Yes, Dead Cells is getting an 'easy mode'. And no, developer Evil Empire doesn't care if some corners of the internet have the baby wah-wahs because of it. Conversations surrounding the merits of challenge have been a laborious and long-standing component of the discourse around video games – reignited by Demon's Souls a decade ago, and stretching back to the floors of dusty old coin-op arcades.
With its 25th update, Dead Cells is recognizing something that we all know to be true: gaming is better when more people are given the opportunity to play. "There are a lot of people out there who enjoy the gameplay of Dead Cells but just hit a wall and can't continue, which is a shame," Matthew Houghton tells GamesRadar+, marketing manager at Evil Empire, the current custodians of Dead Cells. "Options like this allow those players to continue to have fun with a game that they like without messing around with mods. And at the end of the day, gaming should be fun!"
Gaming should be fun
The 'options' that Houghton alluded to before arrive as part of the 'Practice Makes Perfect' update, going live today for PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. Conceptualised by original creators Motion Twin and developed by Evil Empire – the two teams share an office space and continue to work closely on the roguelite – Practice Makes Perfect "aims to ease the passage of new and occasional players without altering the overall difficulty of the game for its hardcore fans." To put it simply enough, the Dead Cells developers want less rage quitting and for more players to reach the Hand of the King.
"We see lots of comments from players who enjoy the gameplay of Dead Cells, but just don't have the time, skill, or energy to beat the higher difficulties. Also, the game is pretty long for a roguelite, so it can be hard to reach and practice the later stages of the game. Many people weren't seeing some of the story or don't have access to certain items and skills and that needed to change," says Houghton. "We've already tried a few times to smooth the difficulty curve, with mixed reception, so the key this time was to create an easier way to play Dead Cells that was completely optional."
What does this 'easier way to play' look like, then? First up, four years on from launch, Dead Cells is getting a Training Room. It's here you'll be able to hone your skills "against all mobs and bosses you've encountered on your travels", giving you precious space and time to practice your tactics and sword swipes against any enemy that's already given you a hard time. Given that Dead Cells is a roguelite where the smallest mistake can see hours of progression wiped away, any opportunity to get a handle on some of the trickier boss encounters and enemy mobs is a welcome addition.
There are smaller changes to the way Dead Cells communicates its intricacies too, such as total damage change being displayed when picking stats from a scroll, and an update to the world map that will give you the ability to see the various paths you can take out of your current biome and out across the island. But the biggest and most impactful change is the introduction of 'Aspects', abilities that can make your runs a hell of a lot easier.
"They're basically 13 superpowers that you can choose at the start of your run, but you can only pick one! One is more than enough though, as they give you some pretty crazy effects," Houghton continues, "like healing 3% health when hitting a bleeding target, or dealing two-times more damage and receiving 50% less when speed-boosted. If you know Dead Cells, those are some tasty effects."
I do know Dead Cells, and they are indeed some tasty effects. Truth be told, Dead Cells was the game that turned me back onto Roguelikes after falling out of love with the genre. For a long time, it was my go-to travel game, the only thing I'd play on Switch thanks to its long runs and quick onboarding process between deaths. I put a lot of time into it, but I never could get past some of its areas with any consistency. I used to blame the dead zone of the Joy-Cons, but I'm old enough to admit that the real problem is the speed in which my thumbs interacted with the analogue sticks. Eventually, somewhere along the way, I stopped trying. I'm quick to recommend Dead Cells to a friend, but I resigned myself to never seeing all that it had to offer a long time ago.
Houghton says that the new powers were designed to bring players like me back in. "The idea behind Aspects is to let players easily reach the later stages of the game to see what they're missing, or to just have a great time rampaging through the island." Of course, there are restrictions to the system to keep the scales properly weighted. Houghton adds: "Obviously, this means that they have a pretty huge impact on balance, but you cannot unlock the next difficulty level while using an Aspect, so you'll need to complete a run without one if you want to progress."
"These options won't change the core challenge of the game, which is to progress through the five Boss Cells difficulties," he continues. "You still have to beat each difficulty without using the Aspects in order to progress, so the challenge will still exist as it did before for the players out there who love punishment. But now Dead Cells will be more accessible to people who just want to murder their way through a cursed island for an hour."
Back in the game
As you're reading this, I'm doing something that I never thought I would: I'm redownloading Dead Cells. With over six million copies sold, I'd imagine that a few of you reading this might be too. Update 25 is designed to bring those who have failed to properly survive the sprawling castle back into the fold, and to give any new players out there a chance to get to grips with its 2D combat without being totally scared away by its sharp difficulty curve and ever-present threat of permadeath.
The reason it's taken over four years for the Dead Cells team to address the difficulty inherent to that loop is a question of "too many ideas, too little time" for the small indie team. However, Houghton says that he's happy the new way to play is here, and that Evil Empire isn't worried about any kind of backlash to the notoriously difficult roguelite having some of its challenge stripped away for players who want the option. "We'd be pretty surprised if fans get angry about it. Yes, the training room lets people practice end-game bosses, which can make the game easier, but all the new features are completely optional – if people want to keep the challenge then they can."
"If there is a ton of backlash then we're not against reverting changes that turn out to suck, and we've done that before. But in general, devs do need to stand by their vision for the game, otherwise the whole game can quickly devolve into a hot mess. The idea is really to cherry-pick the best community ideas and weave them into the fabric of the game that the dev team is building, rather than blindly following every suggestion that pops up."