Procedurally Generated Content: Dead Cells

In recent years there seems to be an almost unending influx of 2D, pixel art, rogue-like/rogue-lite/metroidvania games popping up in Steam’s library. Among this bloat there are dozens of unique and entertaining experiences to have. Dead Cells is one of those games. So if you’re still waiting for Konami to make a proper Castlevania game that isn’t an erotic pachinko game, Dead Cells will scratch that itch.

Game: Dead Cells
Platform: PC
Developer: Motion Twin
Release Date: May 10, 2017 (Early Access)
MSRP: $16.99

Overview

Dead Cells is what the developers are calling a “roguevania”, which just means it’s a 2D side scrolling platformer with perma-death. What makes Dead Cells interesting and different are it’s various mechanics. The many different mechanics of Dead Cells have been seen before in other games but the combination of them is what makes the gaming experience unique.

Dead Cells borrows most heavily from the Castlevania series. From the blue map that fills in as you explore to secret wall meat, granted the meat has been replaced by a healthier snack, a carrot, but the effects are still the same. Other borrowed mechanics include the purchasable permanent unlocks/upgrades from Rogue Legacy, the counter attack healing of Bloodborne, the dodge rolling of the Dark Souls series, and the high difficulty of many other rogue-likes. All of these pieces alone do not make a good game, but together you have a fast paced, rewarding, action platformer that punishes even the slightest mistakes.

Story

So far there is almost no story to speak of. You’re a headless ninja looking fella who needs cells…for reasons… I’ll give the game the benefit of the doubt and say that the story portion of the game will come out in a later update. But for now who needs a story when you can explore the sprawling levels hidden within the dungeon.

Gameplay

Every run of Dead Cells starts the same, a green ball of sentient slime enters the headless husk of a recently executed prisoner. When you awaken you get to pick from a rusty knife, a shabby bow, and a plank of wood which can be wielded as a shield; to start at least. You can unlock the option to randomize which items spawn at the beginning. This randomization leads to one of the more entertaining parts of the game.

Each weapon and shield work differently, which leads to you never getting to lean on a single play style. You can grab weapons like the rapier, which inflict a critical strike after a dodge roll leading to a more fast paced style of game play, or a whip (because of course there’s a whip in a Metroidvania), which deals minuscule damage at close range but if you connect with just the tip of the whip you can deal a large amount of damage.

Aside from these main weapons there are sub-weapons or skills, which you either find in chests or purchase from shops. These sub-weapons also alter your play style, so if you have a slower weapon like the whip or burning mace you can find items like the flash bang or ice bomb to hold enemies in place. Aside from their main effects each sub-weapon can be granted random special effects such as increased damage against stunned enemies, poisons enemies on contact, or even summon biting insects to chomp on the enemies toes.

Defeating certain mini-bosses in the game grant you permanent powers which let you access different parts of each level letting you jump past the lower level areas to more dangerous areas with high level items. Currently there are only a couple of these but hopefully with the later updates we will see more of these to lead us to new unique areas.

Every area in this game has a unique theme and atmosphere. From The Ramparts which sees you high atop a castle’s many keeps to the Ossuary with its bone filled halls. These areas are all filled with different deadly enemies. The first few times through each level is a new experience. However, after running through these levels a few times you start to see the same exact patterns whenever you encounter them. This is one of the downsides of procedural generation in general. If you want to make a procedurally generated game you need to have enough random pieces to keep the levels fresh and interesting.

This also applies to the enemies. While there are unique enemies in most of the levels you will run up against a lot of the same enemies. Over. And over. And over again. It doesn’t help that some of the enemies are just rehashed versions of enemies you saw in earlier stages. Oh hey, this zombie is smaller and slightly faster than the other one or this bat is a different color and has more health. Again all of these problems can be fixed with later patches.

Verdict

So far this game is on the right track to end up being excellent. That is if the developers can keep up frequent updates adding new weapons, sub-weapons, enemies, and new pieces of levels to increase their variability. It only took me about 13 hours to make my way  through to the end but even after completing what’s there I’m still looking forward to starting new runs and finding new combos to decimate the denizens of the dungeon. I would recommend this game to anyone who is a fan of other rogue-like games like Binding of Isaac, Rogue Legacy, etc. or anyone who needs to get their fix of some classic Castlevania.

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