Review: Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania

8 Mar 2023

It’s always fun to go through and revisit games in your library. You probably have more than a few you remember fondly and would love an excuse to play again. Today, for many of you, this may be the case. We’re talking about Dead Cells, a roguelite game by indie studio Motion Twin with metroidvania elements like unlocking special powers and upgrades to open new areas, backtracking, lots of weapons and items to collect, that sort of thing.

Now, I hear you saying, “But that game came out five years ago, why are you reviewing it now?” For me, there’s actually two reasons. The first is it’s a game that’s long been on my want-to-play list that I never got around to (a tragedy, in retrospect). The second is this five year old game just got a new add-on, and not just any add-on, but a crossover with a much-loved franchise that helped define its genre and which itself has been dormant for a while: Castlevania.

Given Dead Cells probably owes its existence in part to it, it probably sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Well, let me take you on a journey. Though I’m new to the game itself, I will mainly focus on the expansion.

Developed and published by Motion Twin, Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania was released on March 6th, 2023, for Switch, PS4, PS5, PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. The PC version was played for this review.

A Dark and Terrible Night

After some life, death, and life again, our unnamed wayward soul of a hero discovers a new path in the dungeon in which their journeys start. A mysterious vampire figure who identifies themselves as Alucard tells them about a fiendish plot being set in motion by his father, Dracula, whose castle has mysteriously appeared. Alucard requests help to put a stop to Dracula before he can succeed in his goals.

With that said, the hero finds themselves adventuring through this castle much as they have with the rest of the island purgatory they are stuck reliving over and over. He meets other faces most players will find familiar along the way, and that, as they say, is that.

This is absolute and total fan service, but perhaps the best kind, with the game honoring its origins. This is perfectly fine, as for most players, they’re probably just looking for more action anyway, having likely conquering the game already up to this point. Castlevania is a classic franchise and one I’d argue most gamers worth their salt are familiar with to some level, so let’s get to why you’re really here, which for the most part, isn’t story.

Quenching Thirst (for Blood)

So, let’s take a look at what’s on offer in the Return to Castlevania expansion. Aside from the quest line behind it, the DLC adds two new playable zones, or biomes as the game calls them. These new biomes seamlessly integrate with the rest of the game as a path you can take in two separate routes within the game (both of are needed to complete the experience): The Castle Outskirts, an exterior area much like you might see in some of the Castlevania titles of the 16-bit era, and the obvious Dracula’s Castle, an interior biome not terribly unlike Symphony of the Night. You’ll meet several new enemies from Buers to Werewolves to Axe Armors and even multiple bosses too. Many new unlockable weapons and powers round out the package.

In keeping with the Dead Cells‘ usual stance, the difficulty here is high, perhaps even a bit higher than the other biomes you can access when you are first able to encounter Alucard (after your third death from the start of a new game). As always though, if Dead Cells’ difficulty gets to be too much for you, you can enable Assist Mode, which lets you tweak various difficulty parameters at any time and with no penalty (even achievements can still be earned, the only restriction is scores from the game’s Daily Challenge feature will not be recorded). There is even a heartfelt message from the developers stating they want everyone to be able to enjoy the game. I love it.

Fans of the series will love all the new unlockables, which span the Castlevania series, but with emphasis on the classic Symphony of the Night. Classic power-ups like the Cross (a boomerang-like weapon, one of my favorites), Holy Water, and Simon Belmont’s Vampire Slayer whip can all be unlocked and become part of your permanent item pool.

All of these offer a new twist on the game’s combat mechanics. Many of them are quite powerful in a relative sense, though a few, such as the Bible (or just Book in some games) are tough to use in Dead Cells‘ setting. Further, you can unlock outfits of almost every major Castlevania character to change your appearance (I call dibs on Simon Belmont). Overall, all of this content is well executed, fits into the game well, and I think will be appreciated by all of the game’s players, not just Castlevania fans.

Finally, while I already discussed the challenge factor, the new bosses are both more awesome and incredibly challenging compared to the existing main bosses in Dead Cells (Or at least, I thought so). There is Death himself, who is encountered as a mid-game boss on your runs if you begin your run with the Castle Outskirts. While I found Death tough, it has learnable patterns that you can get used to in order to win.

Dracula appears as a new end-of-run boss intended as on the same level as the original game’s final boss, but frankly I found him to be on another level, probably harder than most of his appearances in the Castlevania series…and Dracula’s boss appearances in the series are well known for being hard as heck. I promise you, he will kick your butt, and if you beat him the first time you see him, you’re a gaming god. Thank heavens for game journalist mo- ahem, I mean, Assist Mode. Wink, wink.

Now, is this a bad thing? No way. He will make you rage quit in a way that will just have you coming back stronger than ever to finally put him in his place. His fight is incredibly fun in spite of its difficulty, and in the environment of Dead Cells, a thrilling and fitting experience. But wait! Once you’ve accomplished that, you’re still not done. Much like the game’s inspiration, you’ll unlock Richter Mode, which is essentially a special biome in which you can play as Richter Belmont with his original whip and movement mechanics to unlock some more goodies.

And as rambly as this review has gotten, let’s not forget all the nods and references. Perhaps most amusingly, when the player, not being from the world of Castlevania himself, encounters a save room straight out of Symphony of the Night (Dead Cells doesn’t use save rooms, you can quit the game at any time and pick up where you left off), another where the castle flips upside-down, Maria showing up and letting you take her cat with you to use as a sub-weapon…. they really just packed a ton of stuff in here. Even that horrible “What is a man?” line from, you guessed it, Symphony of the Night. Classic.

Symphony of the Night (and Day)

And now we’ve arrived at what I think is honestly the best part: The A/V experience! Dracula’s Castle looks great in Dead Cells‘ 16-bit retro art style; every aspect of the visuals is well crafted and a tribute to form. Items and characters look familiar even in this game’s style. There are enough art assets used in the procedural level generation that things don’t get too repetitive (though a bit of repetitiveness is inherent to such systems). It kind of makes me want to see a full Castlevania game in this style, though I think Konami is too busy with its casino gaming operations to ever give us that, so I think a collab like this one is about as close as we’ll ever get, which is sad.

The music. Oh my gosh the music. Even if you hate the game itself (Which is almost inconceivable to me after this review) it is totally worth paying for for the music alone. During your regular playthroughs you’ll here wonderful remixes of classic Casltevania franchise music in each area. Different yet familiar, it was hard not to choose Dracula’s Castle on every run just for this reason. And as an added super-mega bonus. there is an option in the game’s settings to change the entire game’s soundtrack to Castlevania music, which offers you even more music to hear with both new and classic versions of many tunes.

Dead Cells Dracula X Rondo of Portrait of Ruin

The asking price for this DLC is higher than that of past additions to Dead Cells, but it also has noticably more to offer. The quality of the content is top notch and gives you yet more reasons to play this great game. It may be five years old, but it’s still finding ways to stay fresh.

I had a blast both playing this game for the first time and savoring the DLC crossover experience. It may be fanservice but the quality is absolutely top notch. And while it is tough as nails, I also love the fact that the devs let you adjust the experience to suit your ability without penalty.

If you’re a Castlevania fan who hasn’t played this game for some reason, you owe it to yourself to buy this now. And even if you’re not, it’s still more super high-quality content for an awesome game that clearly is standing the test of time, made with clear and demonstrated love by independent developers, and you should buy it anyway.

~ Final Score: 10/10 ~

Review copy provided by Motion Twin for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Motion Twin.