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Dead Cells – Multiplatform Review

Scaling Rougelite mountain, one cell at a time

Ed Mcmillen has been a hero to me since the release of Super Meat Boy. His follow-up, The Binding of Issac, is easily in my top ten most played games over the past decade and I greatly admire his cutesy-gore aesthetic. It’s is such a well crafted game and has layers upon layers of content that slowly reveal themselves at an almost perfect pace. I poured hundreds, if not, thousands of hours into it through it’s various incarnations. Hell, bought it on every system I owned that it was available on. It was hands down my favorite rougelite for years. “Was” being the key word in that sentence. Dead Cells, in all it’s parts, is expertly executed. From the combat to the ever growing number of weapons and skill unlocks it strikes the perfect balance of the grind for knowledge and forward progression.

Isaac has been king of the roguelite castle for years, and in no way is this meant as a slight to the game. I think Ed is ready for the world to move on and the gaming community is hungry for the next big thing. There have been an absolute avalanche of games that have tried to recreate the craze that Isaac started but most have fallen just short in one way or another. Games like Nuclear Throne and Enter the Gungeon seemed like the next logical step, but on May 10th of last year Motion Twin’s Dead Cells hit Steam Early access and started its road to full release. More importantly, it started it’s climb to the top of rougelite mountain. Between then and now the game has changed drastically: Mechanics from early builds have been completely altered. More than a fair share at the request of the community. The weapon and perk selections have grown dramatically and, thanks to Motion Twin’s dedication to making Dead Cells truly great, a fantastic community has built itself around the game. 

Combat Savvy

The core of the Dead Cells experience lives in it’s combat and weapons systems. Combat is Fast, Fluid, and surprisingly tactical. As you play through the game you’ll pick up blueprints for a bevy of weapons, items, and perks that you can unlock using cells dropped from all the enemies you will inevitably slaughter. The combination of swords, shields, bows, skills, perks and other gadgets feels almost endless. You have four slots to fill, two of which can be filled with either a melee weapon, ranged weapon, or shield. The other two are where your skills go. Each run will have you balancing new strategies depending on what weapons and skills drop and what perks you choose. These weapons, items, and perks are broken down into three, conveniently color-coded, combat styles: Brutality, Tactical, and Survival. The three styles tie into perks by giving you passive buffs like  “Killing an enemy gives you X health” or “Shortens the cooldown on your skills by X%.” Building up any of these three styles with whatever power-ups you get is just one part of a larger synergistic combat system.

Every item you pick up has a chance to have an “Affix.”  This system helps keeping runs from feeling too similar. In a single run you could pick up two Ice Grenades and depending on the Affixed they have they could handle completely differently. These range from just additional damage to things like “Does 125% damage against a bleeding target” or “Enemies killed with this weapon explode into a cloud of poison gas.”  Using these affixes to build synergies is not only key in succeeding in Dead Cells but maliciously fun. Curating a build well can lead to some absolutely vicious combinations.

Once you’re savvy enough to what the game has to offer, and if RNGsus is on your side, you could end up in a situation like the following: A group of enemies are in front of you. In your main weapon slot you have a sword that does 100% damage against a burning target. In your secondary slot you have Firebrands. In your first skill slot you have Oil grenades and in your second Skill slot you have a Deployable turret that causes its victims to drop a swarm of bitters. You open the salvo by throwing your Oil Grenade, this douses anybody unlucky enough to be in the blast radius with a Flammable oil that enhances the effects of any fire weapon. After they’re drenched in oil you throw the fire brand and it lights up the ground and any enemy in the immediate area. The enemies covered in oil take extra damage from the fire. They are roasting up real good. You deploy your turret and then move in to attack with your sword. Every swing is eviscerating any foe that happens to be covered in flames, as they die a swarm of bitters crawls out of their corpse thanks to the turret you put down. The bitters help with taking on the rest of the hoard. Before long, everything is dead and you’re left standing. A scenario like this is the norm in Dead Cells and this is just one example of the synergistic possibilities. The minute-to-minute gameplay is non-stop action.

Nothing Rogue… Like it.

Dead Cells, much like the aforementioned Binding of Isaac, is a game that reveals its layers to the player over time. Though this is a quality of almost all rougelites, not many pull it off as gracefully as Motion Twin did here. While It can be absolutely devastating losing a good run, your knowledge of new enemies, areas, and paths constantly lead to new possibilities. You learn and move on.  Dead Cells never feels unfair in that quest for knowledge. Death is seldom a symptom of the game working against you. It gives you all the tools to succeed and looks at you to execute to the best of your abilities.

As you progress through the game you’ll find Runes scattered about the world. These runes open up new, sometimes, faster paths through the game. What’s more interesting is that opportunities to use runes that you’ve yet to unlock present themselves in almost every area of the game. So in addition to unlocking whole new areas, the runes also allow players to access even more parts of existing areas. These offshoots usually contain extra weapons or power-ups that would have been otherwise inaccessible and can sometimes help a ton at the beginning of a run.

You sure do have a pretty…. Background.

If I had any friends that thought pixel art couldn’t be gorgeous, I would very likely show them Dead Cells as an example. Multi-Layered backgrounds haven’t looked this good since parallax scrolling was invented.

Alright, maybe I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but seriously, Dead Cells is easy on the eyes. For the amount of carnage that can be happening on screen at any minute, everything is easily defined and readable. Every weapon or enemy attack animation is fluid and incredibly well designed. You can really see and feel the weightless slash of the Balanced Blade vs the slow brutal smash of The Nutcracker.  Despite it being randomly generated, Dead Cells’ levels can often feel hand crafted. You’d be hard pressed to find something in the genre that even comes close to handling level design this well. No two areas feel the same. The Toxic sewers feel oddly claustrophobic. They’re a maze of pipes and paths. The Clock Tower feels daunting and insurmountably lofty. It’s really remarkable that Motion twin was able to pump this much character into each section of the game and you can clearly see the care they took in building Dead Cells. 

 

The Verdict

Dead Cells is a metroidvania at heart but even a single playthrough will reveal that it is so much more than that. Motion Twin took such care in crafting every aspect of the game that the end product is truly something special. The combat is brutally beautiful, the art and level design in each area can at times be awe inspiring, the sheer number of combat possibilities seems infinite, and the soundtrack fills the game with an energy that few fail to capture. If you haven’t checked out Dead Cells yet, I highly suggest you do. It is a unique experience in more ways than one and will keep you coming back for more after every run. I can’t wait to see what Motion Twin does next.

Dead Cells was purchased by the reviewer and 100% promises that he didn’t plagiarize this from anywhere.

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Nintendo Switch Playstation 4 X-Box One

Why you should be playing Dead Cells

Developer Motion Twin has been making video games since about 2001 but if you’re not part of their self-described “Anti-social Network” Twinoid You may have absolutely no idea they even exist. Almost all of their games, aside from Dead Cells, can be played for free after signing up. I tried out a few of the games including MUSH, Die2Nite, and DinoRPG. Some are homages to beloved franchises. Others are wholly unique. While none of them really sank their hooks into me, almost all of them are indicative of one thing: The name Motion Twin will eventually be synonymous with greatness in the world of indie games.

All this history brings us to Dead Cells. Motion Twin’s Steam Debut is one hell of a “Hello” to the indie games scene and I’m gonna give you a few reasons I think you should give it a go.

Combat Savvy

 

Let’s start off with the combat. It is by far the #1 reason you should be playing Dead Cells. It’s frantic, tactical, and fluid all at once. As you play through the game you’ll pick up blueprints for a bevy of weapons and items that you can unlock using cells dropped from all the enemies you will inevitably slaughter. The combination of swords, shields, bows, skills and other gadgets is almost endless. You have four slots to fill, two of which can be filled with either a melee, ranged weapon, or shield. The other two are where your skills go. Each run (trust me there will be many) will have you balancing new strategies depending on what drops, power-ups, and skills you encounter. Weapons and Items are broken down into three, conveniently color-coded, combat styles: Brutality, Tactical, and survivability. These three styles eventually are tied into a series of perks like “Killing an enemy gives you X health” or “Shortens the cooldown on your skills by X%.” Building up one of these three styles with whatever power-ups you get is just one part of a larger synergistic combat system.

Every item you pick up has a chance to have an “Affix.” These range from just additional damage to things like “Does 125% damage against a bleeding target” or “Enemies killed with this weapon explode into a cloud of poison gas.” Using these affixes to build synergistic builds is not only key in succeeding in Dead Cells but maliciously fun. Curating a build well can lead to some absolutely vicious combinations.

Once you’re savvy enough, and if RNGsus is on your side, you could end up in a situation like the following: A group of enemies are in front of you. In your main weapon slot you have a sword that does 100% damage against a burning target. In your secondary slot you have Firebrands. In your first skill slot you have Oil grenades and in your second Skill slot you have a Deploy-able turret that causes it’s victims to drop a swarm of bitters. You open the salvo by throwing your Oil Grenade, this douses anybody unlucky enough to be in the blast radius with a Flammable oil that enhances the effects of any fire weapon. After they’re drenched in oil you throw the fire brand and it lights up the ground and any enemy in the immediate area. The enemies covered in oil take extra damage from the fire. They are roasting up real good. You deploy your turret and then move in to attack with your sword. Every swing is eviscerating any foe that happens to be covered in flames, as they die a swarm of bitters crawls out of their corpse thanks to the turret you put down. The bitters help with taking on the rest of the hoard. Before long, everything is dead and you’re left standing

.

Situations like this are the norm in Dead Cells. It is full of these frenetic bursts of action that have kept me coming back time after time.

Developers with ears and sensible progression

 

There are a ton of rouge-lite/likes out there all with their own take on how progression should work. Games like The Binding of Isaac are notorious for peeling back new layers of the game as you progress through. New floors and unlocks tied to them; new bosses and enemies. Dead Cells presents a similar path. As you progress through several runs (if you’re like me this will be in the hundreds before you unlock everything) you’ll unlock runes that allow you to access new areas. Each new area contains its own brand of new fearsome foes to fight and generally contain a higher tier of blueprints than areas you’ve already been in.

What’s more interesting is that opportunities to use runes that you’ve yet to unlock present themselves in almost every area of the game. So in addition to unlocking whole new areas, the runes also allow players to access even more parts of existing areas. These offshoots usually contain extra weapons or power-ups that would have been otherwise inaccessible and can sometimes help a ton at the beginning of a run.

Currently there are 5 runes in Dead Cells, but since the games debut on Steam, Motion Twin have added more than a few runes, areas, weapons, and enemies. I would be surprised if this didn’t continue till release and after. Especially considering how much Dead Cells has changed since its debut. Motion Twin has regularly posted developer logs and communicated with the community. The base three-colored system I mentioned above was entirely different on first release and has been changed with some further development by listening to the community. A look at their developer blog is proof of that. They even list changes as “Community suggestion.”

I think it’s important to support developers who support the community around their games. In a time where sometimes it feels like the developers never listen (looking at Bungie), it’s nice to know that some devs do have ears.

Intricate Pixel Art and Level Design

 

This last one will be short but man, this is one good looking game. If I had any friends that thought pixel art couldn’t be gorgeous, I would very likely show them Dead Cells. Multi-Layered backgrounds haven’t looked this good since parallax scrolling was invented.

Alright, maybe I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but seriously, Dead Cells is easy on the eyes. For the amount of carnage that can be happening on screen at any minute, everything is easily defined and readable. Every weapon or enemy attack animation is fluid and incredibly well designed. You can really see and feel the weightless slash of the Balanced Blade vs the slow brutal smash of The Nutcracker. The level of detail really brings out the character in every new monster you meet.

Every new area looks and feels completely different.

The Toxic Sewers are claustrophobic and soaked in whatever unspeakable sludge ends up there, the Ramparts are far reaching lofty towers, and the Ossuary feels darkly demonic. Every single area in the game has its own unique and well defined character. I would go as far to say that the style and flair in this game is almost unparalleled currently. It is really beautiful to see in motion and shows how much Motion Twin care.

Play this game!

 

I can’t stress enough how much fun I’ve had with Dead Cells. It can be brutal and frustrating, but every run is different and exciting. The seemingly limitless combination of weapons and skills and the deliciously vicious synergies of everything coming together is truly remarkable. Motion Twin seems dedicated to the community that’s surrounded the game and is breathing life into it. If you’re a fan of metroidvanias, this is a no brainer. If you’re a fan of Rogue-likes, this is a no brainer. If you enjoy hacking and/or slashing on any level, this is a no brainer. Luckily for you non-PC savvy folks Motion Twin said they’re bringing Dead Cells to all major consoles this year! I can’t wait to rock it on my Switch!

PLAY THIS GAME! GO PLAY DEAD CELLS! WHY ARE YOU STILL READING THIS?!

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PC

Pylon: Rogue Review

I consider myself a relatively hardcore rogue-like fan. I follow the genre closely and have played most of the more high-profile titles in the time since the genre took off a few years back. I might not be very good at them, but I love the challenge most of them present; that old school “Higher Score” mentality that brings me back to arguing with friends about how to best defeat a Megaman boss or who could beat Mario 3 the fastest. Games like The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky led the surge in the rouge-revival in recent years, and it’s a genre that doesn’t seem like it’s going to slow down anytime soon. With what seems like a new Rogue-like dropping every day, it’s really hard for most games in the genre to stand out. It requires something either truly unique or just an overall great package to win over the rouge-like community.

On the surface Pylon seems like it could have been a contender in the flooded rogue-like market. Attempting to mix the rouge-like formula with Diablo and a little pinch of The Binding of Isaac sounds like a dream. What we get instead of this dream is a game that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be. Almost every facet of the game is so thinly spread that I had a hard time taking the game seriously.

Pylon’s minute to minute gameplay is nigh impossible to break through as two of the three characters available at the start of the game, Both melee fighters. The third of the opening classes, a ranger, fairs a bit better but is incredibly boring to play compared to the other two. When you start a new game, you choose one of the three characters and a fighting style which slightly alters that particular fighter. Only the first fighter, the ridiculously named Moneydin who has some weird version of Midas’ touch, had more than one style available. Once selected you’re dropped onto a randomly generated over world map that’s reminiscent of Mario 3. Different nodes represent different levels, but in reality they all just boil down to a randomly generated mishmash of procedurally generated arenas that are appropriately themed to whatever over world you’re initially plopped into.

This is where the game really starts to fall apart. Up until this point, we’ve just seen some poorly designed menu screens that look like they could have been ripped from bad Xbox 360 Arcade game, but nothing indicating the actual quality of the gameplay.

Spoiler alert. It’s really bad.

Combat for all three of the characters feels terrible. It’s not that the controls are sluggish or the animation is bad, it’s that the general gameplay loop of Pylon is tedious and insanely boring. Halo became famous for its 30 second loop that drew players in. In pylon any time frame of fun is entirely non-existent. Each stage is a series of gated in arenas that range from too small with too many enemies to so big that you may have to run around for a minute or two finding the last enemy to proceed to the next arena. When you enter an arena you’ll find yourself fighting such notable enemies as generic Zombie, Giant Scarab, Another Other Scarab, Maybe a Raptor! You’ll endlessly kite all these foes until you clear out the arena. As the Ranger this is pretty easy, but boring. You just cartwheel dodge away from everything and the game becomes a third-rate twinstick shooter. As the two initial melee characters it’s much harder simply because you have to get close to attack an enemy and will inevitably be hit. This essentially makes using these two useless for making any kind of meaningful progress.

Once you clear out one of these arenas a chest appears that always has gems and sometimes has a power-up. The power-ups work kind of like The Binding of Isaac where they are suppose to be synergistic, minimal upgrades that form some wacky run once you get enough, but none of them are interesting enough to care about. Sometimes there are slightly larger chests hanging around that require a key to open. These are literally just larger versions of the smaller chest and have a higher chance to have an item. There’s no visual change. If you clear out all the arenas in a certain level you’ll get an even bigger chest which, again, is just a larger version of the original chest. These chests are highly indicative of the lack of polish in Pylon.

As you move through the arenas in a given level you’ll notice that health drops are few and far between. As is normal with most rouge-likes, your total health persists through levels. So damage you take on one level carries over to another and once you croak the run is over. You can hop into a shop in the over world and use the gems you’ve accumulated to buy health, power-ups, and new gear that improves your overall character. Like the rest of Pylon these shops present nothing interesting or new.

That’s really my lasting impression of this game. There’s nothing that it brings to the table that it does even remotely well even down to it’s menus and basic UI elements. Nothing it does is interesting or new. It is a bad collage of ideas from other games that you should play instead of playing Pylon: Rogue. I’m sure the game will find a small audience, but for the most part, I would just suggest not wasting your time.