While Castlevania has been a staple of gaming since 1986, I never really got into the games or series until way later. In 2019 as part of some research for my podcast, I ended up trying out the first game on NES and quickly played through the entire series of console games. I got bit with the Dracula bug, bad. So when the reveal for some Castlevania DLC attached to the run based game called Dead Cells showed up in the first Nintendo Direct of 2023, I was interested.
If you already read my review of Dead Cells proper, all the thoughts still apply, and doubly so for the Castlevania branded DLC. The game itself is a procedurally generated labyrinth with a final goal of reaching the end and collecting a Boss Cell, which also sends you right back to the beginning of the game and requires you to do it all over again, only with an increased difficulty this time. I despise these types of games, but with Dead Cells, the game’s mechanics and moment to moment action along with its branching paths curtail the issues for a long while.
I ended up dropping over 15 hours into the game before I got into the DLC. Once the DLC was released I was more than excited to play it, and actually streamed the whole thing, which took over two hours and you can watch here. However, this also showcased the single biggest flaw in the entire DLC. The time commitment and breaking up of the DLC.
Return to Castlevania starts off with Richter Belmont showing up in the beginning part of the game’s run. Usually located off in the right side of the map and Richter confronts the player talking about Dracula. Then advancing to the second stage which is the Castle Outskirts, famously from the beginning of the first and many other games in the Castlevania series. With some rain and a blaring of the Vampire Killer song in the background, “reimagined” for the Dead Cells universe… whatever that means.
It incorporates several enemy types from the game, like skeletons, mermen, lights, flying griffons and others to really show off the devotion to making this DLC feel fully realized and fleshed out instead of a surface level reskinning of the game and facade. The atmosphere seeps into the pores of the game and really meshes well with not only the aesthetic of the game, but it’s underlying core elements as well. Even before buying the Castlevania DLC, as I played through the main game of Dead Cells, it felt like a other dimensions Castlevania, what most would call a “Spiritual Successor” and while there are way too many homages and indie games that have taken the Metroid and Castlevania formula and mashed them together into a bloody beaten pulp, oversaturating the market with something resembling a clone more than a original game, Dead Cells appears high above the rest to stand out among the crowd of imitators.
Back to the DLC though, as I made my way through the Castle Outskirts and through Dracula’s Castle, I ended up being dragged down to the depths of the underworld to fight Death, who resembles his likeness more from Symphony of the Night than Rondo of Blood, with a very exposed skeletal remains and tattered cloak. It’s really impressive. But that’s where the DLC break into two and ultimately soured me on the whole experience.
See… Return To Castlevania DLC is split into two parts, and you can only do one of the two parts in a single run, which can take up to and over two hours depending on your weapons, skill and desire to explore. Sadly the game never actually explains this splitting of the DLC nor does it give you any indication of how to continue on with the storyline of the DLC. And that was maddening to me for at least a solid week. With guests visiting and alone time at a minimal amount any time I attempted to sit down and play the game and finish the DLC required me to figure out how to continue on my quest to kill Dracula. And after several hours I ended up being frustrated enough to stop in the middle of my playing and look up a walkthrough on YouTube to figure out what I was doing wrong.
So here is the ultimate way to play the DLC. At the start of the run, the first part of the DLC is available, by just going out of the starting Prison Cells area and going to the Castle Outskirts, progressing through both the Castle Outskirts and then into Dracula’s Castle. Once Dracula’s Castle is finished, trying to head to the Master’s Quarters, Death will intervene and drag you down and then the Death boss fight begins. Once Death is defeated, the first part of the DLC is finished and you can’t progress any further in the storyline. Until you die and start over. Once started over, instead of playing the DLC by doing the same path (Castle Outskirts, Dracula’s Castle, Death boss fight), it’s required to play through the main game without any DLC until around 3/4ths of the way through the game and fight the second boss which is the clock watcher. Once the clock watcher boss is defeated, Alucard appears and says that Dracula’s Castle is once again available to go to and continue on. So what took 15 minutes and two stages to get to, now takes around an hour across 5 stages and by that time I am mentally exhausted with all the stress of staying alive throughout the game.
On the second part of the DLC and the second attempt and Dracula’s Castle, it’s become much harder as Dracula himself actually shows up, appearing and disappearing after doing a single attack. Sometimes granting enemies special skills and power, or tossing a dozen bats out from under his cloak, or even simply flipping the castle upside down for ten seconds to cause disorientation. It’s kinda a neat trick and brings a tiny bit of nostalgia that doesn’t feel forced. However, to progress to Dracula’s Quarters and face him directly, Medusa, a mini-boss of sorts, needs to be defeated first. And again, this coupled with the very long and draining run to get to the point is quite taxing. Once Medusa is destroyed, then Dracula’s Quarters is opened up and he is able to be taken on as the final fight.
If anyone has played the mainline console Castlevania games, Dracula poses the same multi-phased boss fight as in the other games in the series. Fight him and dwindle down his health till it’s down enough for him to transform and go at it again. Sadly, this is where I had to tap out. Due mostly to fatigue. Again, it takes HOURS to get to this point, and if there was some sort of save point, where I could retry from either a halfway point at least, or better yet at the boss fight room I would have no problem. Even allowing me to progress through the whole DLC in one go would be monumentally better than the only option given. Which is to go through the first part, die, and then play through the entire original game and then take a secondary path to the DLC bosses instead of the main game’s final boss. It’s ridiculous and confusing without any explanation or guidance.
Give me the DLC path, that goes from the Castle’s Outskirts, to Dracula’s Castle, to the Death Boss fight, then let me fight my way back through Dracula’s Castle with him showing up randomly and fighting the Medusa mini-boss and then opening up the final Dracula Battle at the end. Simple as that. But instead it’s split into two parts requiring over an hour of wasted time and resources only to possibly, maybe have a good weapon (due to the nature of the game being firmly random weapon and power-up drops, never guaranteeing a good run) and health to defeat Dracula in a fairly balanced fight. It was just too much for me and it’s something I really am bothered by because I think this could have easily taken the DLC of the Year for sure. But as it stands now, the split really fractures the experience and makes it much less enjoyable.
The game itself, the DLC, the enemy types, the new weapons, the power-ups, the levels, the extra outfits that let you dress up as the main characters from Castlevania, even the bosses are all extremely well done and fantastic. However the DLC being split up into a confusing and convoluted mess with extra baggage thrown in for no discernable reason really eliminated a lot of the joy I had with it. I ended up dropping over 30 hours into the game in the span of 3 weeks and had a blast. I see why Dead Cells was so popular in its Early Access and release period and the Castlevania DLC is a perfect fit for the flow of combat and it’s an absolute blast to play. I hope they tweak the path progression or maybe if I just end up Save Scumming my way through to Dracula just to say I finished it.