Dead Cells is a 2018 roguelike-Metroidvania game published by independent game studio Motion Twin. The game was released for Linux, macOS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on August 7, 2018. A mobile port for iOS was released on August 28, 2019, and an Android port was released on June 3, 2020. In the game, the player takes the role of an amorphous creature called the Prisoner. As the Prisoner, the player must fight their way out of a diseased island in order to slay the island's King. The player gains weapons, treasure and other tools through exploration of the procedurally-generated levels, using them to fight various mutated creatures. Dead Cells uses a permadeath system, causing the player to lose all items and other currencies each time the player dies.

Dead Cells
Dead cells cover art.png
Developer(s)
Publisher(s)
  • Motion Twin
  • Playdigious[a]
Producer(s)Steve Filby
Designer(s)Sébastien Bénard
Platform(s)
ReleaseLinux, macOS, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Xbox One
August 7, 2018
iOS
August 28, 2019
Android
June 3, 2020
Genre(s)Roguelike, Metroidvania
Mode(s)Single-player

Production of Dead Cells began after Motion Twin planned development for a follow-up to their previous browser game Die2Nite. Inspirations for the game included Team Fortress 2, The Binding of Isaac, and the Souls series. After release, Motion Twin supported the game with several updates and expansions. The game received positive reviews from critics, who praised its combat style and level design, with specific praise being directed towards the randomized levels and weapons. By March 2021, the game had sold 5 million copies.

GameplayEdit

 
A GIF of the Prisoner using the jump and dodge mechanics to get behind a charging enemy.

Dead Cells is a 2D side-scrolling "roguevania", a combination of procedurally-generated roguelike games and action-exploration-based Metroidvania games.[1] The player controls the Prisoner, an amorphous creature that can possess human corpses. The Prisoner explores a fictional island infested with mutated monsters, which must be transversed so the Prisoner can kill the island's King. When the player dies, they lose all weapons and upgrades obtained in a playthrough, excluding a few permanent items.[2] Weapons primarily include swords, bows, shields, and placeable traps that harm enemies that come near them. The Prisoner can move across the ground to engage in melee combat, or can use ranged weapons and traps to harm enemies from a distance. The Prisoner can dodge across the ground to avoid the attacks of enemies, or jump over the attacks. Dodging into an enemy's space allows the Prisoner to move through them and attack from behind.[3] When falling from a height, the Prisoner can slam into the ground, allowing them to hit enemies and stun them, or allow the Prisoner to fall from heights without getting stunned themselves.[4][5]

The game's combat is comparable to the Souls series, with difficult enemies possessing certain behaviors the player can learn, and where frequent player-character death is a fundamental part of the game.[6] As they explore a series of dungeon levels and fight the creatures within, the player can collect an in-game currency called Cells from defeated enemies. Cells can be used to purchase permanent items such as potions that restore hit points or additional weapons that may be randomly obtained during a playthrough.[2][6] These Cells must be spent at the end of a dungeon section; if the player dies before then, they lose all collected Cells.[7] Blueprints can be collected from inside dungeons, which must be taken out of the dungeon to be collected. Collecting Blueprints allows for more weapons and items to be purchased from shops.[8]

Levels are procedurally generated by the merging of predesigned sections in a random configuration, creating dungeons with many different placements of enemies and items.[6] Between dungeons, the player can obtain a limited number of mutations, upgrades which grant unique bonuses to the Prisoner's capabilities that last until the player dies.[4] The player can reforge weapons during this time, giving the reforged weapons new effects during combat.[5] Inside the dungeons, the player can find hidden Power Scrolls, which increase the Prisoner's hit points and increase the damage of weapons depending upon the tool's classification of Brutality, Tactics, or Survival.[3] The player can also find multiple permanent upgrades called Runes, which allow for new methods of travel in the game's levels. Runes can be obtained by defeating powerful Elite enemies, which are located inside the game's levels.[5] Each upgrade requires the previous Rune in order to obtain the next one.[4]

PlotEdit

PremiseEdit

The plot of Dead Cells is minimalistic, only giving minor amounts of information to the player. The Prisoner character is mute, with their thoughts only being told to the player through dialogue boxes. Interactions with non-player characters (NPCs) are limited to a series of bodily motions that the Prisoner displays. Taking place on an unnamed island, the player character is the Prisoner, a gelatinous creature capable of possessing dead bodies located in the depths of the island. While the "head" of the Prisoner is immortal, the bodies it possesses are not, and dying will force the head to return back to the Prisoners' Quarters to find another corpse.

StoryEdit

The Prisoner awakens in the depths of the island's prison, possessing no memory of how they got there. A soldier encounters the Prisoner, and mentions that they can no longer die. The Prisoner tries to escape the prison, but their head is forced back to the depths as soon as its body is destroyed. Between subsequent escape attempts, the Prisoner learns that the island was once a mighty kingdom that fell when a plague known as "The Malaise" transformed most of the kingdom's citizens into mutated monsters.

After escaping the Prisoners' Quarters, the Prisoner decides to kill the island's increasingly reclusive King, believing that his death will allow the Prisoner to escape the island. While leaving the Quarters, the Prisoner meets with the Collector, a hooded figure that trades Cells in exchange for items and weaponry. After fighting through island's Malaise-infected locales, the Prisoner reaches the King's throne room and succeeds in slaying the comatose monarch. However, the King's corpse violently explodes in the process, destroying the Prisoner's host body. The Prisoners' head crawls out from the burning fragments of the throne; it tries to escape the island by exiting through a fountain’s drain. The drain instead leads back to the Prisoner's Quarters, where the resurrected Prisoner ponders the consequences of the King's death.

Rise of the GiantEdit

The Rise of the Giant downloadable content provided an expansion of the plot, which included alternative endings. The Prisoner gains access to a new area of the island, the Cavern, which houses a titanic undead Giant. Upon his defeat, The Giant reveals that the Prisoner is actually the King himself, and blames him for the destruction of the kingdom. After defeating the final boss, the Prisoner can collect Boss Cells, in-game modifiers that are used to increase the difficulty of the game. If the player collects all five Boss Cells and reaches the throne room, they are able to gain access to an additional level called the Astrolab. At the top of the Astrolab, the Prisoner finds the Collector, who tells the Prisoner that he has been gathering Cells in order to create the Panacea, the ultimate cure for the Malaise. Upon producing the Panacea and drinking it, the Collector goes mad and attacks the Prisoner. The Prisoner manages to ingest some of the Panacea before the Collector's defeat, which causes their host body to disappear. Disappointed with the Panacea, the head returns to the Quarters to possess another corpse.

When the Prisoner reaches the throne room again, they discover that the King's corpse has reappeared undamaged. The head of the Prisoner abandons its host body and attaches to the King's, allowing the Prisoner to speak. However, the King's body is infected with the Malaise, and he continues to the Astrolab to face the Collector. This time, upon the Collector's defeat, the Panacea cures the King and "binds his body and soul", causing the head to cease to exist. The King returns to his throne, where he is confronted by a look-alike of the Prisoner intent on slaying him. The King and the look-alike battle each other in a duel.

The Queen and the SeaEdit

The Queen and the Sea downloadable content adds three additional levels to the game, as well as an alternative ending. The Prisoner finds a letter inviting them to a meeting in the sewers beneath the prison. When the Prisoner arrives, they meet an aquatic creature called the Fisherman, who offers them a way to escape the island through the kingdom's lighthouse. After the Prisoner finds the Lighthouse Key and meets the Fisherman again at the King's castle, the latter uses his boat to take the Prisoner to the lighthouse. Inside, the Prisoner accidentally knocks over a flaming chandelier, alerting three hostile warriors named Calliope, Euterpe, and Kleio. The three chase the Prisoner to the top of the now-burning structure, where the Prisoner defeats them in combat. The Prisoner enters the upper chambers of the lighthouse to light its beacon, but the island's Queen reveals herself and challenges them to a duel. The Prisoner defeats the Queen before throwing her off the lighthouse's balcony, causing a catastrophic explosion that activates the structure's beacon. The Prisoner uses the beacon to attract a ship passing by the island.

DevelopmentEdit

Dead Cells's developer Motion Twin had been developing games for the browser and mobile gaming market since 2001. The studio found that competition in the mobile market required more investment to make profitable games, and decided to switch focus to develop what they considered their "passion project", a game that was "something hardcore, ultra-niche, with pixel art and ridiculous difficulty" that they thought would be a potential risk for gaining player interest.[9]

Initially, Motion Twin had set out to make a follow-up to their browser game Die2Nite, which was a cooperative tower defense game for up to forty players released in 2008; for most of the game, players would work together to form defenses around a town, and then during the game's night phase, wait to see if the town survived waves of attacks by zombies. Motion Twin wanted to have improve the sequel by allowing players to take actions and fight during the night phase, while also implementing free to play mechanics. While this version worked well with large number of players, Motion Twin found it was not very exciting for single players. In 2014, they stripped down the game to a single-player experience between preparation and combat, and took it to an event called the Big Indie Pitch, where the idea came in second place in a contest. Motion Twin then decided to remove the preparation phase and focus the game around constant action. The process of figuring out how to keep and work with combat elements took a year up through the end of 2015.[10]

To tighten the gameplay, Motion Twin took inspiration of the Engineer character class from Team Fortress 2, where the use of turrets and other buildable items helps to strengthen the character's abilities, and remade Dead Cells into an action platform game where the player used weapons along with a variety of skills (including some elements they had developed for the tower defense approach). They did not want players to get used to having a single weapon/skill combination that they used indefinitely, and arranged the roguelike elements to require the player to try out new combinations of weapons and skills as they progressed. Motion Twin's producer, Motion Twin's producer Steve Filby cited The Binding of Isaac as a significant influence, highlighting its player-determined and item-driven gameplay. To give the player enough options, the developers crafted about 50 different weapons, avoiding having too much duplication in how each weapon worked so that there would be unique gameplay possibilities with each. The team used an iterative process in gameplay, graphics, and art so that each of these weapons also exhibited unique animations or behavior.[11]

Motion Twin opted to use Steam's early access approach to both gauge player interest and to obtain feedback on game features and the balance from procedural generation.[9] The team feared the stigma around indie games at the time, fueled by industry speculation of an "indiepocalypse" where too many indie games would have caused a collapse of the video game market around 2015, an event which never occurred.[12] Motion Twin did not want to release too early within early access, and made sure the first version available, while only about 30 to 40% complete, had tight combat and gameplay controls that players would appreciate.[10] This allowed the team to address balance issues, as the developers did not want to punish players for a specific style of play, and used feedback to address this. This allowed them to design short combat encounters, and assure that maneuvering within the game's levels itself was not a challenge to the player.[12] Motion Twin planned for the game to spend about a year in early access before its full release, during which time the content was created and incorporated after player feedback on both bug reports and feature suggestions.[10] Lead designer Sébastien Bénard estimated that 40 to 50% of the features in the final game were drawn from feedback during early access.[13]

ReleaseEdit

The early access period was launched on May 10, 2017, with support for Microsoft Windows, and released macOS and Linux versions in early access on June 26, 2018.[14] In November 2017, the game was released on GOG.com as part of their drive to provide an alternate way to purchase games that are in development.[15] In January 2018, Motion Twin announced their plans on console development for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with a release predicted in August 2018 to correspond with the Windows' version leaving early access.[16][17] Motion Twin does not anticipate creating a sequel, and instead focused on adding a robust modding system for the personal computer versions to allow players to expand the game following release.[13] Dead Cells was released on August 7, 2018, for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch. Retail editions were released in August 2018.[18][19] The base game included Twitch integration at launch, allowing viewers, via the stream's chat, to influence the game, such as voting for which Power Scroll weapon class option the player should take.[20]

Motion Twin released a free downloadable content update to the game called "Rise of the Giant" in mid-2019.[21] The developers announced plans to port the title to mobile devices running iOS and Android, modifying the game's interface to support touch controls as well as remote controllers. The iOS version was released on August 28, 2019, and the Android version was released on June 3, 2020.[22][23][24] The game's first paid downloadable content, "The Bad Seed", was released on February 11, 2020, adding two new biomes, as well a boss for early game content. The new content included weapons, enemies and game mechanics.[25] On the same day, a new physical package for the game, the "Prisoner's Edition" was announced for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, which in addition to the game and DLC, includes the soundtrack, an art book, and a figurine of the player-character.[26] A second paid DLC expansion "Fatal Falls" was released on January 26, 2021. It adds two new levels, eight new enemies, seven new weapons and a boss.[27] On the same date, a bundle called "The Fatal Seed Bundle" was released that contains the base game and all three DLCs.[28]

Around January 2019, Motion Twin started work on their next title while still developing Dead Cells. When they expanded by hiring more developers, Motion Twin wanted to keep Dead Cells' development team to between eight to ten people in order to stay a manageable worker cooperative. The team then spun-off a new studio called Evil Empire to help co-develop the game.[29] Motion Twin released a free update on September 16, 2021, titled "Practice Makes Perfect" which added a training room, world map and many other quality of life changes.[30] A free "Everyone is Here" update on November 22, 2021, introduced character skins and mechanics based on characters from other indie games as "guest characters". These games included Hyper Light Drifter, Guacamelee!, Curse of the Dead Gods, Blasphemous, Skul: The Hero Slayer, and Hollow Knight. For example, a character outfit based on the Drifter can be gained as well as the Drifter's blaster as a weapon.[31][32] Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Motion Twin, the developers revealed the final DLC called "The Queen and the Sea", which released on January 7, 2022.[33] Another free content update, "Break the Bank", released in March 2022. The update added a new level that can be randomly encountered while playing, which grants the player an opportunity to earn significant sums of gold.[34]

ReceptionEdit

Critical receptionEdit

Dead Cells received positive reviews from critics. The Xbox One version received "universal acclaim", and the PlayStation 4, PC, Nintendo Switch, and iOS versions received "generally favorable" reviews according to review aggregator website Metacritic. Brandin Tyrrel of IGN praised the game for its engaging gameplay premise, and randomized layout declaring "The placement and order of its levels are Dead Cells' skeletal frame, but the ever-changing layouts and enemy and item placements are the blood that pumps through its heart."[45] The action and combat of Dead Cells received acclaim as "distinct", "fluid", and "agile".[46][47][48] Reviewers compared the game to Dark Souls, Diablo, and Castlevania due to the game's difficulty and constantly changing levels, while giving specific praise to the visuals and sound design.[49][50][51]

The plot of Dead Cells was criticized, with critics calling it lacking and vague.[52][53][54] Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku found the story disappointing, stating "Aside from some sparse worldbuilding, the only story here is the story of moving forward, killing things, and gradually getting better at it". Some other reviewers felt that the permadeath system caused earlier levels to become more and more repetitive.[51][55] Commentators called progression beyond the first few hours as "nebulous", and the game's difficulty "callous".[56][54] Chris Carter of Destructoid criticized the repetition, stating "There's those moments where you have a perfect run with all of the items you prefer. Then you get to a boss you've never seen before and bam – he smashes you to a pulp."[50]

Other critics stated that the permadeath feature was rewarding, as it provided the player with permanent upgrades, the opportunity to experience all of the game's content, and gain full knowledge of its systems.[48][56][57] Neal Ronaghan of Nintendo World Report enjoyed the permadeath feature, saying "Every run is engrossing and fun and when I die, the only thought rushing through my brain is to start over and try again, pushing as far past my previous run as I can."[58]

SalesEdit

About a year from its early access release, Dead Cells sold over 730,000 units,[59] and exceeded 850,000 units just prior to its full release.[13] By May 2019, within ten months of its full release, Dead Cells had accumulated sales of two million units.[60] In March 2021, Dead Cells had sold 5 million copies during the announcement of their last DLC.[61]

Awards and accoladesEdit

Year Award Category Result Ref
2017 2017 Ping Awards Best Indie Game Nominated [62]
IGN Best of 2017 Best Action Game Nominated [63]
2018 2018 Golden Joystick Awards Best Indie Game Won [64]
Best Visual Design Nominated [65]
Ultimate Game of the Year Nominated [66]
The Game Awards 2018 Best Action Game Won [67]
Best Independent Game Nominated [68]
Gamers' Choice Awards Fan Favorite Indie Game Nominated [69]
Australian Games Awards Independent Game of the Year Nominated [70]
New York Game Awards Best Indie Game Won [71][72]
National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers Awards Control Design, 2D or Limited 3D. Won [73]
15th British Academy Games Awards Original Property Nominated [74]
2019 SXSW Gaming Awards Excellence In Gameplay Nominated [75]
Most Promising New Intellectual Property Nominated
Italian Video Game Awards Best Indie Game Nominated [76]
2020 Pégases Awards Best Mobile Game Won [77][78]
Best Game-as-a-Service Won

NotesEdit

  1. ^ iOS and Android

ReferencesEdit

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