Dead Cells: Back to the Castlevania review

Whenever I’m asked what my favorite roguelike is, my answer is confidently and unabashedly Dead Cells. That’s been true for five years with great content updates, and it’s even truer with the arrival of the latest paid DLC, Return to Castlevania. This massive expansion expertly blends the base game and Konami’s classic action-platformer series – one of Dead Cells’ biggest inspirations – into something that feels wonderfully and wholeheartedly your own. Its more traditional story structure is less mysterious than the connect-the-dots style we’ve seen in the past, and it’s immediately clear how much work went into incorporating Castlevania’s iconic characters, weapons, music, and locations into the world of Dead Cells . It puts the castle itself front and center and makes it feel alive, and that reverence really helps sell the crossover fantasy. Return to Castlevania is a masterful mashup that brings together the best parts of both games, with the same challenging and addicting Dead Cells action that might leave you in bloody tears of frustration or joy at the end.

While the story hasn’t traditionally been why you’d play Dead Cells in the first place, Return to Castlevania does an amusing job of establishing why this time around you’re satisfactorily plowing your way toward Dracula’s infamous throne room, rather than simply attempting to escape your island prison like in earlier times. By the end of his story, I had not only taken on the Count in an epic final battle, but also Medusa and even Death itself in bitter showdowns. It almost felt like a new, slimmer take on a classic Castlevania adventure while still staying true to the Dead Cells name.

What we said about dead cells

Dead Cells rewards in its flexibility in a way few games are able to. Each easily digestible run through its beautifully detailed and changing levels conveys a sense of discovery and familiarity. It spurs you on to push the limits of your abilities and crushes you mercilessly if you get too comfortable. There are layers of strategy and tactics buried not only in the immediate decisions you make, but also in the larger metagame that each run builds upon. Dead Cells is a triumphant fusion of instinct, foresight, fun and failure. — Brandin Tyrrel, August 10, 2018

Result: 9.5

Read our full Dead Cells review.

The brilliant gameplay formula of fast-paced sword-slashing action, tremors, and smashing through doors against a colorful pool of monsters hasn’t changed significantly, but Return to Castlevania introduces more weapons, enemies, bosses, and outfits than any other paid expansion before it. Discovering all the new surprises still more than keeps it fresh even after the 20 hours I’ve sunk into so far. As you storm a spectacular castle floating in a blood-red sea, the original Dead Cells weapons, blueprints, and outfits found along each path can be used throughout here.

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This is absolutely the best, as you can mix and match between these and 14 vampire hunter flavored weapons to find creative new builds. That could be pairing the flint with the whip to overwhelm enemies at close range, or the throwing ax with the lightning bolt to focus on attacking from afar. There are also Castlevania classics like the Holy Water and the Cross, but my favorite of the new additions has to be the Scythe of Death, a double-ended weapon that turns its victims into my own spectral army, which in turn lunges at enemies and explodes as I shoot Just smile and watch. It’s this level of creativity that makes punishing new enemies like skeletons and werewolves even more fun with my whip sword or a cute yet ferocious magical cat. There are a handful of refreshing enemies from the Castlevania series to contend with, which further sells the idea that I’ve been transported to this fantastical world.

The final fight is by far the most challenging and unique boss ever.

Consisting of two distinct locations – the grounds outside the castle and its interior – Dracula’s castle has so much more to it than you’d expect from previous Dead Cells updates, including some great renditions of iconic songs like Vampire Killer. I was surprised that the castle’s outskirts are designed as a sort of proving ground that satisfactorily tests whether you’re even worthy of entering Dracula’s realm, climbing several floors before you even reach his doorstep, and deftly demonstrating just how tall one is menace is the iconic vampire. This idea is not expanded until he enters his castle.

No matter what distance you look from the outside, Dracula’s castle appears massive – and once you step inside, it’s just as grand. It’s filled to the brim with ornate decorations and detailed sculpting, nicely complemented by Dead Cells’ gorgeous pixel art style. The Gothic structure’s atmosphere is enhanced by the red mist that pours in through every window you pass. The castle’s background layers impressively convey just how vast the fortress is intended to be as you progress through Dead Cells’ procedurally generated layouts, which change the map with each visit. Meanwhile, the villain himself sometimes appears to slow you down by throwing fireballs, unleashing swarms of bats, and yes, even turning the castle upside down. And while I don’t want to spoil anything, the final confrontation is easily the most challenging and unique boss Dead Cells has seen to date.

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Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania DLC screenshots

You’ll find plenty of charming nods and surprises from old-school Castlevania games to interact with as you explore these new areas. You might stumble across a room containing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night’s save cubes, which offer a bit more flavor instead of actually letting you save your game. Insertions like this are great throwbacks for people who are already big fans of the series, but they’re also a fantastic source of motivation to encourage those who’ve never played Castlevania to go back and try (and probably start) for the first time to spot even more references along the way).

Once you find Richter Belmont in the castle, after your next run you can play the short but excellent Richter mode, a separate, discreet level that puts him in the spotlight. While most of Return to Castlevania generally plays like Dead Cells in a loving Castlevania skin, Richter Mode scales down the combat a bit to much more resemble the methodical and tactile nature of a Castlevania game. Richter is only equipped with one weapon and one tool that can be used instead of the usual two, and your tool can only be used by consuming a heart currency, just like many of the games from his series. Since he has far less health and fewer resources than a regular Dead Cells character, I had to focus on taking my time and staying away from enemies instead of diving in and crushing my attacks. Careful play leads to powerful rewards, however, and I eventually found myself literally raining holy water on enemies, living up to the legendary reputation of the Belmont Clan. Dead Cells is all about learning how to overcome challenges, so Judge Mode is a fantastically innovative way to bring something new to the table while also putting Castlevania in the spotlight. After I made it, I was more than convinced that developers Motion Twin and Evil Empire could make an incredibly traditional 2D Castlevania if Konami let them.

Even after I thought I’d done it all, I discovered new things.

How long it takes to reach and defeat Dracula depends on whether you’re a new or a returning player, but either way, you can start the adventure a few spins after starting a new save, so you can jump in the action fast. Even after I thought I’d done everything there was to do in Return to Castlevania, I often discovered new things. During one run, I found a vendor in Dracula’s castle, only for the vampire himself to show up and wipe them out. The big bad then paid me to help them find the dealer, which shocked me, but I laughed out loud because it was all so clever and unexpected.

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There are 20 different outfits to unlock based on notable Castlevania characters like Simon Belmont and Alucard to name a few. In a fantastic little gesture, stepping into Dracula’s throne room disguised as someone from Castlevania changes even the pre-battle conversation and gives you a little taste of the background for each character. That was enough to tempt me to do it for every single one I found, meaning I spend over 40 minutes each time just watching what is normally just 15 seconds of dialogue. These little touches are another example of how Dead Cells slyly encourages you to get that “one more run” before it calls it quits for the night.

While this may all sound like Return to Castlevania relies heavily on nostalgia to be enjoyable, one of the things that makes this DLC so masterful as a crossover is that it still rewards you even if you’re familiar with the series are not familiar enough to pick up all the references. As someone who isn’t a Castlevania diehard but has played quite a few over time, not only have I never felt left out, I actually felt encouraged to play more of the series simply because it’s so well integrated into a game that i love so much. To me, that dopamine effect is the highest compliment a crossover can achieve, and that’s what makes it brilliant.

And while many games today undoubtedly owe so much to Castlevania, years of exceptional updates and refinements have earned Dead Cells the right to proudly sit on a throne alongside its own inspiration. More than just fitting for Castlevania, Return to Castelvania also cements Dead Cells as a timeless classic in its own right. This makes this crossover feel like more than just a loving tribute or a well-deserved passing of the torch. Not only has Dead Cells exceeded Castlevania’s expectations, but it’s also grown to greater heights with the best level design, bosses, art, and creativity we’ve seen to date.