Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania

Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania

This is an excellent example of a crossover done correctly.

This is an excellent example of a crossover done correctly.

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Review game Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania, This is an excellent example of a crossover done correctly.

My unwavering and confident response to the question of what my favorite roguelike is is Dead Cells. This has been the case for five years of excellent content updates, and with the release of Return to Castlevania, the game’s most recent paid DLC, it is now even more so. One of the main sources of inspiration for Dead Cells, Konami’s iconic action-platformer series, is skillfully remixed in this substantial expansion to create something that feels wonderfully and uniquely its own. Its more conventional narrative structure is less enigmatic than the connect-the-dots approach we’ve seen previously, and it’s instantly apparent how much effort has gone into integrating Dead Cells’ universe with Castlevania’s recognizable characters, weapons, soundtrack, and locations. It brings the castle itself to life and places it front and center, and this reverence is a major selling point for the crossover fantasy. With the same tough and captivating Dead Cells action, Return to Castlevania is a brilliant mashup that expertly combines the best elements of both games, possibly leaving you crying with joy or frustration by the end.

Return to Castlevania does a funny job of explaining why, this time, you’re smashing your way toward Dracula’s infamous throne room rather than just trying to escape your island prison like in runs of old. The story hasn’t traditionally been the reason you’d play Dead Cells in the first place. By the time its tale came to an end, I had not only defeated the count in a titanic showdown, but I had also engaged in combat with Medusa and even Death. While adhering to the Dead Cells name, it felt almost exactly like a redesigned, simplified version of a traditional Castlevania adventure.

Although Return to Castlevania retains the same brilliant gameplay formula of fast sword-swiping action, ground-pounding, and smashing through doors against a vibrant pool of monsters, it adds more weapons, bosses, and outfits than any previous paid expansion. Even after the 20 hours I’ve invested so far, finding all the new surprises keeps it more than fresh. You can use all of the original Dead Cells’ weapons, blueprints, and outfits that you found on any path to storm a magnificent castle floating in a blood-red sea.

That’s definitely a good thing, as you can create inventive new builds by switching between those and 14 other weapons with vampire hunter flavors. This could involve using the flint and whip together to overwhelm opponents up close or using the throwing ax and lightning bolt together to concentrate on attacking from a distance. Aside from the new additions, my favorite weapon is Death’s scythe, a double-sided weapon that turns its victims into my own spectral army, who then charge at enemies and explode while I just smile and watch. Other classic Castlevania elements include the holy water and the cross. This degree of inventiveness adds to the enjoyment of using my whip sword to punish new foes like skeletons and werewolves or a cute but vicious magical cat. A few energizing enemies from the Castlevania series are present, which further confirms my perception that I have entered this fantastical world.

The final battle is undoubtedly the most difficult and distinctive boss to date.

The grounds outside the castle and the interior of Dracula’s Castle are two separate locations, and based on previous Dead Cells updates, there is a lot more to be found there than you might anticipate, including some fantastic renditions of well-known songs like Vampire Killer. The outskirts of the castle are set up like a sort of testing ground, which pleasantly determines whether or not you’re even worthy to enter Dracula’s domain by making you climb several floors before you even reach his doorstep. This effectively illustrates how dangerous the renowned vampire is. Once inside his castle, that concept is only developed further.

No matter how far you are looking from the outside, Dracula’s castle looks enormous, and it is even more impressive inside. It is crammed with elaborate ornamentation and finely detailed sculpture, which contrast beautifully with Dead Cells’ stunning pixel-art aesthetic. The red fog that seeps through every window you walk by adds even more to the gothic structure’s atmosphere. The layers of background surrounding the castle show how effectively the procedurally-generated layouts in Dead Cells, which change the map with each visit, portray the size of the fortress. Meanwhile, the antagonist himself occasionally makes an appearance to slow you down by launching fireballs, letting loose hordes of bats, and yes, even turning the castle inside out. Not to give anything away, but the last fight is unquestionably the most difficult and distinctive boss Dead Cells have faced to date.

Exploring these new areas will also reveal a plethora of charming nods and surprises from the classic Castlevania games. It’s possible to find a room that contains the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night save dice, which adds a little bit of extra flavor without actually allowing you to save your game. Such inclusions serve as both a wonderful reminder for those who are already avid fans of the series and a powerful incentive for those who have never played Castlevania to give it a try (and probably pick up even more references in the process).

After your next run, you’ll be able to play the brief but fantastic Richter Mode, a distinct level that highlights Richter Belmont once you locate him inside the castle. Richter Mode dials down the combat to be much more like the methodical and tactile aspects of a Castlevania game, even though the majority of Return to Castlevania plays like Dead Cells in a loving Castlevania skin. Richter only has one weapon and one tool, as opposed to the typical two, and, like many of the games in his series, you can only use your tool by using heart currency. Compared to a typical Dead Cells character, he has far less health and resources, so I had to be more careful about taking my time and avoiding enemies rather than charging in and spamming attacks. However, cautious play pays off handsomely, and before long, I was actually showering enemies with holy water, living up to the Belmont Clan’s fabled reputation. Richter Mode is a wonderfully inventive way to add something new to the table while highlighting Castlevania, since Dead Cells is all about learning how to overcome obstacles. After finishing it, I was more than certain that Motion Twin and Evil Empire, the game’s developers, could create a fantastic classic 2D Castlevania if Konami gave them permission.

I kept learning new things even after I felt like I had done everything.

Whether you are a returning or first-time player will determine how long it takes to find and kill Dracula, but in any case, you can begin the adventure a few runs after making a new save, so you can get started right away. I frequently found myself learning new things in Return to Castlevania, even after I thought I had completed everything there was to do. On one of my runs, I came across a merchant in Dracula’s castle, but the vampire himself soon appeared and vanished from sight. I was shocked to learn that the big bad had paid me for my assistance in helping him find the merchant, but I couldn’t help but laugh at how unexpected and clever it all was.

There are twenty different costumes to unlock, many of which are models for well-known Castlevania characters like Alucard and Simon Belmont. It’s a great little touch that alters the dialogue prior to the fight when you enter Dracula’s throne room dressed like a Castlevanian, giving you a brief introduction to each character’s past. That convinced me to do it for every single one I could find, which means I’m spending up to forty minutes every time for what is essentially only fifteen seconds of dialogue. These minor details are just one more way Dead Cells subtly tempts you to go for that “one more run” before calling it a night.

Even though it might seem like Return to Castlevania depends a lot on nostalgia to be entertaining, this DLC pulls off a masterful crossover by rewarding players even if they aren’t familiar enough with the series to recognize every reference. Despite not being a devoted fan of Castlevania, I have played a few of the games over the years, and because of how well the series is incorporated into a game I adore, I never felt excluded and was even inspired to play more of the series. The dopamine effect is, in my opinion, the greatest compliment a crossover can receive, and this one does it masterfully.

Furthermore, despite the fact that many modern games clearly owe a great deal to Castlevania, Dead Cells has earned the right to proudly stand on a throne next to its own inspiration after years of amazing updates and refinement. Not only does Return to Castelvania honor Castlevania’s legacy, but it solidifies Dead Cells’ status as an enduring masterpiece all by itself. Because of this, the crossover feels like more than just a deserving tribute or a handing over of the reins. Dead Cells has not only exceeded our expectations by doing Castlevania right, but it has also elevated itself to new heights with the greatest bosses, level designs, artwork, and inventiveness we have yet to witness.


Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is an excellent example of a crossover done correctly. It honors the franchise’s past while fusing it with Dead Cells’ unique character to create something that transcends the sum of its already outstanding parts. Not only does this partnership seem perfectly logical, but every detail—from the still-amazing monster-slaying action to the countless secrets that lie ahead—has obviously been carefully considered. Whether or not this is the final content update that Dead Cells will receive, Motion Twin and Evil Empire deserve to be showered with flowers and given a huge bow.

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