Ever since I heard about Dead Cells, even in its earliest Early Access period, I remember hearing great things about it. It wasn’t until it was released in mid-2018 where I finally paid attention to it, and quickly fell off the hype train. Dead Cells is a run based game with a difficulty curve and ever changing level layouts. Which just isn’t up my alley, but when Nintendo showcased the newly announced Castlevania DLC at the beginning of the year, the game caught my attention once again.
Castlevania has quickly become one of my favorite gaming franchises after finally going through the series back in 2019 and podcasting about it early on in the Game Or Die podcast. The amazing music, the interesting castle level layouts, the grotesque yet oddly interesting monster designs… all of the pieces of the game fit together to make something very special. And having Dead Cells, years after its release, get a surprise partnership of Crossover DLC, it seemed both strange and like a perfect fit. So I marked it on my calendar and couldn’t wait for the DLC to be released in early March.
While waiting for March to roll around, I started searching for a good deal on the game as it was still around $20-ish on steam with no discount. I ended up finding it on CDKeys for $8 and figured I might as well give the game another try if I am going to play the DLC. So I loaded it up and proceeded to get my butt handed to me straight away. I haven’t played this type of game in a while so I needed to warm up a bit, and within the next attempt I felt some muscle memory starting to develop.
With Dead Cells being a run based game where my character lands in a prison cell after being beheaded, I start exploring the prison which is filled with all sorts of monsters trying to find the exit to the next stage. With a side scrolling layout similar to a Castlevania game or Metroid, it feels very familiar as I wind up having to back track after running into a dead end, and having liberal use of both the mini-map and the full blown paused map.
Learning the layout of the level is a fools-errand as with most of the games in this genre, the levels are procedurally generated, allowing for unlimited level designs each and every run. So I quickly ended up starting to “speed run” the level after my third attempt. Mostly because on my third run with the game, I ended up getting very close to the final boss (now that I have beaten the game). And this is where I end up having a bit of an issue with these types of games.
Run based games by design require you to continually go back and do the same thing over and over again, until you build up that muscle memory and learn the patterns of enemies along with a dash of luck getting good weapons and power ups. Which leaves most of the game up to pure chance, and I don’t find that very rewarding. After my third run, getting to nearly the final boss, I quickly started rushing through the first few levels as fast as I could because it was just so draining to really comb through the early levels every single time. I didn’t have it in me to continue on, giving it my all and devoting all my energy to the very first part of the game.
However, with the promise of DLC, I ended up treating the beginning parts and each run like a resource gathering mission instead. Clearing out each level and gaining as many cells as I could, in hopes of spending them on better weapons and other items and power ups. On my final run I ended up cleaning out my entire General section of unlockables and even a few weapons and mutations. At the end of each level, there is a break where I was able to spend cells on those powerups and upgrade my character temporarily for that single run I was on. I quickly figured out the powerups I liked and just stuck to those each and every run. Some might find that boring, but those three mutations were the only ones that fit my playstyle that seemed to work really well for me.
On March 6th the Castlevania DLC was released and I wasn’t able to play it until the next day. I started up OBS late in the evening in the studio and went live on Twitch to play maybe 30 or so minutes and complete a run or two. I just wanted to check out the Castlevania DLC and that was it. I was already tired from the full work day and spending time with my wife as well, so it wasn’t something I wanted to devote an entire evening to. As I got to the Castlevania DLC it dawned on me how well suited the two franchises are for each other. It was like fate that these two video game properties got a crossover DLC as Dead Cells mechanics fit perfectly in-sync with the Castlevania aesthetic. I even stopped and talked about how cool it was with some of the background portraits that showcase famous Castlevania enemies and monsters and how even one of them has the eyes follow the character, reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion busts at Disneyland.
I ended up getting to the end of the first section of the DLC and beating the boss Death first try with him getting only one hit on me. It seemed fairly easy. Then I was whisked back to the original game’s content and didn’t see more of the Castlevania DLC. I continued on to the part that I originally got to on my third run, and as I was already tired from the day, I became more stressed as the level seemed to go on forever, never really giving me any respite. But in the wee hours of the evening, I ended up getting past that part and eventually beating the game’s boss and seeing the end game credits. I was blown away by the fact I finished the game so early on in what I felt like the game should have taken. I was also very proud of myself that I finished the game on stream and had a blast the entire time.
Loading up the game after the credits finished rolling, I was greeted by Alucard and a notification that I can only do the Castlevania DLC once per run, and that there is more to see in the subsequent runs. So I guess each run allows me to see a part of the DLC and then pushes me out into the mainline content to finish the game and beat the final boss. So next run will hopefully be more to the DLC! I honestly can’t wait.
I am proud of myself for sticking with this game, even when it seemed like it wasn’t going to be one of those games I finished. But the Castlevania DLC really did help keep me going and strive to get better at noticing when to leave enemies behind and continue on and save my life, when I normally try to kill everything always. Dead Cells is an excellent game and I’m happy that I was able to finally understand why the game is always recommended and highly praised. I hope this is the start of Konami being a bit loser with their licensing of their properties to third party companies. There are a lot of developers that can do great things when the parent company doesn’t want to invest in it. Dead Cells and Castlevania is a perfect match and I can’t wait till I destroy Dracula once and for all (until the next Castlevania game!)