Early Access Snapshot: Dead Cells

Early access games are little presents from possible futures: you're not quite sure where the game is going to end up, but the developer is playing around with ~*~something~*~ and wants to know if it works. For this reason, early access games are chances for the developer to have a dialogue with players: what works in the game & what doesn't; what's exciting & what's rote. 

Sure, you may have to contend with some bugs and crashes, but watching something grow and develop (and getting to see how a game is built from the ground up) is unlike anything else in gaming.

Today, we take a quick look at Motion Twin's upcoming game, Dead Cells, currently available on Steam in early access.

One of the things I continue to find alienating about the gaming industry is the prolific use of insider terminology. Games are often categorized by their similarities to games of the past. If you don't have knowledge of those prior games (due to access, only more recent interest in games, or any other variety of reasons), these terms can be opaque to the extreme.

Such is the case for most articles that discuss Dead Cells, an early access game from developer Motion Twin. Heck the promotional website for Dead Cells is subtitled "a metroidvania rogue-lite with some souls-lite combat" (it continues, but the rest of the title is cut off due to the merciful Google gods).

I could write a whole article about the use of language like this, and how it distances potential players while, I suppose, drawing in the type of folks who believe that "real games" are a thing. I had to put three hyperlinks in that above sentence! That's absurd. Gatekeeping is boring at best.

But Dead Cells kept getting stellar reviews for how flat-out fun it is. So, when the Steam sale rolled around, I decided to give it a try. I figured I'd play for a few minutes, get anxious, and reaffirm that this just isn't my sort of game.

Turns out, it's a gosh darn blast. 

I've been playing it for hours, and have felt nothing but adrenaline-fueled excitement. My partner, who is usually petty video-game averse, even picked it up. We passed the controller back and forth, cheering each other on, only taking breaks for Honey Nut Cheerios and high-fives.

At its heart, Dark Cells is simple: the player battles through randomly generated levels (meaning: the enemies and general feel of each progressive level is consistent on each play-through, but the layout of the level/general composition changes each time), trying to get as far as possible. When the character dies, the player starts back at the beginning.

The excitement comes from a number of individually small factors: 

First, the game is fast and exceptionally smooth. Battling requires thoughtfulness, but is always swift. The limited number of inventory slots help with this: you can only have two weapons and two special items (like bombs or bear traps) at any given time. To get a new item, you have to eject an old one. 

Further, as you play, you collect "cells" from fallen enemies. These cells can be invested in upgrades at certain checkpoints. (If you die before reaching a checkpoint, you lost the cells you accumulated up until that point, natch.) These investments can be in weapons upgrades, unlocking new weapons, increasing the number of health potions you get in between checkpoints, etc. These investments remain in place even after you die. So, though frustrating to die (especially with the checkpoint in sight and 40 cells in your pocket, ready to invest), the game feel like you're still progressing. 

I also loved the necessary adaption that came with randomly generated levels. There were certain weapons I preferred to others. However, the game always starts you with the same basic weapons, and what weapons you get from there depends on whatever the game's algorithm throws your way. So, on a certain play-through, I might not get the dual swords I usually prefer to use. This means I have to work with what I have. If I get a weapon early on that does twice the damage to targets on fire, you can bet that I'm going to try and get my hands on fire grenades down the line. This "work with what you have" mentality makes the game feel different every single time.

To put it simply: the gameplay is incredibly smart.

Motion Twin recognized that they were making something difficult and, so, made sure that the design was as smooth as possible. 

In playing difficult games, I usually get pretty anxious. I never feel quick or good enough at these sorts of games to ever feel confident. I can usually feel the anxiety building as I get further along in the game: I know that the farther I get, the more frustrated I'll feel when I inevitably fail. That's why I haven't played Dark Souls, and why I've avoided anything like it.

But Dead Cells hasn't once even given me a whiff of that anxiety. 

The game is certainly difficult, but it feels extraordinarily light and breezy. Dying in the game isn't a gut-punch. Sometimes, it's a chance to start fresh. Every time I fail, I'm greeted with a familiar but still entirely new scene, and I get to start over from scratch and experiment with what comes my way this time. (Until I die again.) 

Motion Twin should learn something from their own design when it comes to promoting Dead Cells: it could be a wonderful introduction to a whole different style of gaming for folks like me. I would have picked it up a lot quicker had it not come burdened with its own weighty subtitling. (I still can't believe I had to use three different hyperlinks.)

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some dungeons to crawl.

Grab Dead Cells on Steam. (15% off if you get it before July 5. Get on that Summer Sale bandwagon!)

Watch a short playthrough via IGN here, or below.