POST TIME: 6 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Dead Cells

Dead Cells

Though superficially another imitator of the peerless Dark Souls, this fluid, beautiful game has a vibrant life of its own. It’s a challenging, side-scrolling combat and jumping game, evoking the likes of Castlevania and Ghosts and Goblins for anyone who was around for the 1990s, but with the art amped up to animation quality and level layouts that fiendishly remix themselves each time you play.

Dead Cells hits like an injection of adrenaline, hurling your nameless, faceless character into a lethal world of blades, plagues and roving beasts. Death arrives quickly and often; first you’re aiming just to survive, then to improve, and eventually to win. Crucially, each death brings with it the conviction that, next time, you will do better. The randomly generated maps never devolve into a mad jumble of abstract designs – they’re neat, tricky micro-labyrinths that bring a fresh challenge every time. Dashing yourself against these ever-shifting rocks is thrilling rather than deflating.

Though a sudden death against a hulking boss or one too many teleporting death-knights will throw you back to Dead Cells’ start, all is never lost. You’ll still have made permanent progress towards, say, unlocking a new type of weapon or an extra health potion to help you jump the hurdle you shattered your legs on last time around. Or better yet, you’ll have found a rune that enables you to reach previously locked-down areas and challenges. Doors, statues, sigils and strange plants you previously ran straight past become gateways to new mini-adventures. Or you’ll have stumbled into a brutally effective weapon combination (there are dozens) that you’re itching to try again.

The masterstroke here is that any pang of regret at your own failure only lasts a moment – a new Dead Cells run is so quick to get going and delivers such quick thrills that despair simply never has time to set in.

Combat is about speed, evasion and an ever-growing choice of weirdo weapons, not ritual blocking or solemn trudging. When playing well, you’re a bolt of bladed lightning shot across a blighted world that deftly sidesteps gothic stereotypes. Strange foes and stranger equipment are learned, mastered, anticipated, and new paths and possibilities open up ingeniously once you gain experience.

The only fly in this obscenely moreish ointment is Dead Cells’ occasional tendency to default to dull death-dealing cliches such as spikes, sawblades and acid pools. Routine and disruptive, these unimaginative environmental hazards lack the supercharged momentum of the rest of the game’s fighting and exploration. Monster-tussling never gets old, but there’s less variety and ingenuity wrung from the core acts of traversal: running and jumping. Dead Cells is a deliriously good time whatever console you play it on, but the instant-on, play-anywhere nature of Nintendo Switch is a particularly comfortable fit for a game played in short, frenzied, fatal bursts.