It’s been a great year for indies on the Nintendo Switch. The overnight successes of Owlboy, Celeste, and Hollow Knight have more than proven that indie games, and more importantly side scrollers, still have a place in the ecosystem as some of the most satisfying gaming experiences of the year. It’s amazing how popular these small games can become via word of mouth. With a catalogue full of multi-million dollar AAA titles, its really a breath of fresh air to see these artistic, innovative boutique experiences share the limelight with the big dogs.
A brief back story about my gaming history: I was born in the mid-90s, and grew up with a ps2 in the era where 3d platformers ruled every kid’s home screen. I very seldom got to play anything on the NES or SNES; which meant no Metroid or Castlevania for little me. Because of the games I essentially raised myself on, side scrollers (and their brilliance) completely flew under my radar. My generation basically grew up with the mindset that side scrollers are an antiquated way to play games.
Fast forward to earlier this week when two new games, Overcooked 2 and Dead Cells, hit the digital stores. Both $25. Both apparently worth my precious time and hard earned cash.
“Which one should I buy?” Asked my inner monologue. It seemed like I would have fun with either based on the reviews, but I eventually bit the bullet on Dead Cells because it seemed like the better single player experience (Overcooked single player is anxiety-inducing). I barely knew anything about this game. All I knew is that it was a 2D/3D hybrid side scroller with “metroidvania” and “roguelike” elements. Whatever those mean. After playing about 6 hours so far, this game in a genre that I completely neglected for most of my life is in the running for my favorite Switch titles. Maybe even one of my favorite games of this year.
This game is definitely one that I was happy to not know anything about before booting it up and playing. Here’s a list of reasons why you should do the same.
Discovery is in the game’s DNA
One of the many deeply satisfying things about Dead Cells is how they nail the element of surprise. The game’s hub world, a mysterious prison, is procedurally generated and changes after every time you die and respawn. This gives the game an awesome sense of unpredictability that encourages you to explore in the hopes of finding new areas, weapons, or enemies. There is even a visual representation of everything you’ve discovered thus far.
You’ll Learn To Strategize
Now that we’ve covered the role discovery plays in this game, its time to talk about what you do when you discover new things. By far this game’s bread and butter is the fluidity, unpredictability, and variance of its combat. I have never played a side scroller with this many unique weapons before.
Every time you die, you respawn back in the same hub world and traverse through it; finding loot along the way. The loot in the hub world is selected seemingly at random, so you never really know which weapons the game will present you with this time around. Going into this game blind, I found that not knowing anything about this clever mechanic kept the game fresh. The game forces you to learn each weapon (which are all very fun to use) and figure out optimal loadouts and strategies. Then when you die, you have to start all over again. Games with punishing death mechanics like the Soulsborne series don’t even think to utilize the idea of character death to motivate the player into trying new strategies. One of the many things that makes this game, a side scroller, brilliant.
You’ll Be Pleasantly Surprised
If you’re like me and you really don’t play side scrollers often, then you’ll constantly find yourself surprised at how deep the systems are, how the dialogue has this very odd gruesome charm, and just how fluid it feels to run around. I’ve quickly learned that games like these live or die by their moment to moment traversal and combat mechanics and this one excels at both. Incremental improvements to your health, weapons, etc. contribute to the bigger picture as you slowly improve your skillset and progress through the game’s many levels. I’m still finding things that take me by surprise after playing for six hours and I’m looking forward to seeing if this adrenaline rush of unpredictability ever reaches a plateau. If not, then Dead Cells truly might be one of the most unique games I have ever played.
Well, that’s that! As I’m writing this I can’t wait to jump back in and get back to playing. Also don’t worry, every gif that I’ve included in this post is inside the hub world close to the beginning of the game. No spoilers here! ‘Til next time FreekNation!