Following a well-documented and successful early access offering on PC, Dead Cells has finally made its way to the PlayStation 4. The title arrives with a good deal of excitement backing it thanks to a promising gameplay loop and a slew of pre-release updates that expanded the game in a variety of ways, but does the experience come together as a full package? We’re happy to report that not only does Dead Cells live up to the hype, it sets the new standard for the genre going forward.
Before we talk about what Dead Cells is, let us define what it isn’t. Instead of structuring itself like a Metroidvania, the game chooses to place all of its emphasis on combat. There is light platforming to be done here and there, but exploration and discovery has no place in this world full to the brim with threats, and you won’t be backtracking to previous areas after obtaining a new gadget to unlock all its secrets within a single run. To replace that sense of wonderment, this rogue-lite showers you with weapons to try out and master.
It’s this colossal amount of variety that helps to keep things fresh, while the core combat mechanics lay some very strong foundations. No matter what your build is though, every run comes equipped with a double jump and a dash as standard. You’ll use these moves to accomplish the simple task of navigating the 2D plane in order to make it to the next area, but of course it’s never as simple as that. Standing in your way is a whole host of enemies, all with their own mechanics, weapons, and attack patterns. Every level has unique combatants that pose a serious threat, but if you’re up to the task, every weapon you come across becomes a viable option when engagement is necessary.
From simple swords, bows and arrows, and shields to electrified whips, twin daggers, spears, and flaming swords, Dead Cells has it all. The sheer amount of customisation on offer is staggering, and due to the RNG that effects the drop rates of every weapon, no two runs will ever be the same. Things get even deeper when buffs, status effects, and modifiers are thrown into the mix, with higher tier weaponry dealing even further damage under certain conditions. And just like the foes standing in your path, every equipable weapon type comes with its own attack patterns. Twin daggers make two quick slices and then power up for a critical hit on the third, broadswords slam the ground dealing damage in a wide area, and certain bows can act almost like machine guns as you dish out a relentless spree of arrows.
With every aforementioned mechanic working in unison, Dead Cells feels absolutely incredible to play. From the agile movement speed and dash ability of the protagonist himself to the quick plucks of a dagger as you dispose of a foe in front of you, a sense of euphoria is never too far away. The control scheme is responsive to a point we don’t think we’ve ever experienced before, and it’s this buzz that had us coming back for more and more.
To supplement that desire, every level is procedurally generated to a point, and permadeath will make sure you see each of those spins on the environment. The interactable structure of the area itself will change, opening up new routes to the exits, but the overall tone, and the enemies that inhabit the location stay the same. Thanks to this, every locale has a sense of uniqueness about it. It feels like you’re actually making progress through a real world, rather than simply encountering the same piece of scenery twice over.
While the permadeath mechanic does take you back to the beginning of the game upon every death, a persistent upgrade system makes sure it wasn’t all in vain. Permanent enhancements can be unlocked in-between areas through the expenditure of dead cells, which are occasionally dropped by enemies when they’re slaughtered. Boosts include extra swigs of your health potion, the conservation of gold upon death, and random starting weapons. Every single run you make now has meaning, in that it will aid you in a future one by way of unlocking a new upgrade that could change the outcome when you try again. This is definitely a tough overall experience, but the inclusion of permanent upgrades makes things feel a lot fairer. Alongside them are mutations, power-ups that provide specific bonuses to help out with your runs. Up to a maximum of three can be held at any one time, and these are obtained again in-between missions, and they can aid in the form of a health boost, a DPS increase, or reduce the cooldown timer on items. These are essential pick-ups if you’re looking to make any real progress.
The combination of permanent upgrades and the mutations on offer makes Dead Cells feel like a very fair game. The difficulty can be brutal at times, especially when it comes to boss fights, but it never feels unreasonable. There’s always a solution for every encounter or a weakness to exploit, you just have to find it. When you blend together this light puzzle solving with the phenomenal combat mechanics on offer, it can be a joy to simply wander about the level annihilating anything that chooses to challenge you.
If getting down and dirty with the enemy isn’t really your thing, then the beautiful pixelated art style is on hand to serve your needs with stunning vistas in outdoor environments and wonderfully grungy sewers beneath the depths of the castle. It’s impressive how much detail has gone into making every moving object tick, from the spiked obstacles that litter the hallways to the intimidating antagonists themselves. Everything is exquisitely animated to the point where every pixel has a purpose, even those way off in the distance setting the mood and scene. There are those that will always find this style of art a turnoff, but anyone else that's willing to engage will be treated to a dazzling world that you’ll be chuffed to explore all over again.
Dead Cells has raised the bar for the rogue-lite genre going forward. A combination of astounding combat mechanics, an unfathomable amount of weapon variety, and a spectacular art style had us coming back for second helpings, while an array of enemies made sure we always had something new to dispose of. Dead Cells has delivered in every way imaginable, making it one of the PS4’s very best.