Game Flow: Dead Cells

Dead Cells
Released August 7, 2018
Developed by Motion Twin
Published by Motion Twin

Dead Cells is a roguelike action platformer in which the player makes their way through various stages collecting a variety of different items each time, making each run slightly different from the last. Like other roguelikes, the player’s experience in Dead Cells will depend at least partly on chance. However, Dead Cells still does a fairly good job of allowing the player to enter a state of flow. We’ll start with one of its biggest strengths.

Challenge and Skill. Dead Cells handles challenge and skill very well. As the player progresses through each stage, enemies and environmental hazards become more difficult. I’ve noted this multiple times with other games, but this gradual increase in challenge is a great way to ensure that each player will encounter a part of the game where the challenge matches their skill. Additionally, the game allows for each individual floor to be made easier or harder by offering rewards for clearing the stage very quickly or defeating a certain number of enemies on the floor without taking damage. This makes even the earliest floors more challenging in case the player’s skill is already too high otherwise. And if all of that isn’t enough, Dead Cells also allows the player to increase the difficulty mode of the whole game. This means that there is a very large range of challenge levels, and likewise many opportunities to develop various levels of skill, making flow easier to achieve for a wider range of players.

Goals. Goals are not as strong of a point in Dead Cells as challenge and skill. The main goal of each stage, of course, is to progress to the next one or defeat the boss if it’s a boss stage.  These goals are fairly clear and proximal. However, the optional goals mentioned above of clearing a stage within a certain time limit or defeating a certain number of enemies without taking damage are not made clear. The player does not know (without memorizing it from a previous run) what exactly the time limit is or how many enemies must be defeated to complete the goal. And while the game does display a timer, it does not show the player how many enemies they have defeated so far on a stage. So these goals are not made as clear. Another goal might be to obtain a stronger or specific weapon or item. However, as with other roguelikes, the random nature of item drops makes this goal variably proximal based on chance. One other goal that is made clear is unlocking new items or upgrades in between stages. All available items and upgrades are listed, and none of the process is based on chance, so players can clearly set goals to work towards certain things. So there are areas where Dead Cells makes goals clearly available for players to set, and other areas where the player needs to do more of the work to set the goal.

Feedback. I’ve already mentioned some areas where Dead Cells provides or fails to provide certain feedback. With regard to progression through the stage or boss fight, the stage map provides all the details the player needs to see where they’ve been and where they haven’t, and boss fights have a big HP bar to clearly show progress towards defeating them. The game always has a timer available, and it notes when the in-game clock is paused, helping players if they are trying to finish a stage in time for the time limit goal. As mentioned above, the game does not, however, provide feedback on the goal of defeating enemies without taking damage, except for of course making it clear when the player has taken damage. A tracker for how many enemies have been defeated on the current stage would help with this. Statistics like number of enemies defeated and stages completed are available in-game, but only before starting a run. More of this information should be made available during a run.

Regarding combat, Dead Cells provides a good amount of feedback to let the player know what is going on. Damage numbers appear whenever a player or enemy takes damage, and the number appears yellow when the attack is a critical hit. Both enemies and the player have health bars. Various symbols appear above player or enemy characters to indicate status conditions like bleeding or stunned. When an enemy is about to attack, an exclamation point will appear above its head, in addition to any wind up animation for the attack. If the player rolls, their character will flash slightly to indicate when they can roll again. These all help the player know what is happening as well as how effective their actions are. Perhaps the only addition to combat feedback would be an indication of the invulnerability frames of the roll. This would help players better time their rolls and understand instances where they took damage despite seemingly dodging an attack. Overall, the feedback in Dead Cells is mostly good, with most of the goals covered by immediately available feedback.

Conclusion. Dead Cells is very well-suited to promote flow experiences. Its best strength is the very wide range of challenges players can take on, with multiple difficulty settings as well as optional goals within each difficulty to add additional challenge. Some of those optional goals could be made more clear, however, particularly the defeating a certain number of enemies without taking damage. Feedback during a run on how many enemies have been defeated on a given stage would go a long way in improving this. Most other aspects of the game are covered pretty well with regard to the feedback provided about them. As a whole, Dead Cells is a great game for entering a state of flow.  

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