I’m the kind of guy who likes to trade in my well-worn yet reliable action-RPG skirt for an ass-hugging rogue-like Metroidvania pantsuit every once in a blue moon. I don’t know what the hell that even meant, but my point is, sometimes I like to change things up a bit. Since I received my Switch on launch day, I’ve made quite a few “gamble” purchases: games that seemed interesting despite being in a genre that wasn’t historically my thing, games that I knew very little about, etc.
Sometimes it worked out, such as the case of Ittle Dew 2+, other times, I was not so lucky, like the case of Salt & Sanctuary. As it turns out, I absolutely loathe pointlessly difficult games. Losing even 5 minutes of progress means I don’t play your game.
This time, I went with this game of which I had heard much, but seen very little. I knew enough about it to write it off for a while, until I stumbled upon a used copy in a local GameStop and decided to pull the trigger. That game, as you might have guessed by now, was Dead Cells.
Something about it grabbed me immediately. I loved the weapons, the reactivity of the controls, the absolute brutality of it all. The dodging felt fluid, the satisfaction from letting loose a flurry of arrows upon my enemies was perfect, and kicking down a door that splattered blood all over a room never got boring.
Now, I mentioned earlier that I had written it off initially as something I would absolutely not be interested in. There are a few “oh no nos” that I have when it comes to game descriptors, and “rogue-like” and “randomly generated” are absolutely in the top 3.
(In case you’re wondering, turn-based menu combat is in the #1 position of “oh no nos”).
“Rogue-like” basically tells me “you will fail a lot, and the learning curve is steep, and you won’t feel progress for a while.” So that’s a no from me.
“Randomly generated” always come off, to me, as lazy. Of course this isn’t always the case, but I can’t shake the feeling that handcrafted > randomly generated, any day. This plus the fact that getting “bad rolls” are well within the realm of possibility, rendering your nth playthrough disadvantaged, or perhaps what I call it, a complete waste of time.
Be that as it may, I ended up trying it out, due to GameStop’s excellent policy regarding used games – try it out, if you don’t like it, you have an entire week to return it. This policy is fantastic, and a huge bravo to GameStop for doing this, as it puts them miles above other retailers. It essentially lets you try a game for an entire week, with no risk whatsoever. This policy is the reason I am able to try out far more games where demos are not available.
Let me casually throw this out there: policies like this are why we need GameStop to stay around. I know some of you don’t like the store due to your own experiences, but competition is always a good thing. Putting any and all software sales policies in the hand of the company who builds the hardware and profits primarily on software sales is bar-none the shittiest idea imaginable.
I got home and fired up Dead Cells, mentally and physically prepared to be disappointed. I managed to get halfway through the first level before getting killed immediately – this was not faring well so far.
It wasn’t until the 8th or 9th frustrated attempt that things finally started to click. Queue Nintendo Switch “switch” sound effect here.
After sampling some of the weapons and figuring out how to deploy traps and what-not, enemies started to fall much faster, and my dodging timing was finally starting to settle in. I grew attached to the Multiple-Nocks Bow, assuming it came with or I was able to install some penetration buffs to it, ammo increases, or a “cause bleeding” mutation.
This little bit of random nature didn’t bother me at the time per se but I do remember that the thrill when the numbers did line up greatly outweighed the frustration when they did not.
Eventually I got to playing around with the melee weapons, and my luck had definitely seemed to run out. Here is my off-the-cuff reaction to using each weapon type:
- Daggers: satisfying to use, but require too-close-for-comfort combat, generally ending in getting ripped in half.
- Sword: better damage, too much latency between swings.
- Nutcracker: far too much time from button press to attack.
- Broadsword: great range, great power, far too much time to attack.
- Symmetrical Lance: decent damage but the timing between attacks was inconsistent.
You’ll likely notice a pattern above: the timing for each of these weapons seemed completely counter-intuitive, and by that I mean, I would imagine that daggers and 1-handed swords would be quick and nimble, but I experienced the exact opposite which was particularly frustrating. Whenever I chose to go melee, what invariably ended up happening was I would rely on traps: specifically the Double Crossb-o-matic and Sinew Slicers.
If I didn’t roll a bow or get any decent drops in the first or second level, I was pretty much screwed.
I did however manage to make it through to and beat the final boss around my 15th playthrough, and that was immensely satisfying. I finally felt comfortable with the game, at least when using a very specific niche of weapons, but I was still having a blast with the brutal difficulty, despite every previous attempt resulted in moving on to a different game.
I had a fairly lengthy post draft about how much I was loving the game after about 10 hours. This went on for a fair bit of hours, according to my profile the number is around 15. And suddenly, I didn’t want to play it anymore.
The first time I realized I was never going to get anywhere in the game was when I got my first Boss Stem Cell. For the unitiated, before each playthrough, you can juice-up the run with as many Stem Cells as you have available. This enables certain perks like bonus doors and better drops throughout the playthrough, the trade-off being far more difficult and prevalent enemies.
This jarring spike in difficulty put me off to trying that ever again, as I felt like I went from racing Go-Karts to racing the TT Isle of Man. Maybe a slower build-up might have been warranted here?
Eventually I did go back to playing with that lone Stem Cell, but it only magnified the glaring issue with the game’s random nature – if you start off with shit weapons, you are fucked. If you don’t get good perks, you are fucked. If you pick your upgrades between levels incorrectly, you are, you guessed it, fucked.
Every run started to go exactly the same way:
- Find an Ice Blast.
- Find a Crossbow or, even better, a Multiple-Nocks Bow. Upgrade to have more ammo.
- Get two turrets and upgrade them to cause bleeding or poison.
- Freeze everyone before dropping turrets and blasting arrows everywhere.
The very nature of the game that made me enjoy it is an interesting topic for me – it feels like gambling, as with gambling, losing brings you down a bit, but winning skyrockets you into the clouds. This is how it felt initially. But after 15 hours of play, it hit me that I had reached a personal ceiling of progression in the game. My skill increases between 1 and 5 hours were enormous, from 5-10 hours they were decent, and from 12+ hours they were hardly existent at all.
There are simply too many variables in the game that act as a roadblock to improve your skill level. The only way to overcome this roadblock is to gamble with increasing amounts of your own time, hoping you get exactly the items required to progress, with decreasing payouts on each win.
Dead Cells is a very interesting title and from watching countless YouTube videos on how to play the game, watching players blast through final bosses with relative ease, and receiving countless tips of how to play it properly, it’s no secret that players have figured out the game far more than I have. But to get to that level, you need to deal with absurd levels of randomness, and invest a lot of time doing so. Unfortunately, this just isn’t something I’m willing to do. It’s still a solid title that’s worthy of the praise it receives, and one that I’m proud to put on my shelf, as if just to say: “I played this fucking game and murdered thousands of monsters by kicking down doors for 15 hours.”
How Could It Be Different?
Of course, the final question I’m forced to ask myself here is what could have fixed this game for me? To answer that is (mostly) simple: providing more permanent upgrades (mutations) to the player and allowing them to start with things like better weapons and increased starting health outright, rather than having them start from scratch every time.
When I first started playing the game and I was finding weapon recipes everywhere (that now proudly hang in the main starting room), my thought was that I would be able to start with any of those weapons that I had found. When I learned that was not at all how it works, I was pretty disappointed.
While you can buy weapons at the start of each run, it still felt like I was pigeon-holed into only using the bow, or occasionally the whip, or lightning, as melee quickly turns into a kamikaze run when I popped in a Stem Cell.
I’m still keeping “randomly generated” at the top of my “oh no nos” list, and while Dead Cells did a great job of keeping me entertained for the 15 or so hours that I spent with it, I’ll take this as a learning experience. Simply put, games that are dictated by countless variables need to reward the player by making some of those variables less random as time goes on.
I hope you enjoyed this (slight) rant about Dead Cells! If you’ve got an opinion on the game, advice, or anything else, leave it in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!