Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I have only ever beaten one roguelike—Spelunky, which I documented the creation of, along with a definition of the extremely specific subgenre, here. I can’t decide if Dead Cells will be the second. This is through no fault of the game itself, which strives for playability. It eyes two big, ubiquitous influences, codified in part through their difficulty—that is, the roguelike, and the (sigh) soulslike—and deigns to make both much easier. Not only is there no permadeath (a hallmark of roguelikes), but there is an enormous grind for progression, letting you churn massive cogs slowly toward slightly better stats and gear. The Souls games, meanwhile, are popularly defined by their high-tension leveling system, which forces characters to carry around massive passels of experience points that can be lost after a brief stint of careless play, but Dead Cells demands that you thoughtfully invest those points after every level. The tension’s there, sure, but it’s vastly lessened. Your despair is never absolute.
It’s this very punishing nature that I think I miss, though: the exact thing that has driven me to vaingloriously quit so many roguelikes in the past. Roguelikes are a pain in the ass to beat, requiring memorization and dedication of the exact sort that I lack. When the going gets tough, the tough do whatever, and I go watch a movie or something instead. I have spent many furious and unpleasant hours in thrall to brilliant games like FTL: Faster Than Light, 868-Hack, and Teleglitch, never quite scraping the bottom, but feeling nauseously submerged in their specific varieties of power-ups, enemies, mechanical interactions, and randomized levels—all obscured in one way or another, as the roguelike demands. Dead Cells is not the first game to soften some of the extremely specific subgenre’s harder strictures, but it is the most eager to please out of any of them. Although it was just released for most systems, the game has been a phenomenon since last year, when it first came out in early access on PC. Designed by a small French team that uses an unconventional flat structure, it proves again the glories of a good color palette in a game, drawing its sewers in turgid browns and booger-greens and its ramparts in purple, orange, and white. Its action, too, is a tactile thrill, inviting you to bash through doors and kick through the floor like Iron Man on a bender.
I can’t stop playing it, but I’m also not sure why I am. That terminal point at which I have abandoned so many other roguelikes in the past isn’t on the horizon, but neither is the desire to see what might be there instead, nor the thrill to prove all its punishing systems wrong and fight my way there. Don’t take my equivocating as a critique of the game, which is objectively well-made—it’s more a critique of myself, a roguelike-liker increasingly adrift in the flood of them. I sort of feel like I was working hard to appreciate gin martinis and Dead Cells just showed up and served it as a gin and tonic instead, which feels like a very different drink than the thing I was trying to like. At the very least, I’m enjoying Dead Cells for this sense of uncertainty. It’s as if my brain is clearing out space; strong opinion incoming.