Illustration for article titled Dead Cells: Binding The Dark Soul Of Isaac To Bloodborne

I think I’ve said everything I need to say about Destiny 2 until something actually changes and I have a reason to play it again so today we’re going to talk about how and why Dead Cells is the most fun I’ve had with a new game’s combat system this year. Motion Twin’s Early Access rogue-like-lite takes several gameplay systems from a couple of my favorite titles and crafts a highly refined, addictively fun combat system that’s good enough to carry dozens and dozens of hours of gameplay.

When mixed with Rogue-lite elements like interesting items and powerful synergies it ends up being a recipe for a game that, when there is enough content here, might just waste hundreds of hours of my time.

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Before we go any further people have made clear to me that I haven’tdone a good job with the whole “spoiler coming” thing in thepast.

I suppose I will be “spoiling” the game in that I’ll be going into great detail about what the game does well and the linked video shows many of the levels and enemies but Dead Cells isn’t a narrative experience and it doesn’t rely on mystery and surprise like some of the games it borrows from. So I don’t think anyone’s experience will be any worse for having read or watched this unlike say, if I was doing an analysis of an unreleased Dark Souls title or if you hadn’t played Nier Automata and read or watched that piece. But for what it’s worth....

Those are spoilers btw. They go on the back of cars.
Those are spoilers btw. They go on the back of cars.

I think it’s also important to make it absolutely clear that Dead Cells is still an early access title and is subject to further refinement and improvement. With that being said I’ve played Dead Cells for 136 hours and I think I’ve played enough to have a grasp on what it’s doing well.

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With all of that out of the way we’re going to take a look at Dead Cells’ unique blend of influences and examine how it borrows it’s most important combat mechanics directly from Soulsborne. We’ll take a look at how it handles player progression and check-pointing correctly and finally discuss how blending these two systems with a Binding of Isaac and Risk Of Rain style item synergy system makes it the best genre blender I’ve ever played.

This is a really long blog post. The video is really long too but at least it features fun visual aids and the ability to critique my gameplay thereby making yourself feel just a bit better about your own skill level.

Combat is the soul of gaming. It’s….dark soul you might say...

In general, real time combat systems in games are exactly what they’ve always been. You attempt to do damage while avoiding damage yourself. That’s obvious but we’re going to use it as a jumping off point to examine what makes a combat system truly engaging.

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Early games were greatly constrained in the amount of information that could be shown on screen. In spite of that (or hell maybe because of that)the control and combat in some of those early games were extremely tight and focused. Galaga (probably my favorite arcade game ever and one that I routinely thrashed other people in at a bar my wife and I haunted in our youth) had you strafing side to side, avoiding enemy projectiles and ships and firing back. Asteroid had you boosting around a screen and rotating a triangle 360 degrees to shoot rocks into pieces. The mechanics of almost all early video game combat was simply avoid pixels by moving and destroy pixels by attacking and many of the earliest games featured combat that was only fleeing from damage.

Gameplay wise these old games hold up shockingly well today because they are the foundational rock of video game combat and are tightly focused on thevery core of the experience. In fact those foundations hold up farbetter than the combat in the early 3d console games.

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Fun Fact! This company publishes Dark Souls these days.
Fun Fact! This company publishes Dark Souls these days.

All games that feature a real time combat system from the earliest games to today have avoiding damage and doing damage as the core mechanical systems. But if so many games have combat systems that are nearly identical to one another and even to this day the very foundations are unchanged why do some feel so much better than others? Yep you guessed it. We’re going to be looking at Dark Souls again!

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All good modern combat systems rely on a couple of key features which go a long way towards making a game feel “fair” and one of the most overlooked is intuitive player feedback. A great game gives satisfying feedback to the player. Some modern games still inexplicably struggle with this or don’t realize how important it is but a lack of feedback is a recipe for an extremely frustrating experience.

For instance one of my main criticisms of the gameplay in Wolfenstein 2 was just how bad that game was at communicating to the player. Deaths felt fast, cheap and arbitrary because the player never has a good feel on how much damage they are taking.

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Without knowing why you took damage it becomes impossible to learn, adapt and improve to avoid taking damage again.

This feedback system also extends into offensive situations. Whether that’s through animations or sound effects the player needs to somehow feel that she is the one damaging enemies not the avatar on the screen. Reviews and analysis of games with great combat systems often use terms like“weighty” or “smooth” to describe this experience of combat feedback.

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If You Ain’t Dodgin You Ain’t Winnin The Importance of Animations

This picture ended being HUGE. I don’t know how to make it smaller. I probably should have used something different right? Totally.
This picture ended being HUGE. I don’t know how to make it smaller. I probably should have used something different right? Totally.
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A truly great combat system needs to have predictable and avoidable damage. Imagine a game like Dark Souls except instead of being damaged by enemy attacks you only took passive DoT. Without the ability to consistently use skill and tactics to avoid damage you’ve got less than half of a satisfying system. This is what makes the combat in most modern shooter games somewhat lackluster.

In an effort at simulating realism most modern shooters use hitscan weapons with enemies that have varying degrees of accuracy based on difficulty setting. This means the player cannot mitigate damage in any way other than simply breaking line of sight with enemies. This, in a way, is a step back to the beginning of video games. A Call Of Duty game is using the same damage mitigation system as Pac-Man. As such the average modern shooter has you stationary behind a rock or piece of cover then standing up and shooting enemies until you’ve taken so much damage you need to crouch behind the rock again and wait for your health to regenerate. The player has almost no tools at their disposal beyond shoot and hide which can lead to the game feeling like it’s on rails. There is one way and only one way to solve a combat situation.

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Doom 2016 and Destiny 1 were two modern FPS games that did combat right because they had excellent feedback systems through fantastic animations and sound design but even more importantly most enemies in those games did not have hit scan weapons and the movement systems gave the player the option of dodging enemy attacks and staying on the offensive at all times. Just the simple change of making enemy attacks have a travel time that players can react to means that the player is given the opportunity to mitigate damage through clever use of those games movement systems and environments.

If you haven’t played this game it’s a fantastic example of how to craft a shooter that relies on more than crouching behind rocks to avoid damage. You also spend a good chunk of it cutting things in half with a chainsaw. But even without the chainsaw it would be awesome. Less awesome for sure. But still pretty awesome.
If you haven’t played this game it’s a fantastic example of how to craft a shooter that relies on more than crouching behind rocks to avoid damage. You also spend a good chunk of it cutting things in half with a chainsaw. But even without the chainsaw it would be awesome. Less awesome for sure. But still pretty awesome.
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Now of course a hack and slash isn’t’ an FPS but the same general principles apply to almost all games from Galaga to Bloodborne. To be a great combat system a game needs to effectively communicate to the player and has to be able to give the player control over whether or not they take damage beyond simply hiding until they have enough health to stand up again. Dead cells does enemy damage correctly. When you take damage in Dead Cells it was your fault %95 of the time. ( Enemies and areas are procedurally generated so there are occasionally some no win situations but to Motion Twins credit these are very very rare.)

Motion Twin describes Dead Cells as a“Roguevania” and while I understand what they’re trying to communicate I think the game is much better described as a Roguebourne (that’s better than RogueSouls or SoulRogue... it’s the best I could come up with....fine....let’s see you do better.)

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I try not to throw the Soulsbourne label around too liberally outside of an obvious homage to the formula like Salt and Sanctuary and Nioh but Dead Cells has a tremendously fun combat system that absolutely deserves that lofty comparison because it borrows and distills the most important parts of that system. AC Origins apparently thought the most important part of Dark Souls combat was a lock on feature bound to the right stick and a dodge button but those are the tools From gives to the player to navigate their systems not the heart of the system itself.

Yeah I know I’ve been harping on this game an awful lot. But it’s reviews were so good and I just don’t get it. The game is fine. It’s ok. It’s not a waste of your money. But it’s not terribly good. It’s just fine.
Yeah I know I’ve been harping on this game an awful lot. But it’s reviews were so good and I just don’t get it. The game is fine. It’s ok. It’s not a waste of your money. But it’s not terribly good. It’s just fine.
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The Soulsbourne series rightly holds a reputation for some of the best combat that games have to offer. So it’s not terribly surprising that the heart of their combat is...the ability to consistently avoid damage and an amazingly intuitive and communicative feedback system. This is accomplished in Soulsborne,and in Dead Cells, through slow and highly telegraphed enemy animations, equally slow and telegraphed player attack animations,top flight sound design and abilities that allow a player to dodge damage if timed correctly.

In my opinion there are few gaming experiences more beautiful or satisfying than combat in Soulsborne. Fodder enemies still hit hard enough to kill you but they have low health and only one or two attack animations. These low level enemies almost all have attack animations that are extremely slow and exaggerated and serve as wonderful “tutorial sections” without the game needing to stop and explain anything to you. The earliest enemies in Dark Souls rear all the way back to swipe at you and make it obvious you need to dodge or block.

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Boss fights feature enemies with larger pools of attack animations that vary greatly in their timing so the player needs to become familiar with all of them in order to succeed. The core loop of the game lies in recognizing these enemy attack patterns, timing your dodge or block perfectly and then punishing the enemy after they miss.

Dead Cells combat uses this system. Starting the game on the very first level players will encounter either the green zombie or the archer. Like in Soulsborne being hit by either of these enemies will take a significant portion of the players health, meaning that even the games weakest adversaries need to be taken seriously. And just like in Soulsborne these enemies have a very small pool of attack animations that are long, obvious and telegraphed.

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The green Zombie will rear back with his arms,grunt and have a visual cue appear over his head. The player is given 3 types of alerts about an incoming attack. The enemy animation, a convincing and obvious audio cue and an exclamation point that appears over the enemy. The low level ranged enemy, The Archer, has a long exaggerated bow pull, the sound of a bow being pulled and the same exclamation point over his head.

The player is given clear indications they are about to be damaged and has several ways of avoiding that damage. They can dodge roll, block with a shield, jump over the attacks, run away from the attacks or go on the offensive and attack.

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The animations tied to both player and enemy attacks vary depending on a wide variety of variables like enemy type, weapon choice, combos, stagger or stun animations etc. These animations are tied to another one of the genre’s important but sometimes overlooked aspects. Weapons that feel “weighty”.

The combat in Bloodborne feels so good because the animations and sound design seem absolutely real.
The combat in Bloodborne feels so good because the animations and sound design seem absolutely real.
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The use of exaggerated animations and convincing sound effects makes the player feel the combat in a way they don’t when attack animations are sloppy or less convincing sound effects are used. In the linked video I do an interesting comparison between a combat sequence in a Dark Souls and a combat sequence in Assassins Creed Origins. The clips are about 10 seconds of each game during combat with the original sound.

AC Origins takes the fundamentals of the Dark Souls combat system including the 3rd person lock on tied to the right stick, a dodge button and light and heavy attacks bound to the bumber and trigger respectively. The combat in the games is essentially identical when looking at what buttons are pressed and the timing of those inputs. And while the removal of stamina means the combat is significantly watered down it’s still true that these combat systems are mechanically very similar. Much more similar in fact that Dead Cells and Dark Souls are.

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So why does something feel so....insubstantial in the AC combat system? If the mechanical systems are basically identical why is one games combat servicable and one games considered some of the best gaming has to offer? It’s all tied to providing convincing player feedback through animations and sound design.

Animations and sound design are not just window dressing or coats of paint laid on top of a game system. They aren’t mechanics but they fundametally change how we interact with a games mechanics. Animations and sound design create the game “feel”. And “feel” is often the difference between great combat and mediocre combat. Because these variables aren’t inputs the player interacts with it’s easy to miss how crucial they are to the game we’re playing.

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Replayability is greatly impacted by variety in games weapons
Replayability is greatly impacted by variety in games weapons

And finally the combat relies on items and weapons that are different enough that they change the way you play, allowing for the possibility of getting a dramatically different experience simply by switching to a different weapon. Imagine playing Dark Souls if there was only one straight sword andone shield available and you had to go through the entire game thatway. The combat would still be fantastic but it would grow stale atsome point. The huge array of weapon move-sets allow for many different styles of play in each play-through and gives the game much of it’s replayablility.

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Now Dark Souls is a helluva lot more than just it’s combat system. The world and level design, music, art direction, graphics... Dark Souls does an awful lot right. But the success of Nioh shows that even without all those other things the combat alone is enough to carry a game.

This basic combat formula has carried Soulsbourne through 5 games and it’s still good enough that I’ll take 25 more. And this basic combat formula has had me play 136+ hours of an early access game. Dead Cells does it’s combat right.

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Character And Level Progression Pt 1: The Importance Of Limited Healing

We’ve gone over how Dead Cells borrows heavily from the Soulsbourne genre in it’s combat design but there’s something else that Dead Cells has in common with the experience of playing a Soulsborne. Character progression is tied to exploration and the player has only a very limited amount of healing items that can’t be refilled until a checkpoint has been reached.

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Let’s imagine a small change in the design of Dark Souls. What if the player didn’t have Estus Flasks for healing but instead their health bar was longer and represented their total maximum health? That takes a huge part of the game away doesn’t it? In Dead Cells like Dark Souls (Wow. Believe it or not that’s the first time I realized how similar the names were. Good job naming your game Motion Twin) deciding when to heal is a game within the game. Players need to efficiently manage their healing items to get the most possible health out of a level.

Not only must the player manage when it’s most efficient to heal but they need to decide when it’s SAFE to heal. Dead Cells uses an exaggerated healing animation (not as stupidly bullshit long as Dark Souls 2 but still...long). If the player is hit before the animation completes and the healing begins he’s dead. If she’s hit during the animation the heal can be interrupted or if hit while the healing is active he’ll lose much of the healing effect. This greatly increases the tension of any individual combat encounter. A player knows going in how much potential health she has and whether the enemies before them have the potential to kill them before they can escape and heal.

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This adds a degree of strategy to how the player tackles a level. You have to manage total health, health within each encounter and most importantly how much of the level you feel comfortable exploring.

Dead Cells fills the map as you explore. Exits are randomized and hidden. Exploration is a natural extension of the combat and it rules.
Dead Cells fills the map as you explore. Exits are randomized and hidden. Exploration is a natural extension of the combat and it rules.
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Part 2 Progression Through Exploration.

Dark Blood Souls Bourne games famously require the player to acquire the souls (or...Blood Echoes) of defeated enemies to level up and become more powerful. The player can only accomplish this by fighting and killing as many enemies as possible within each level. So the most efficient way to progress the player character is to explore every inch of the map and kill every enemy on that map. Exploration is further rewarded by discovering items and weapons that are cleverly hidden or guarded throughout the levels.

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This tension between exploring levels to reap the maximum possible reward and making it to the check point alive only works because all progress is lost upon death and because of the limited healing available to the player.

Dead Cells uses this formula with a couple of small tweaks. Dead Cells doesn’t use defeated enemies to level up. Defeating enemies rewards the player with Gold and occasionally Dead Cells which are used to unlock and level up weapons and items but the player character levels up by finding scrolls.

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Dead Cells distills the leveling experience by simplifying it. Now I’m the kind of guy who loves complex RPG progression systems. I prefer the Dark Souls system to the Bloodborne system. And one of my main complaints with Destiny 2 is that they took the Destiny 1 progression system, which was far too shallow and simple, and replaced it with a progression tree for dummies.

But those are RPG’s that rely on long hours spent with one character. Building out and equipping your character is one of the core experiences of the RPG genre. Dead Cells is a rogue-like-lite first and foremost. The game is crafted to be fun in 40 minute bursts. It’s not a game that’s meant to have you poring over spreadsheets and comparing notes on a sub reddit to craft the build that will milk 1 extra damage per second out of your equipped weapon.

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That is......a ridiculously huge progression tree. I’m going to have to play Path of Exile.
That is......a ridiculously huge progression tree. I’m going to have to play Path of Exile.

Dead Cells has 3 stats. Brutality,Tactics and Survival. Brutality increases the damage of red weapons,tactics increases the damage of skills and turrets and Survival increases the effectiveness of shields and offers more potential health than the other 2 upgrade paths. The current build tweaks the system nicely by giving health boosts no matter which upgrade path you take and while there are still some interesting choices to be made for the most part your leveling decisions will be made by what items and weapons drop for you in any particular run.

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Dead Cells spreads these scrolls out in fairly random locations on the map so the player needs to explore the level fully to find the scrolls as well as any shops where powerful items can be bought and for the one or two treasure rooms that give free items to the player. There are also timed doors that greatly incentivize speed running but we’ve only got so much space here.

All this has to be done while managing total health and healing flasks. The player uses accumulated Cells to unlock and upgrade items so they need to thoroughly explore each level to progress their character for that run while also making it to the end of the level successfully to progress their character for future runs.

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You’ll be unlocking intersting, powerful and game changing items and weapons for dozens and dozens of hours. Then you’ll spend dozens more upgrading them to provide fun synergies.
You’ll be unlocking intersting, powerful and game changing items and weapons for dozens and dozens of hours. Then you’ll spend dozens more upgrading them to provide fun synergies.

Very few games effectively pull off this tension and Dead Cells got it right almost from the start. It’s been carefully balanced to always be pulling the player in opposing directions. Do I take the door out, spend my cells and move on to progress my character for future runs or do I take that elevator down with only one healing flask left and risk it to find the last scroll on this level for a better chance at winning this run? This tension and decision making is core to the experience and means the game takes a long time to get stale.

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The Dark Souls experience at it’s most fundamental is about interesting combat and the tension of whether or not to rest at a checkpoint and level up or press on for more Souls. Dead Cells has been designed to provide this same experience except in 40 minute bursts of a 2d side scrolling rogue-like.

Unlocking and leveling items and weapons is one of the most important things a player can do in Dead Cells as the more an item is upgraded the greater possibilities for game breaking synergies arise. And those game breaking synergies remind me of another one of the best games in recent history.

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Dead Cells gives me the exact same feeling I get from Dark Souls but throws in everything I love about The Binding Of Issac to boot.

Why Was the Binding of Isaac A Perfect Rogue-Like-Lite? 

So this is one of the greatest games ever made. It features some of the greatest music ever in a game. And the art it has spawned is amazing. I love this game.
So this is one of the greatest games ever made. It features some of the greatest music ever in a game. And the art it has spawned is amazing. I love this game.
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I’ve played The Binding of Isaac for 540+ hours on Xbox alone and I own it on 2 other platforms. While I think it’s on a very short list of the greatest games ever made it’s combat is a much different experience than Dark Souls. In fact it has almost nothing in common with Dark Souls. You don’t have any dodge options in Isaac making it much closer to the pure old school arcade game combat where you simply avoid attacks. There’s a bit more to it as you can bait enemies into moving and attacking in ways that work for you but it has none of the depth of a Soulsbourne combat system.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the most important aspect of Isaac’s success was the synergistic possibilities offered by it’s tremendous amount of items. Issac is a completely different game playing with only the base tears of a character. In fact the game is much much less fun like that. That example I gave before about playing Dark Souls with only a straight sword and shield? Yeah, I’d probably still play that game all the way through. If I had to play Isaac with only the starting tears? I wouldn’t have played nearly as long.

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If Isaac only had the base tears it wouldn’t even be the best rogue-like of recent vintage because Nuclear Throne and Enter The Gungeon have better, more responsive base combat systems than Isaac provides. It’s the items and the way they surprisingly break the game and interact with each other that makes the game so special.

Isaac works because a tremendous amount of items, upgrades and tools are available to the player and the random nature of each run means that there are nearly limitless possibilities.

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The Binding Of Isaac has a few items. Some of these items interact with each other in interesting ways. Google a seed for Brimstone, Tammys Head and Spoon Bender. If you finid one I garauntee a splendid time.
The Binding Of Isaac has a few items. Some of these items interact with each other in interesting ways. Google a seed for Brimstone, Tammys Head and Spoon Bender. If you finid one I garauntee a splendid time.

In hundreds and hundreds (and HUNDREDS) of hours only once did I ever get Brimstone, Tammy’s Head and Spoon Bender in a single run. That combination meant that for the next 20 minutes I obliterated everything that spawned in moments. Including bosses. That’s the key to Isaac’s success. It’s where the fun is.

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Most runs don’t end up with ridiculous combinations like that (damn I wish I’d written down the seed for that one. I’d like to play that again,)but the possibility that any particular run will gives Isaac it’s“just one more run” gameplay loop.

That Dead Cells manages to successfully pull off both of these in one extremely fun package is it’s greatest triumph. The combat with the rusty sword the player starts the game off with is solid and fun. The basic combat and movement system are tight and responsive enough that just traversing the levels and fighting enemies at it’s most basic form is enjoyable and skill based. Like Dark Souls the combat in the early levels is basically the same as the combat in the later levels on a mechanical level and while you’ll unlock new weapons and skills that make combat play slightly differently, unlike Isaac you won’t get an item to make your sword grow 20 times larger and orbit your head so that it instantly faceroll’s everything on the screen.

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So while the weapons in Dead Cells aren’t as ridiculous and game breaking as they are in Isaac it has enough synergistic possibilities that will occasionally line up to make you an unstoppable force of destruction.

This is exactly as much fun as this picture makes it look. More even.
This is exactly as much fun as this picture makes it look. More even.
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As in any good Rogue-lite you’ll need to play a good bit to unlock these items. From the very start you’ll be consistently unlocking weapons and items and very quickly you’ll have several that you’ll be very comfortable with. In fact, unlike most Rogue-lite’s there are almost none that I dislike enough tonever use them (aside from boots. People say their powerful but I’mgood on kicking things when I can dismember them with swords and Ifind the animation much less satisfying). But just unlocking the items isn’t the end of the story. You’ll have to go through several upgrade paths with those items.

After defeating the current final boss you’ll discover a mechanic that allows you to make future runs more difficult with later stage enemies now appearing in earlier levels. This also unlocks the second tier of upgrades which allows each item and weapon to have a flat stat boost as well as up to 3 modifiers. These modifiers are key to creating the wonderful synergies that any good rogue-lite needs.

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As an example: My favorite weapons are the blood sword, war spear, Impaler and any freezing item like the ice grenade, ice bow or especially the frost blast. Very occasionally you’ll get frost blast early on only to later discover one of your other favorites that now carries a bonus +%175 damage when used on frozenen emies and +%100 damage to poisoned enemies. Finally you’ll stumble upon another item that releases a toxic cloud upon enemy death. And thus deos the carnage begin.

Unlike Isaac’s Guppy transformation Dead Cells never becomes trivial with the right build but it does become easy enough so that just around the corner there is a pay off for the frustration of previous failures.

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Difficulty: Or Why DoesThis Seem So....Difficult For Developers To Get Right?

Furi is very hard. Much harder than Dead Cells or Dark Souls. Nearly as hard as Cuphead. But it doesn’t revel in your misery like a certain colorful cartoon game I know.
Furi is very hard. Much harder than Dead Cells or Dark Souls. Nearly as hard as Cuphead. But it doesn’t revel in your misery like a certain colorful cartoon game I know.
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I’ve addressed difficulty in several videos and articles and I’ll be addressing it again because I think difficulty is one of the most important mechanics in a game. It’s the most fine balancing a developer has to do. Make your game too difficult and you severely shrink your potential audience. Make your game too easy and you do the same while assuring that even the audience you do have will become bored very quickly unless your story is truly special.

A brief aside:

I remain baffled as to why all games don’t simply include a wealth of difficulty options but...people are strange and seem to have a real problem with being given options.

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They also apparently feel that their experience is somehow soiled if someone else has an easier time.

Or maybe they just don’t trust themselves to not play on easy.

Whatever.

Either way.

Outside of the best, easiest and most obvious solution of offering difficulty tiers, games often have to either decide they’ll just live with the small audience or they have to be clever about throwing the player enough bones so that they don’t rage quit and tell everyone they know the game blows.

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Dead Cells handles this like Isaac does, which is to say, very, very well. The game is carefully balanced with enemies on each level scaling up as you level up so you’re never ridiculously overpowered but having enough powerful items and modifiers (called affixes on DC forumsin Dead Cells)so that a player, if smart with their gold and paying attention, will occasionally run into an extremely powerful combination that allows him to relax,enjoy the game and let off the tension of failure.

This is what Cuphead didn’t do. The game was gorgeous, and everything about the gameplay was tight. It was always “fair” when you were damaged. But the difficulty was so high it required a level of time investment I just couldn’t sustain. By the 3rd boss of the last island I was drained and had no desire to keep playing. Every design decision where the developers could have offered the players less frustration they seemingly chose instead to offer more. For instance Cuphead gives you almost zero i-frames after damage whereas Dead Cells will give you a couple of seconds to recover and continue playing. Dead Cells punishes repeated sloppy play or failure to learn but it isn’t cruel.

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The more I played the Cuphead the more it felt like player frustration was actually something the design was intended to produce. A game can be difficult without being demoralizing if developers take player frustration into account.
The more I played the Cuphead the more it felt like player frustration was actually something the design was intended to produce. A game can be difficult without being demoralizing if developers take player frustration into account.

Dead Cells, unlike Cuphead seems to recognize that there is a difference between challenging and frustrating. If I love all the Soulsborne games, and Furi why did I have such an issue with Cuphead? Because there were almost no design decisions that were aimed at relieving the inevitable frustration that would arise in the player. Make your game hard by all means but don’t waste my time and once in awhile throw the player a bone to keep them playing. My first article dealt with this and I made a long and absolutely awful quality video about Cuphead so I won’t go any further but suffice it to say Dead Cells acknowledges your frustration.

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The game rewards your patience not only with a constant feeling of skill progression but the crucial, always there possibility, that the next shop will have a weapon that makes your load-out unstoppable. It manages to keep the player hopeful and engaged without ever becoming so over powered the experience is boring in it’s simplicity.

Dead Cells Does All TheLittle Things Right: Including Big Things Like Not Wasting My Fu***ngTime

The game also doesn’t waste my time. Any run can be paused and exited at any time and when you boot the game back up you’ll be right back where you were. This isn’t a small thing for me.

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Back before Isaac allowed this forums were full of people defending the in defensible lack of this option with idiotic statements like “the game is short just finish a run or don’t start if you don’t have time to complete it”, or “you can always come back later” or “just put your console to sleep but leave it on overnight”.

No. No no no.

I expect that if I’m going to invest hard earned money and a significant amount of my life into your consumer product the least you can do is respect that investment by not wasting my time.

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Dead Cells has an intuitive and unobtrusive UI that’s simple and easy to read but still conveys all the information the player needs. Item descriptions feature and easy to understand fonts and the flavor text is clear and simple to understand which makes choosing load-outs and upgrades easy. I never had to pause more than a couple of seconds to make a decision in a shop or a chest room.

It runs at a stable 60 fps. I have never once experienced a crash. And in well over 100 hours I experienced exactly ONE glitch. An elevator in the Ossuary level turned invisible and I could not progress.

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The enemy design is quite amazing. Enemies behave how you think they will be first looking at them.
The enemy design is quite amazing. Enemies behave how you think they will be first looking at them.

Everything feels very carefully designed for ease of use and simplicity while keeping it’s complexity confined to it’s combat system where it belongs. Enemy design is uniformly excellent. Simply looking at an enemy conveys visually most of the information you’ll need which is quite the feat. Every enemy behaved how I thought it would behave the moment I saw them. I think it’s important to recognize how impressive that is. There is more than enough enemy variety and thus far two of the three bosses are fun and fair though the current final boss is difficult enough that you’ll still occasionally lose if your weapons aren’t well suited or you’re just off that run. Now I like to write articles and make videos criticizing things because I’m cranky and this has been a bit of a love fest so....

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How about a littlefriendly criticism before we go? Or Here’s Where I really Fish For Something to Nitpick

There are only a very few things to even complain about in the games current state. As I said it runs at a stable 60 fps and looks beautiful but it could use some more settings options. Though the attention to detail already present in early access gives me confidence settings will be expanded before release.

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The former final boss has now been moved to a mid game optional boss and while visually very cool, it’sstill not terribly fun or interesting to fight. Much of the charm of Dead Cells relies on it’s speed and the aggressiveness of it’s combat. Fighting The Watcher requires an awful lot of waitingaround which usually isn’t very good gameplay outside of stealth titles and feels particularly out of place in this game. Also the fight can be an absolute chore if you end up with a slow and heavyweapon.

This guy is still sometimes annoying to fight. I’m a very impatient transplanted New Yorker. I wait for no one eyed chain squid.
This guy is still sometimes annoying to fight. I’m a very impatient transplanted New Yorker. I wait for no one eyed chain squid.
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There’s an enemy in a late game level called the Golem that seems terribly unbalanced in his current state. The entire game is built around having enough ease of movement to make fleeing a legitimate strategy and this particular enemy has a large health pool, a long range AOE attack, a stun, and the ability to teleport you back to him making fleeing literally impossible.

There’s a level near the end of the game that’s so punishing there’s almost no reason to risk even visiting it. It’s more difficult than the games current final level. It features scores of powerful teleporting enemies with extremely long aggro range who will never stop chasing you and a gameplay mechanic that’s currently tuned to be far too punishing.

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There’s a darkness mechanic that damages you if you spend too long away from a light source. Now that could be a really cool late game mechanic that challenged the player and made her make some very difficult risk reward exploration decisions. But the damage from the mechanic can take a player from full health to death in literally seconds. The effect is too strong to even heal through and it’s simply too punishing to feel fun or fair.

There’s very fine line between challenging and annoying and Dead Cells masterfully manages to stay firmly on the fun side of the line. But the Forgotten Sepulcher isn’t fun in it’s current state. An excellent compromise would be to have the players health drop to 1HP when in darkness so any damage taken will result in death until they get back to a light source at which point they begin slowly regenerating their health.

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Dead Cells ramps up difficulty by occasionally throwing hordes of enemies at you and the fights against elite enemies, which are crucial because they provide powerful rewards, can end up with so much clutter on screen that it’s suddenly less about the deliberate skill based combat and more about burning down a bunch of enemies by mashing dodge and attack and hoping you kill it before something in the incomprehensible mess of pixels kills you.

The current final boss The Assassin can occasionally lock you into a distinctly unfun stunned unto death combo which are amongst the most frustrating deaths in any game.

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Aaaannnnd...that’s it I guess.

I really can’t think of anything else. Writing this section really drives home how great the game is in it’s current build. For an early access title it’s remarkably polished, stable and balanced.

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These are minor quibbles and honestly they feel silly to dwell on. Even if none of these things were changed I’ll still be regularly playing.

Dead Cells, by the developers own admission, isn’t “close to being finished”. Which is amazing because what’s there right now is excellent value. There are already 14 levels (though you’ll only end up seeing about 7 per successful run) and 3 bosses (though you’ll only fight 2 per run) and each run can take more than 30 minutes so I’m not sure how much more it really needs.

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If nothing else was done it would be an excellent game and each update that’s come down has improved and changed it for the better in my opinion. I’m interested in seeing how far Motion Twin plans on going with it.

If the game doubled in size from here it’d probably be an all time classic. If they polish it up, add two more bosses and 3 more levels? It’s one of the best games in recent memory. And if it stays exactly like it is? It’s something I’m comfortable recommending to everyone who is willing to listen.

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A game that manages not only to artfully blend two of my favorite gaming genres but also recognizes and borrows only the most important aspects of those genres is a masterpiece in the making.

About the typist:

Pliny The Welder intends for each piece to be shorter than the last. In fact his original intention for this very piece here was for it to be about 4 pages and 8 minutes on video. Pliny is either very poor at editing his thoughts or very good at repeating himself in clever ways. The latter has the word“good” so lets go with that. He’s truly grateful for the shocking amount of people who’ve been reading his articles. He hoped to get 400 page views and a few dozen video views. But he’s gotten much more than that here at kinja and on YouTube he has more subscribers than he thought he’d get in several years.

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Pliny would like to thank you.

And of course he’d hold you in the highest regard if you checked out his other articles and watched his videos, if you do that he’d be ever so happy if you liked, shared and subscribed and if you do all that he might just be so bold as to request this next dance. The band is playing our song.

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