The Oxford dictionary doesn’t have a definition for “Metroidvania,” but the closest one I can muster is “a genre of platforming games defined by exploration, progression systems, and sometimes difficulty.” While a tad broad, the genre began with classics like Super Metroid and Castlevania and now includes Hollow Knight, Cave Story, Guacamelee, Dandara, and even SteamWorld Dig 2. This loose definition can also apply to Dead Cells, meaning that it modernizes and deviates from the Metroidvania genre in interesting ways.
(Side note: this also makes Switch a haven for the genre)
Dead Cells is very much an exploration-based game with a heavy focus on difficult combat against both bosses and underlings. But it’s also run-based, something that Metroidvanias have only begun to dabble in with games like Rogue Legacy. This creates an entirely new progression system. Whereas Super Metroid handed players a sprawling map and multiple weapon upgrades to explore every nook and cranny, Dead Cells adjusts its approach. Every map in every area is randomized with each run, meaning players won’t know their path like the back of their hand. There are no familiar doors to backtrack to with each new item, either.
Instead, Dead Cells provides small tweaks to help curb its randomization through the use of Cells (a la Souls in Dark Souls, which are also lost upon death). These tweaks provide more flasks for health recovery, more starting bows and shields, gold reserves that persist through death, and even item recycling. They may not be as obvious as “rocket launcher that can open a door in the second area” but these small improvements invariably serve as the foothold for Dead Cells’ progression. Each upgrade is precious, and gives you another tool to help you survive in your adventure.
Of course, Dead Cells also introduces a variety of weapons. These can be upgraded individually, as well, though these upgrades usually come in the form of finding better versions throughout a run. The iconic Casltevania-esque whip is here, along with a plethora of swords, spells, bows, and other weapons. Many can be bought at shops littered throughout the journey. Each one is tied to a primary stat, which can be upgraded per run. Different weapon builds call for different stats, and players may never want the same build twice. This introduces a higher level of customization than most Metroidvanias; many include multiple weapons, but most don’t throw out as many as Dead Cells.
Yet the largest deviation Motion Twin’s take on the genre are the runs themselves. Metroidvanias are historically built upon knowledge: knowing the map, the enemies, your weapons. Hollow Knight and its ancestors afford gentle moments with which players can gather their thoughts, find their next route, collect gear from planned hiding spots, and plan a course of action.
By resetting the world, stats, and equipment upon death but leaving behind the progression upgrades, Dead Cells flips the equation. It’s all about snap decisions, information-gathering, and speed. Would it be better to take your time in the first area, or speed through so you can open a door in the second area that locks after two minutes? Will that giant axe slice through masses of bowmen better than your deft daggers? Should you dive into the Sewers rather than brave the Promenade?
At times, these decisions culminate in a very slow, methodical, precise journey as players chip away at the environment and enemies around them. Their prodding may be rewarded with interesting new weapon combinations. Other times, the experience becomes a mad dash for the exit, feeling like a speedrun of Symphony of the Night. As players begin to wonder whether the island has turned upside-down, they find troves of Cells, gold, and stat bonuses.
There are no right or wrong ways to play Dead Cells. Your judgement and thought process constitute half the game, and your strategy may not work for another player. There’s no set path, no consistent secrets or perfect progression. It’s meant to be played quickly, and you’re meant to die repeatedly. In those regards, it’s unlike any Metroidvania before it. Yet its quick judgement calls place a profound emphasis on its progression systems, side-scrolling combat, and extensive exploration of randomized environments. Dead Cells is a Metroidvania at heart, but wears some cool new clothes to push the genre forward.