Dead Cells review – the new king of the castle
Like studying a picture of a car, a lawn mower or a sewing machine, you can tell a lot from a static image of a video game (and even more from footage of it in motion), but you won’t know how it feels. Only in the hands will a game reveal its unspoken character, its pitch and responsiveness, the time a thought takes to travel from the fingers into the buttons of the controller, through the underlying code, to explode on the screen as action described by light. “Game-feel” is a nebulous yet numinous thing; it’s here that a video game’s essential character, its tics, rhythms and, ultimately, class, is found.
Dead Cells, developed by Motion Twin, a diminutive French game studio from Bordeaux, looks much like any other action game of the recent past: chunky, handsome pixels that riff on the 2D games of the mid-1990s, probably with the intention of inspiring feelings of warmth and nostalgia in its middle-aged players. It features yet another whip-quick protagonist who, armed with a sword and a bow, must scurry, leap and climb around a sunset-draped island, shimmying up vines, tumbling heroically through doors and grasping endless treasure that makes him, piece by piece, incrementally better equipped to face the game’s ever-escalating challenge. But in the hands, Dead Cells reveals a singular quality. Rarely has an action game felt this pleasing to drive: taut, pacy and, in your character’s small yet refined move-set, effortlessly stylish.
It’s a game that can by played at one of two speeds. As soon as you start a new “run” – and Dead Cells is designed to be played over and over again, from the start, with each attempt pressing a little further into the mystery – a timer starts ticking in the corner of the screen. In each medieval castle-themed level (there are the ramparts, the sewers, the crypt, the clock tower and so on), there is a room whose door cannot be smashed open with a stout shoulder shove like the others, but can only be accessed if you reach it before the timer passes some invisible threshold. In order to reach the bountiful loot in time, you must dash past the patrolling skeletons, wizards, slugs and knights that block your path, forsaking any treasure you might happen upon en route. In doing so, you make a wager that the room’s secrets will amount to a greater pile than that which you would amass by taking the slower, more methodical approach.
To further complicate matters, the layout of Dead Cells’s castle is procedurally arranged so that no room is found in the same position twice. The map cannot be learned; instead, the rules must be mastered. As you can carry just two weapons (and a further two traps, turrets or magical grenades), you’re constantly reshuffling your inventory, trying to find weapons that augment one another. While, on death, you lose all of your loot and must begin again empty-handed, any blueprints for new weapons, which range from slow, powerful broadswords to poisonous twin daggers to icy whips, plundered from treasure chests, are permanent acquisitions and in this way the game’s interactive vocabulary expands with time. Mutations encourage further specialisation, boosting your health points, increasing your ammunition supplies or, in the case of Ygdar Orus Li Ox, or Yolo, giving you a spare life when the first is lost.
Dead Cells is a challenging game and, because the items you find during each “run” are constructed on the roll of a dice, a capricious one. But its cat’s cradle of interlocking systems is graceful and alluring, while, in the hands, its feel elevates the game to the status of young classic.
In the past two years, Annapurna Interactive, the video game arm of the Los Angeles-based film studio behind Her and Foxcatcher, has established itself as the most interesting publisher of games working today. From What Remains of Edith Finch to Florence, only the characteristics of originality and, perhaps, intimacy unify the company’s work. Donut County, a game in which you guide a small hole around a desert town while swallowing boulders, chickens and cars in order to expand its circumference, majors on the former quality. Like the game’s Japanese inspiration, Katamari Damacy (in which you roll an adhesive ball around in order to clean up the world), this is catnip for obsessive tidiers. As your famished hole expands, you are eventually able to gulp down entire homes and ranches. Surprisingly perhaps, considering the surreal style, Donut County succeeds in telling a brisk, tragicomic story about the anthropomorphic animals whose lives are ruined by the curious Armageddon you wreak.