Holy shit. Dead Cells.
2017 is the year of games that come out of nowhere, blow me away, and steal the thunder from games I’ve been anticipating for months, sometimes years. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has become a fixture in my life that few games have before, and I had never heard of it before buying on a drunken whim. It’s such an intense love affair that it’s derailed my time with Prey, an otherwise fantastic game, and The Surge, which I like, but am mostly just curious about. Dead Cells, in a similar fashion, came out of nowhere, and has quickly become the game I play in between other things in life. It’s the rogue-lite I’ve been looking for.
When looking at footage of Dead Cells or reading a Steam store description, it’s easy to dismiss as a game riding the rogue-lite cash train. After Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, and Binding of Isaac brought the genre into the contemporary lexicon of of the average gamer, there have been no shortage of them. Each week, a new game that rides on procedural generation, pixel art, and brutal difficulty enters the ring, and the next week they are forgotten about. Not so for Dead Cells. It defines the colloquialism “more than the sum of its parts.” Like the greats before it, it synthesizes something entirely new from its toolkit of parts. Part Rogue Legacy, Dark Souls, Castlevania, et cetera, but so much more than that.
In Dead Cells, you perform runs through a procedurally generated world, starting at a hub, and spider-webbing to other areas, each with a miniboss. Defeating those minibosses unlocks a Metroid-style progression mechanic that allows you to traverse areas you normally couldn’t and find hidden secrets. You bank your currency between stages to unlock items that will appear in the world. Your character grows throughout the run, and loses that growth upon death. But what’s special about Dead Cells is it manages to create it’s own internal logic. You can’t play it like it’s peers. It demands of you, and instills in you, a way of thinking that is purely its own. It’s the sort of phenomenon that needs to be played to be understood.
That internal logic is supported by its tight combat. Like, Street Fighter tight.
You’re managing the i-frames (in which your character is immune to damage while performing a certain action) of your roll, juggling special attack cooldown, all while pre-empting the varied movesets of the enemies you’re dealing with.
Another easy grab for comparison is Hyper Light Drifter. Both in its color palette, animation style, and floaty storytelling. All are true of Dead Cells, but ramped up by several degrees. Part of what makes the combat feel so special is just how fluid the animations are. The style of rendering is “16-bit, but better than any 16-bit game could have ever looked.” Each animation is packed with frames, making enemy tells highly readable, and combat absolutely gorgeous. Because of its insistence of doing 16-bit, but bigger and badder, the game simply feels premium. It’s massive NPC sprites are a wonder to behold. It’s rendering style also allows the environments to really sing. They’re wildly imaginative takes on classic tropes, with all of the drama you would expect from the best Mega Man level. They make the environmental design of its forbearer, Rogue Legacy, look dumpy and childish by comparison. Because each area has such a distinct aesthetic structure, they really feel like levels, not just a new set dressing for new enemies.
All of the above is polished beyond what would reasonably be expected from an Early Access game.
But the main draw of Dead Cells, for me, is that it captures the ever-elusive “narrative abstraction”, like a lightning bug on a late summer evening. For a medium that is inherently an abstraction of the real world, video games have never handled abstraction from a narrative or world-building standpoint well. Recent contenders, Virginia, and What Remains of Edith Finch take a stab to varying degrees of effect, both aping proven cinema tropes: from the jump-cuts and Lynchian non-sequitur symbolism of Virginia to the Wes Anderson-meets-Magical Realism vignettes in What Remains of Edith Finch.
Those examples, unfortunately, simply try to recreate the symptoms of their respective source materials, rather than using their own medium to create a new method of looking at abstract storytelling. To me, the king of the hill in terms of abstract narrative and world building in video games is still Dark Souls. It’s been written about ad nauseum, and Dead Cells learns from that. It’s a case of show, rather than tell. Moving through the environments in Dead Cells leaves the player in a state of mystery–the game explains just enough to evoke a certain train of investigative though, and explains just too little to encourage your imagination to take over. This is doubly impressive because by all accounts, it’s a pretty small game.
As an Early Access game, Dead Cells is remarkably content complete, the developer having quoted “80%.” I’ve had no bugs or stability issues thus far, and it seems that people are quoting around 20 hours of gameplay.