“Dead Cells” plays like an ideal Super Nintendo game. For players of a certain age, the game’s souped-up, 16-bit-like aesthetics should stimulate the neurons that are vulnerable to nostalgia. Its story line harks back to the days where plot took a back seat to gameplay. At the beginning of the game, the hero (a.k.a the prisoner) is dropped from a decent height into a dungeon. Advancing to the right, he encounters a female warrior who greets him and makes mention of the fact that he is tongueless and cannot die. Past her, on the ground, are two starting items that can be picked up — a rusty sword and a wooden shield. Having grown up playing games like “Ghosts ‘n Goblins,” I took shallow pleasure in employing the rudimentary tools of the hack n’ slash genre to begin my journey. The game’s tight controls and appealing art style made it easy for me to get into, but I certainly didn’t think it would do anything to excite me.
Killing an enemy may cause the enemy to drop a “cell,” an orbish-looking item of a bluish-white color. Upon completing a level, the hero enters a space between hostile areas where he can use the services of the Collector. For a varying number of cells per item, the Collector will furnish the hero with a permanent upgrade, like the ability to use new weapons. The selection of upgrades offered by the Collector can be increased by picking up randomly dropped blueprints scattered throughout the levels. Past the Collector another person offers mutations that can, among other things, increase the hero’s hit points or reduce the amount of time between the use of grenades or sentry weapons. Only a few mutations are permitted, but they can be reset for a fee. Eventually, the hero will come across someone who can increase the chances of high-quality, random item drops.
After grinding for a good number of hours to unlock a few health flasks, a random selection of starting weapons, and the ability to retain a portion of gold after death, the game opened up for me. As I got further into it and began acquiring better items, I started to relish the game’s mechanics. When I started throwing turrets onto floors filled with enemies, and then scurried away to let my stand-ins do my dirty work, I saw the game in a new light. Why use a sword and shield when you can use fireballs, lightning, or turrets to demolish your enemies? When I first used a couple of turrets to obliterate a boss, I joyfully exclaimed to no one but myself. Naturally, around the time I grew complacent with my character’s long health bar and lethal toys, the game’s difficulty shot up. And as painful as the end of a run can be, “Dead Cells’” steady introduction of new mechanics made it easy for me to pine for one more go. In my view, that’s the hallmark of a successful arcade experience.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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