The team gathers to discuss about Dead Cells, Motion Twin’s ‘roguevania’ that has been taking way too much time from our routines lately. Part impressions, part collaborative review, and a sudden love for bows.
Andrew: All right. Show of hands: who thinks Dead Cells is a Metroidvania? Who thinks it isn’t?
Axel: The only thing I would say it’s metroidvanian is the design of certain maps. Maybe tasks like finding a key, backtracking, etc. But not much more. I love the gameplay, the feel of the character. It moves really smooth, control reaction is fantastic. It requires millimetric moves and you are able to perform them.
Andrew: I’m with you. The moment-to-moment gameplay is unparalleled in the 2D action space (although, I’m in the process of reviewing Guacamelee 2 at the moment, and the combat in that game is also top-notch; it plays like a character action game). But, I think that one of the things that sets Dead Cells apart from some other action-platformers is the way that it allows you to use its systems to fight for you. Often, the best strategy I had was to drop a pair of turrets and get out of the way.
Dylan: I’ll play devil’s advocate and pretend this isn’t my real opinion: Dead Cells is a Metroidvania. It’s just structured differently than most. Instead of having a clear way to move from one area to the next, your “progression” relies on what you learn about the world, the items you use, and the tactics you develop. Plus, I could make the argument that you’re more heavily rewarded for exploring the level every run (like a Castlevania title) rather than speeding through.
But enough about genre semantics, what are your thoughts on weapon design?
Andrew: Generally, just that it’s really good, for the most part. There are definitely weapons that I don’t prefer to use (Velmont’s Whip, for example–the whip that inflicts a crit when you hit an enemy with the tip, always feels hit or miss), but in general, each weapon accommodates a unique and interesting strategy. The first time I made it to the castle, I was using a suped up ice bow to freeze enemies and the crossbow to smash them to pieces, and I don’t think I had ever used a bow-on-bow loadout before that. The game is really smart, in that, while you may have a preferred weapon combination, it feels well balanced to whichever build you end up with.
Dylan: Interesting. You hate the main weapon that seals the game’s fate as a Metroidvania. What about you, Axl?
Axel: I believe the game does a great work regarding weapon design. It gives you a wide variety to experiment with and enough freedom to try different combinations in each walkthrough. It never gets old. Or at least it didn’t for me during the 20 hours I’ve played so far. Yes, there are weapons I’m not very keen on (like shields, do you guys use them?) but I suppose it depends on how do you play. None of them feels like complete garbage. And I’ve tried some different ways of playing during my time with the game. I don’t usually use bows but I love the ones here and how they feel. However, my favourite gear so far is melee weapon + ice hadouken. It’s amusing.
I also agree with Andrew, regarding the advantage of using the game’s systems. Rushing the maps at full speed, trying to be a “pro-player” feels nice, but when things get tricky I stand still and start using projectiles, tramps or turrets. Dead Cells requires a good amount of patience, in my opinion.
Andrew: I agree: patience is a must if you want to make it very far. Which is interesting, given how good the game feels when you are rushing through things. Kirk Hamilton, over at Kotaku, compared playing the game to eating candy, and I think that’s apt. Charging through levels full speed gives me a sugar high; but stopping and plotting out how to proceed gives me a different kind of satisfaction. It makes me feel smart.
Axel: I prefer what Filip Miucin said about… oh wait.
I liked Kirk’s analogy. What do you think about the story? Is there a real story to be deciphered? Lore? Or just clumsy/lazy storytelling?
Dylan: I wouldn’t say any of the storytelling is lazy, but I also don’t know that there’s a lot to be deciphered. Sure, you’d like to know why you’re in prison or why the location is laid out the way that it is. But we get tiny hints of that lore spread through quirky dialogue and sprite gestures. I don’t think they tried to tell a story and failed, I think they sprinkled pieces of a background story throughout and succeeded. Having said that though, I don’t think any story was necessarily needed.
Funké: I spent I wanna say 25-30 hours before beating the final boss and throughout that time I saw the same 7 lore rooms way too many times. Which was disappointing because they were real good! The fact that they paused the timer and allowed you to have free time and dig around for a couple of seconds was nice – also you could get a little loot too depending on the spot. Keep in mind it’s only a small gripe that curious players might feel, but they really didn’t commit enough to the idea of sprinkled lore.
The sprinkles are so so good, and had me speculating about what actually brought the community to ruins, but they’re only really on half of the cake that is Dead Cells.
Axel: I have to agree with Funké. In 20 hours I’ve seen the same lore rooms too many times, and it’s a shame. Maybe it wasn’t the idea to create some deep lore, there are just details here and there, but it’s wasted potential. I haven’t faced the end boss yet, and there are some “secrets” that keep bugging me. What the hell are the knockable doors for? I like stuff like that, which is never explained but keeps you intrigued. I also want to highlight the presentation of the game. The tutorial is almost non-existent, yet you know everything you need to know very fast in order to enjoy the game. When I played Salt & Sanctuary I felt there was too much left in the shadows. Speaking of important stuff, important mechanics and items. Not “details” like the doors I mentioned before.
The pixel-art style is beautiful.
Diego: I can’t get the hand of shields. Believe me, I’ve tried. But every time a rare shield is up for grabs, even though it could highly increase my stats or chances of survival, I just leave it there. The game does an amazing work on experimenting with weapons, as you all said, but I still can’t get the grasp of them.
That being said, the pace, movement and pretty much how everything feels is top-notch. I’ve played many other metroidvanias (not any other ‘roguevanias’ yet), and they tend to rely heavily on caution and timing for every movement. Dead Cells doesn’t care. You can rush through a map in a matter of seconds.
I hope we get to see more examples of this in the future. Souls-like action platformers are starting to become tiring.