Roguelikes are aimed primarily at gameplay junkies who thrive on a challenge. Dead Cells, by contrast, is a game designed for those who don’t particularly like roguelikes. Each time you die, you’re sent back to the first level, at which point a new layout of the game’s Castlevania-inspired map is generated. This mechanic, based on randomization, will undoubtably be frustrating to some, but that’s a feeling that’s tempered by just about every other aspect of the game. For one, the high drop rates for the game’s variety of weapons and tools ensure that the player won’t be stuck with unlucky gear for long, new tidbits of lore provide a reward for exploring familiar areas, and branching paths serve to cut down on the ennui that comes from constantly replaying the same old areas just to progress a bit further.
The developers at the Bordeaux-based Motion Twin have achieved this success, appropriately enough, through apoptosis: the pre-programmed cell death that helps to shape life itself. Each new build released into the game’s year-long Early Access helped to refine and rebalance the design, just as trace elements of the progression of predecessors like Rogue Legacy can be seen in the smarter ways in which Dead Cells opens up its map to the player.
More so than in other roguelikes, each run through Dead Cells feels like a new adventure, not a retread. There’s no single path through the game: Once you’ve gained the ability to cause vines to bloom, you can bypass the Promenade of the Condemned, a forest filled with gibbeted corpses, and instead travel through the poisonous, green-hued murk of the Toxic Sewers. Clearing this level permanently unlocks the ability to teleport between the electrical coffins scattered throughout the game, and which in future runs allow the player to access the smoldering ruins of the Ossuary and bypass the sunlit horrors found on the standard path atop the Ramparts.
These harder, alternative paths not only more than double the number of environments found in a typical roguelike, but also offer challenging mechanics; in one, the Forgotten Sepulchre, players must quickly dart from light source to light source, for if they linger too long in the literally oppressive darkness, they’ll die. Moreover, unlocking new traversal options like the Ram’s floor-crushing stomp and the Spider’s wall-hang means that new secrets can be uncovered when returning to well-trod regions.
Even the elements borrowed from other roguelikes here seem more refined and better executed. Players only get one shot at Spelunky’s unlockable daily challenge in; by comparison, the one in Dead Cells is an infinitely repeatable, preset five-minute dungeon that allows you to practice with weapons you’ve yet to earn in the main game and to fight foes you’ve yet to encounter. And similar to Enter the Gungeon, players can unlock new gear to randomly appear in future runs, but at least here money can be spent to alter the secondary stats of that equipment, tailoring it to one’s needs. Likewise, additional challenges that yield better loot can be found throughout, but as opposed to those from games like The Binding of Isaac, they don’t have to be selected in advance, and can be avoided if players aren’t feeling up to it.
Elsewhere, players who aren’t good at platforming don’t have to dive into spike-filled rifts, while those still mastering combat can choose not to accept the cursed treasure challenges in which a single hit means death. And those who aren’t agile enough to riskily speedrun through a level, trying to reach bonus treasure caches before they’re sealed behind time-locked doors, can instead take each level in a slower, safer, and more methodical fashion.
All of these choices and more allow players a lot of customization in the degree of risk-reward they’re comfortable with. By giving players at least the illusion of control, there’s more of a reason to stick with Dead Cells than with other roguelikes. Long enough, at least, for the fluidity of the controls to really sink in, until you’ve gone from simply smashing open doors to stun the opponents on the other side to following with a chain of status effects from grenades and traps, such that your enemies don’t just fall, but rupture in a flurry of flames and virulent maggots. Each death is just apoptosis in action. Each run makes Dead Cells a more engrossing game.