My corpse runs across the level–jump, dodge, arrows, fireballs, whatever I have on me at the time. I level up the character, focusing almost exclusively on hand-to-hand power moves. A zombie touches me. I die.
Welcome to Dead Cells, one of the most excellent pieces of torture ever made. Are you into BDSM? Do you like pain when it’s done right? Are you familiar with my sex articles? Well, on the surface, Dead Cells is like those. In a way. As the game abuses you over and over again, it’s so much fun, you keep coming back for more. And there’s nearly no story. No puzzles. No, it’s the challenge, itself, and the numerous weapons, that make it fun.
Created by French indie studio Motion Twin, known primarily for their free-to-play cell phone games, Dead Cells is a somewhat surprising turn for the team. Its story is elusive but simple. A dead body, recently decapitated, lies rotting in the cell of an underground dungeon. A blob of green slime slowly oozes down a sewage pipe, sliding towards the corpse, bringing it back to “life,” or at least enabling it to stand. From there, the character begins its quest to escape the dungeon, and get away from the island on which it’s trapped.
But this is far from an easy task. As I made my way from the easiest plays of the game, to eventually fighting through expert mode, I died over and over again, continuously, giving way to permadeath. All the leveling up, all the items, all the cells, and most of the money I’d acquired were lost. But each time, I gained…something…
Maybe that was access to a new item, perhaps it was a new ability; in small increments, I acquired bits and pieces that allowed me to tackle the game with a bit more knowledge, ability, and skill, having bought various things using the cells from the creatures I’d killed as a way of purchasing items.
In the end, though, a game is nothing without good controls. And this is one of the ways in which Dead Cells shines. The controls are basically, well, perfect. Your character, whether it’s jumping, running, or dodging, follows your commands completely. And as many times as I would have loved to blame the game for my deaths, in the end, nearly every death wasn’t due to the game, but to the poor choices I made at that moment.
This game has style, but if you are looking for high-end graphics, you won’t find them here. The procedurally-generated dungeons, in 16-bit pixelated graphics, are unimpressive. Nevertheless, the green-glowing zombies, with beautiful castles decaying in the background, or the arrows rapidly firing from an automatic crossbow, exemplify the stylistic influence of the Castlevania series.
I want to be clear. Between the challenging nature of the game, procedurally generated levels that actually work, and the numerous different kinds of weapons and abilities you can play with, this game is probably one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played. There is nothing I do not love about this game. I may never truly beat it, but I don’t care. I believe that when people look back on this game, they’ll look at it with the same fondness as games of such a quality and historical caliber as Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man, and Castlevania. It’s that good. It’s not just a fun experience, but a future piece of gaming history.
Now with the “Pimp My Run Update” including running at a full 60 frames per second, Dead Cells is basically the perfect game for the Nintendo Switch.
If you are one of the few people that haven’t heard of Dead Cells yet, this review is for you. The reason I bring this game up of so many others is that it is, in my opinion, is an almost perfect example of side-scrolling indie gaming.
Fast-paced. With the latest update, a constant 60 frames per second on Switch.
A multitude of high-quality weapons.
Excellent randomly-generated levels.
Basically the perfect game.
Ridiculously hard. You will never truly beat Dead Cells. With each run, you’ll get a little closer, but there’s always a higher difficulty, and the more you beat, the better the items, and the higher the difficulty.
Light on story. You’re a dude in a horrible medieval hellscape cell. It’s as if Groundhog Day were made into a game by Satan on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Retro-style graphics. If sprite-based graphics are your thing, it’s a plus. If it’s not, you’ll hate it.
Michael David Raso has worked as a writer, editor, and journalist for several different publications since graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. If you like this piece, you can read more of his game reviews and other work here.