When Perfect Isn't Good Enough
Depending on how lenient you are with its definition, permadeath could be a mechanic that dates all the way back to some of the earliest video games. Especially when you consider lives as a resource and not an instance of rebirth, even Pac-Man technically fits under the umbrella. In recent times, permadeath is more associated with roguelikes. The moment you are depleted of life, it's back to the start with you. The permadeath mechanic had evolved, giving some leniency to the player by retaining some progress after death, with Binding of Isaac, for example, adding the items you've unlocked to the rotation of random items that can appear in treasure rooms. Since then, plenty of games have taken this concept and implemented it in their own way, changing it up with a different type of combat. Dead Cells takes it a step further, and plays almost entirely around this, as opposed to treating it as a feature that adds extra tension, and makes sure that it has equal potential to be as punishing as it can be rewarding.
In Dead Cells, you are an armful of green slimy vines that possesses what must either be the beheaded body of some poor sap, or that poor fellow's armor. Since the game has a pixelated style, it's not entirely clear, though that's really the only detriment I can give the game's artwork. Since intentionally pixelated games are far from novel today, competent artwork is required to make it stand out from the crowd. Dead Cells manages to make this look beautiful yet comprehensible. You can discern every party of a character's anatomy (and more importantly their weaponry) and objects in movement actually look like they've been animated by hand instead of relying on easier angle manipulation. If I were to stick with one complaint, it's that there's no visual customization of any kind. The protagonist in Dead Cells doesn't show their equipment on their person and looks empty-handed when standing idle or walking/jumping around, even with weapons slotted in.
Responsiveness is key in games like these, where a slow reaction can land you on the brink of death. Thankfully, Dead Cells didn't slack off on this part. You can spam the attack button with speedy weapons, while slower weapons won't punish you very hard through annoying aspects like delayed or stored inputs. Unless you're blocking with a shield or being pushed back by an enemy, you have full control over your movement, including a dodge roll that has a forgiving cooldown.
This level of responsiveness has brought forward an interesting change in my play style. Generally, I play games like these very safe. Either I play like a coward in Dark Souls and pull my shield up for everything, or I calculate the distance from which I can snipe enemies before they can reach me. The enemies are ruthless if you don't pay attention and respect their skill. At any level, in any area, they can hit hard and quickly if you get careless. They announce their attack with an exclamation mark, but that oftentimes means you have to react then and there or feel the consequences. There's no leniency to it. Respond or get hit, because these enemies don't lack in precision.
Which makes it all the weirder when I ended up running through levels like a space ninja on hard drugs. While the enemies are ruthless, they are easily identified, which makes predicting and learning their quirks easier every time you meet them. The levels are well-lit most of the time, and sound cues become quite recognizable over time. At no moment did it feel like something obscured or hid the actions of the enemies. If you are very good at paying attention to your surroundings and the subtleties of your enemies in a mass of them, you can effectively dodge or block everything with nary a scratch on you, kill them all and make it out unscathed.
Dead Cells wants you to be fast. It encourages you to think fast and react faster, yet resorting to a slow and careful playstyle won't be met with harsh punishment either. You'll simply take longer and miss out on potential loot. Every randomly generated area tends to have a timed door that opens for you as long as you reach it in time. The loot behind it tends to exist out of currency and a blueprint for a weapon, which can also be found through regular exploration. If anything, it feels like Dead Cells goads you on and wants you to get comfortable with every aspect of it that you've been repeatedly encountering. Every new enemy is an invitation to learn its behavior and adjust your own tactics to it and test it relentlessly.
Thankfully, you won't be working with your fists. The game starts you out with a healthy stack of weaponry that can be found or bought at random in the game. Swords, bows, throwing knives, spears, shields and more make up the mainstay of your regular equipment. You have two slots to put them in for a total of two attack buttons, with every combination giving you different options for approaching a combat situation. For example, going "sword and board" means attacking until an enemy readies themselves to retaliate, inviting you to raise your shield pre-emptively or time it perfectly, resulting into a damaging parry that also completely negates the little damage a regular block would've let through. Melee and Bow instead make more gracious use of the roll button that you always have access to. Smackdown the enemies up close, and then fire a volley of arrows at the enemy whose a bit more distant but is about to spot you.
Resource usage is very forgiving when it comes to your equipment. You have an ammo counter for weapons that need arrows and throwing knives, but you can recover them from the environment unless they're stuck in an enemy. You can additionally equip two skills that permit usage of elemental grenades, bear traps, turrets, magical blasts and much more.
Cooldowns needn't be a problem. Every once in a while, you'll run into a scroll that'll let you pick from 3 stats, Brutality, Tactics, and Survival. Each represents a specific method of playing the game while also buffing specific stats and weaponry. Brutality encourages a careless and quick playstyle, Tactics encourages the usage of bows and items, while Survival emphasis more on gaining more health and the usage of shields. These stats get reset every time you die, leaving you free to experiment with certain builds and weapons, though dedicating a run purely to one stat is perfectly possible. That said not everything has to be forfeit upon death.
Cells represent the most valuable resource that you'll find during your adventures. They frequently drop from enemies and sometimes as treasure. Between areas, you'll always run into The Collector, who allows you to invest these Cells to unlock the items you've found on Blueprints, or general skills such as a healing potion or the ability to keep a minimum amount of gold after death. It's therefore inadvisable to continue from The Collector without spending all of them, as you lose them when you meet your death.
Personally, I think Cells may be the best implementation of a roguelite progression I've seen in a permadeath game. A personal struggle of mine with these games was the feeling of losing progress or wasting time when accidentally meeting death. Binding of Isaac, a very competent game, only has two methods of progress: You beat a boss for the first time or you find/unlock an item that then gets added to the random rotation. With Dead Cells, even if you can tell your run will be bad, it will still be worth it to try to finish it, as those few Cells you've found can help you progress towards your next unlock, how little even.
There is one concern I have with this that I've had with Binding of Isaac as well. If you unlock a weapon that will turn out to be unfitting to your playstyle or is simply just bad, you'll possibly have indirectly impeded your progress in future runs by having that weapon in the rotation and show up as a free drop instead of a preferable item.
Regardless of my gripes, I consider Dead Cells of the highest standard when it comes to an Early Access title. The game already feels complete. Every aspect mentioned so far is polished and to the standard of a full release. The idea that the game will receive even more development with more features and more items staggers the mind, and I'm wholly curious at what the developers can come up with.
While there is not a lot of interaction with NPC's, there are a few instances of one-sided conversation. The protagonist seems to be mute and instead has to resort to gesturing the point they want to make. These instances flavor this already pleasantly colored game with even more of a comedic vibe. There is still death and probably more tragedy to be found, but it certainly pitches a lighter tone of comedy than, say, Binding of Isaac's dark humor. While both types of humor are fine, seeing Dead Cells go its own direction with it is refreshing and welcome.
One final aspect worth mentioning is the music and sound design. From the starter rusty sword to the fanciest of swords and bows, it all sounds satisfying. Every hit feels right, as though you're cleaving or piercing through the helpless enemies caught in your stunlock combo. Even when idly swinging about, the swords sound lethal and swift. The music doesn't underperform either in comparison. When you spawn, it starts out calm, subtly reacting to what you do and where you are. Whether you bravely engage in combat with hostiles or find yourself ducking and rolling to escape your impending death, the music plays on your predicament and atmosphere. Uplifting and courageous, the music alone is enough to have me back on my feet after a brutal death and take the enemy head-on yet again. Performing music that encourages the heart must be a hallmark of a great musician, and I hope I'll get to hear more from them as development on Dead Cells continues.
Dead Cells is the stern but fair father of roguelikes/lites. Failure and mistakes are punished, but progress and skill are equally rewarded, and persistence is never shown to be in vain. The mistakes you make are yours, and you are given plentiful opportunities to learn and grow from them. If you were hesitant on picking up a title in this genre for fear of wasting time, you'll find that Dead Cells respects your time the most. For an unfinished game, it feels and sounds as finished as your favorite game three months after the day one patch.
Here's to hoping they add a metal glove or some such to fight with. Some of these enemies really make me feel like punching them at times.