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Monday, May 27, 2024

Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania Review

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Whenever I’m asked what my favorite roguelike is, my answer is confidently and unabashedly Dead Cells. That’s been true across five years of superb content updates, and it’s even more true with the arrival of its latest paid DLC, Return to Castlevania. This sizable expansion expertly remixes the base game and Konami’s classic action-platformer series – one of Dead Cells’ biggest inspirations – into something that feels wonderfully and wholeheartedly its 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 has gone into bringing Castlevania's iconic characters, weapons, music, and locations into Dead Cells’ world. It puts the castle itself center stage 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 engaging Dead Cells action that might leave you in bloody tears of frustration or joy by the end.

While the story traditionally hasn’t been the reason you’d play Dead Cells in the first place, Return to Castlevania does an amusing job setting up why you’re satisfyingly smashing your way toward Dracula’s notorious throne room this time rather than simply trying to escape your island prison like in runs of yore. By the end of its story I’d not only taken on the Count in an epic final battle, I’d also faced Medusa and even Death itself in fierce showdowns. It almost felt like a new, more streamlined version of a classic Castlevania adventure, all while still staying true to the Dead Cells name.

The brilliant gameplay formula of quick sword swiping action, ground pounds, and bashing through doors against a colorful pool of monsters hasn’t fundamentally changed, but Return to Castlevania introduces more weapons, enemies, bosses, and outfits than any paid expansion before it. Discovering all the new surprises continues to keep it more than fresh even after the 20 hours I’ve sunk in so far. As you storm a spectacular castle floating in a blood-red sea, the original Dead Cells’ weapons, blueprints, and outfits you’ve found from any path can be used across the board here.

That’s absolutely for the best because you’re able to mix and match between those and 14 vampire hunter-flavored weapons to find creative new builds. That could be pairing the flint with the whip to overwhelm enemies up close and personal, 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 Death’s scythe, a double-sided weapon that converts its victims into my own spectral army who in turn dive at enemies and explode while I simply smile and watch. It’s this level of creativity that makes punishing new enemies like skeletons and werewolves with my whip sword or a cute but ferocious magical cat even more fun. There are a handful of refreshing enemies from the Castlevania series to take on, further selling the idea that I’ve been transported into this fantastical world.

The final fight is easily the most challenging and unique boss yet.


Dracula’s Castle is made up of two distinct locations – the grounds outside the castle and its interior – and there is so much more within them than you might expect based on past Dead Cells updates, including some great renditions of iconic songs like Vampire Killer. I was surprised to find the castle outskirts are designed as a sort of proving ground, satisfyingly testing whether or not you’re even worthy to enter Dracula’s domain by having you ascend several floors before you even reach his doorstep, cleverly demonstrating how big of a threat the iconic vampire is. That idea is only expanded upon once entering his castle.

No matter what distance you’re looking from outside, Dracula’s castle appears massive – and once you get inside it’s just as grand. It is filled to the brim with ornate decorations and detailed sculpture work that is complimented nicely by Dead Cells gorgeous pixel-art style. The atmosphere of the gothic structure is only heightened thanks to the red fog that pours in through each window you pass by. The castle’s background layers impressively convey how vast the fortress is meant to be as you run through Dead Cells’ procedurally-generated layouts that change the map for every visit. All the while the villain himself appears at times to slow you down by throwing fireballs, unleashing swarms of bats, and yes, even flipping 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 yet.

Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania DLC Screenshots

You’ll find plenty of charming nods and surprises from the old-school Castlevania games to interact with while exploring these new areas as well. You might stumble across a room holding the save dice from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which provides a little bit of extra flavor rather than actually letting you save your game. Inclusions like this are great throwbacks for people who are already big fans of the series, but they are also a fantastic source of motivation to encourage those who have never played Castlevania to go back and try it for the first time (and likely start to recognize even more references along the way).

Once you find Richter Belmont in the castle you’ll be able to play the short but excellent Richter Mode after your next run, a separate, discrete 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 strips down the combat a bit to be a lot more like the methodical and tactile nature of a Castlevania game. Richter is only equipped with one weapon and one tool to use instead of the usual two, plus your tool can only be used by consuming a heart currency just like many of the games from his series. Because he has much less health and fewer resources to work with than a standard Dead Cells character, I had to focus on taking my time and spacing myself from enemies instead of diving in and mashing my attacks. Playing carefully leads to powerful rewards, though, and I eventually found myself literally raining down holy water on enemies, which lived up to the legendary reputation of the Belmont Clan. Dead Cells is all about learning how to overcome challenges, so Richter Mode is a fantastically innovative way to bring something new to the table while putting Castlevania in the spotlight. Once I beat it, I was left more than convinced developers Motion Twin and Evil Empire could make an incredible traditional 2D Castlevania if Konami allowed them to.

Even after I thought I had done everything I was discovering new things.


The amount of time it takes to reach and defeat Dracula will depend on whether you are a new or returning player, but either way you will be able to start the adventure a couple of runs after starting a fresh save, allowing you to get in on the action quickly. Even after thinking I had done everything there was to do in Return to Castlevania, I often found myself discovering new things. During one run I found a merchant in Dracula’s castle, only for the vampire himself to show up and snap them out of existence. The big bad then paid me for helping him find the merchant, which left me shocked, but I had to laugh out loud because of how clever and unexpected it all was.

There are 20 different outfits to unlock based on notable Castlevania figures like Simon Belmont and Alucard, to name a few. In a fantastic little touch, getting to Dracula’s throne room dressed as someone from Castlevania even changes the conversation before the fight, giving you a small taste of the background for each character. That was enough to entice me to do it for every single one I’ve found, which means I’m spending upwards of 40 minutes each time just to see what is normally a mere 15 seconds of dialogue. These little details are yet another example of how Dead Cells cunningly encourages you to do that “one more run” before calling it quits for the night.

While this all might sound like Return to Castlevania relies heavily on nostalgia to be enjoyable, one of the things this DLC does so expertly as a crossover is that it still rewards you even if you’re not familiar enough with the series to pick up on all the references. As someone who isn’t a Castlevania diehard but has played some over time, not only did I never feel left out, I actually felt encouraged to go and play more of the series, simply because of how well it’s integrated into a game that I love so much. To me, that dopamine effect is the highest compliment that a crossover can reach, and this one does it brilliantly.

And even though many games today undoubtedly owe so much to Castlevania, years of exceptional updates and refinement mean Dead Cells has earned the right to sit on a throne proudly alongside its own inspiration. Return to Castelvania is more than doing right by Castlevania, it also cements Dead Cells as a timeless classic in its own right. That makes this crossover feel like more than a loving homage or a well-deserved passing of the torch alone. Not only has Dead Cells surpassed expectations in doing right by Castlevania, but it has also brought itself on to greater heights with the best level design, bosses, art, and creativity we’ve seen yet.

Verdict

Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is a shining blueprint of how to do a crossover right. It celebrates the history of the franchise while mixing it with Dead Cells’ own identity to make something that’s more than the sum of its already excellent parts. Not only does this collaboration feel like it makes total sense, the utmost care has clearly been put into every aspect, whether it be the still fantastic monster-slaying combat or the huge number of secrets waiting to be found inside. Regardless of whether this is the last content update Dead Cells will get or not, Motion Twin and Evil Empire deserve to receive their flowers and proudly take a massive bow. 

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