair number of cells and decent items/blueprints which are only accessed if you can 'speedrun' and get to them before the door locks. So, despite the game having amazing combat, it encourages you to bypass all of it to get to these rooms for extra cells. But by doing so, you are potentially avoiding a lot of health upgrades and different weapons which are essentially necessary to defeat the latter stages/final boss, so you're purely using the run for the sake of grinding. But if you die you lose all of your cells, which also becomes problematic later when you haven't upgraded your health... It feels very counter intuitive, and though some may say "it lets you play the way you want," for me it comes across as the game designer having said "I don't really know what to encourage you to do. Here are two options, the speedrunning one is just alright; but I'll feature it prominently enough that you'll want to do it; but maybe don't do it, but I don't know I guess it's an option if you want?"
One of the things that really got to me is the fact that the permanent upgrades don't really change much about the game. You can get more gold that carries over per run, you can get extra healing potions, you can get better randomized weapons at the start of a game... But none of it feels worth the time to invest all of those hard-earned cells. The only thing worth investing into is the Blacksmith, which makes it so the random weapons which drop during a playthrough have the added chance of being "+", "++" etc quality. But you can only encounter the Blacksmith after boss battles, and the game tries to force you to spend all of your cells between each level. Of course, you can avoid this if you know how; but the game never tells you about it, even though it's genuinely the only thing worth upgrading in the entire game. One could argue that not sharing this information is deliberate on the part of the developers. After all, Dark Souls made a name for itself by hiding core mechanics and encouraging the community to find out how everything worked themselves. I can understand that. But here, the hidden mechanics just feel like they are hidden because the designers wanted to balance things slightly - but did it in a hasty way.
Speaking of poor balance, the last stage (the castle) and the final boss are possibly the worst balanced pieces of gaming I've played in recent years. It felt so rushed. Rather than making a well-balanced level, it feels more like they just threw in a lot of difficult-to-deal-with enemies and said "there we go, that's a final stage." This means that instead of going into the level with any kind of strategy, you just have to hope for decent spawns and that you won't get decimated by the spinning sword dudes and then poked by the long-bois a million times. And the final boss... It is just awful. His tells are easy enough to read once you've faced him a few times, but there are some inherent problems to this. For one, the stage you fight on is terrible. It has two spike pits on either end, which leaves you with few options depending on your build. Also there are some builds which are rendered completely useless by the final boss, so if you had gone in with one strategy that had been serving you well the entire time, good luck! There's a strong possibility that it won't even work on the last boss.
But, for me, the worst part about the boss is how it is nearly impossible to take the proper time to really get used to his moveset and come up with viable strategies. The reason for this is one which I mentioned earlier in the review - often times runs can take upwards of an hour. If you want to get to him, you're probably going to have to sink in a good hour if you want to go into the fight with proper health and equipment. But guess what? If you don't know his patterns, you're very likely going to get one or two-shot, which renders the entire run moot, and you learned very little. Then to go through another run to get to the boss you'll have to spend another hour, oh, and your character isn't going to feel much different between that last run and the current one because the permanent upgrades really don't offer you all that much difference.
This game is so close to being great. It just has so many problems with its design, and I haven't even touched on all of my problems. I could go on for many more paragraphs about how, after a certain point, all of the runs start to feel exactly the same due to the same enemies/general map layouts; how the runes are fine, but the last one often feels like it gets in the way more than it adds fun/makes you feel more powerful; how some enemy designs/attack patterns are sometimes just awful; et cetera.
In short, this game feels like it's wasting your time. I'm glad I finished it, but after having done so and tried out a few boss cell runs, I said "I'm good" and immediately uninstalled it. I really wish I liked it more, but it has far too many caveats for me to justify recommending it. That being said, if this game is your GOTY 2018, I totally get it. If you're not bothered by all of the things which made the game a slog for me, then all the power to you; but I maintain that it is personally my most disappointing game of 2018.