Roguelikes (or what is more common nowadays, the Roguelite) can be a difficult game to balance player enjoyment around. Giving players some tangible, long-lasting feedback and feel like they are truly progressing sounds next to impossible in a game which erases your progress the instant your HP hits zero.
Titles such as Rogue Legacy have attempted to do such by accumulating money during runs to buy upgrades to increase your chances each run, but the dilemma here is the game becoming too much of a grind and less a test of your game knowledge. If you do pathetic damage to every late-game enemy unless it is your 100th run, why bother making a serious attempt any sooner?
Enter Dead Cells, a self-dubbed Roguevania, blending the design concepts of Roguelites and Metroidvania, two genres which couldn’t be more different. One based around impermanence and growing your personal skill, and the other around collecting upgrades and returning to prior areas with newfound capabilities. How do you reconcile these philosophies?
Every run starts off the same, in a prison cell, fighting your way through other husks and carving your way out. Every time, the route is nearly the same. The procedural generation in Dead Cells is very limiting, which is a good thing. The routes barely differ, and the general route of each level from run to run is easy for you to assume. This allows you to speedrun your way through, dodge enemies and manoeuvre quickly with the familiarity one would develop over ages of exploring the same map in a Metroidvania, whilst also staying fresh and new each time.
The Prisoner’s Cells is comprised of horizontal paths careening down in pre-set drops. The Promenade of the Condemned is a straight shot through, with many pits full of detours along the way, and the same follows throughout the game. There are even doors which lock after a set amount of time has passed, forcing you to speedrun to them if you want to unlock the stores within. These elements enforce your own learning of the environment, and are a def exploration of the genre merge.
Your combat is based off of a primary weapon and a secondary weapon; every run will start with a sword and a bow as examples. These weapons range from throwing knives, to lightning beams, to bleed-swords, to whips, and so much more. Most of them have similar utilizations to the starting weapons, though the more you play, the more interesting variations are added to your item pool available to you each run.
This means the more you play, the more variety granted to your runs, allowing you to try new strategies and tackling them in engaging manners, not necessarily increasing your odds of survival by merely giving you better tools.
Some tools are better, and there is a way to buff them to be even stronger, but the price is so high and the buffs so minimal it feels less like a necessity to proceed and more an additional option for those who feel they are banging their head on a brick wall. This is a beautiful balance, forcing you to understand “you ARE capable of winning this, this is do-able, but if you can’t, you can make it easier eventually.”
Dead Cells is a punishing, unrelenting title, and yet despite its unique fusion of conflicting game design philosophies in its own self-dubbed genre, it still finds time to grasp inspiration from even more titles, and merge it into something entirely unique. With the full game slated to have double the current amount of content, I can’t wait to play it through from start to finish; however many tries that might take.