The first time I played Dead Cells, about a year ago, I bounced clean off it. Released on Steam Early Access, this 2D smooshing of roguelike principles and hyper-Castlevania action has always had the same core to it: you begin each run in the Prisoner's Quarters and, as you progress through each themed area, collect items and the titular Cells (Cells are the game's currency, which can be used between levels but are lost on death). Die and everything you're carrying is lost. And you're gonna die a lot.
During the Early Access period, I gradually came to see where Dead Cells was going. It always had precise, fast and brutal combat, even though in the first months the basic enemy types were lacking. Over time more and deadlier enemies were added, while the game overall became more generous with weapons and especially gadgets. As the developers layered more and more atop the precision combat, Dead Cells began to mutate into something special.
This Switch release coincides with Dead Cells reaching a 'finished' state and, a full six months since I last played it, the difference is huge. This is an example of how Early Access can really work for a game. Dead Cells' greatest strengths have, over this time, been expanded-upon and the few weaknesses either sanded-down or improved. It also now includes a story delivered chunk-by-chunk over multiple runs, an irresistible modifiers system for weapons and gadgets, and the kind of overarching structure that makes you perform air kisses when it's all going well. This is the kind of game where a run can take one minute or one hour, and after every single failure you'll want to just start again.
Dead Cells didn't come out of nowhere. The two most obvious inspirations are Spelunky and Rogue Legacy. From the former it took a love of chain reactions, meta-goals within environments, and enabling items to work in unexpected ways. There are those moments in Spelunky where, kitted-out to the nines and cocky, one false step leads to five seconds of complete chaos and a foolish death. Dead Cells has exactly this quality, particularly once past the early areas. Rogue Legacy is not as good a game as Spelunky (no great criticism) but its smartest idea was tying each run into an overall 'power-up' structure so that you always felt you were progressing in some way.
The Collector in Dead Cells performs this function with aplomb, greedily hoovering up the 'Cells' you collect from defeated enemies after each level, and in return unlocking permanent upgrades. Initially these are basic survival buffs like a health flask, retaining some money after death and so on, but pretty soon you're finding blueprints for new weapons, giving yourself a random starter weapon rather than the basic blade, and discovering a whole world of monster-slicing gadgets you never dreamed existed.
It's the combat that makes Dead Cells wonderful. The environment generation is great up to a point, though you'll never be able to top something like Symphony of the Night with proc-gen levels, but what really keeps the game interesting is the wide variety of basic enemies (changed-up for every single environment) that populate these scaffold-like patterns. Even early on there are enemies that can attack across vertical levels, or from a distance, or have a shield. But pretty soon they're emerging from beneath your feet, mixing up their attacks, locked into little groups that you have to handle all at once, and even able to teleport around following you.
Against this is a vast array of weapons and, especially, the glorious gadgets. "Those toys," as Jack Nicholson's Joker once mused, "where does he get those wonderful toys?" In this case it's from treasure chests, loot drops and, over multiple runs, acquiring new blueprints and then 'paying' enough Cells to unlock them. Even the way this works shows how well-integrated Dead Cells' various systems are: you may have certain unlock priorities for your Cells but, depending on how your run's going, it may make more sense to unlock an item now, after which the Collector provides it at an appropriate level.
This ability to tweak your luck is the most irresistible layer of Dead Cells, and the previous example is only the most obvious manifestation. New to me are the mutations, one of which can be added after each level, that enhance your skills in certain areas. New to me also is the little blacksmith dude that can re-roll the modifiers of your weapons and gadgets for relatively small amounts of money (at first, anyway). This means that each run gives you the opportunity to fiddle, to try and get modifiers for your tools that work together (e.g. a gadget that causes bleeding and a weapon that does double damage to bleeding enemies), and most of the time you end up with something very serviceable indeed.
This may seem like a minor detail. But it's what has turned a very good game indeed into a quite brilliant one. A lot of Dead Cells hasn't changed over the Early Access period, but the feel of the game and the way each run's rhythm slowly builds now hits the finest pitch. As I'm now some way into the game, I speedrun the earlier areas and the game is both prepared for and encourages this with shortcuts and timed doors leading to treasure hoards.
Almost every single time I die, I mutter some curse words out loud, and happily start again. Some roguelikes have a kind of heave after death: you can't quite face up to everything you just lost, or the long road back, so you switch off. With Dead Cells I can't wait to get back in.
This is a game that has been refined to a point where elements simply run like clockwork. The algorithm underlying items has been made more generous, and more observant: if you're low on cash, don't be surprised to find enemies dropping jewels for a spell. If you're close to death but manage to struggle on for a good while, there just may be a blessed kebab round that corner. At times it even seems to have a sense of humour. You'll push through two levels desperate for gadgets, then four turn up at once. A pleasing number of times, the modifiers across your toolset work together.
Dead Cells on PC was always pretty good. But Dead Cells on Switch has quite simply booted all other games on my machine into touch. Sorry Fortnite, see you next season. Nintendo's console is perfect for time-pressed gamers, and Dead Cells' capacity for both five- and 50-minute runs slots so perfectly into whatever space you have available. Every run, so far, has ended in failure. Every run, so far, has felt worthwhile. And every run, especially when it ends, just gets me more excited for the next one.