Dead Cells is one of the best roguelites I’ve ever played and was one of the standout games in the very crowded 2018. However, its success is only possible through standing on the shoulders of the giants that trailblazed the genre. Of all the franchises Dead Cells drew inspiration from, perhaps no series was as influential as Castlevania. Because of this, the crossover between the two, which comes in the form of premium DLC for Dead Cells called Return to Castlevania, is a natural fit that not only resurrects Konami’s dormant franchise but gives a nostalgic shot in the arm to one of the best roguelites available today.
Diving back into Dead Cells for the first time in years, I couldn’t help but effortlessly fall back into the hooks of the stellar gameplay loop. I love discovering secret areas of the randomized biomes, obtaining more and more powerful weapons and equipment, and pushing just a little further than the time before. Paramount to that, though, are the permanent upgrades you receive for completing tasks within the world, like helping NPCs, defeating Elite enemies, and discovering new areas. Though you start each run with minimal power, a definite sense of progression drives you to do “just one more run.”
This notion carries into the Return to Castlevania content, which appears as part of your standard Dead Cells runs. Once you find Richter Belmont in the prison, you’re able to venture to the Castle Outskirts instead of your regular second biome. As you enter this new level, the music swells and delivers a terrific rendition of the iconic “Vampire Killer” song. From that point, much of your Dead Cells run is a detailed love letter to the Castlevania franchise.
I always enjoyed encountering Castlevania characters like Richter, Alucard, and others, but they are just a small piece of the puzzle. One of the biggest components of this DLC is the two new levels. Once you’re in the castle, everything about Dead Cells arrives through the lens of Castlevania; the music, enemies, and weapons shift to deliver the Castlevania experience. It’s truly awesome to explore the ever-shifting floorplan of Dracula’s Castle to discover secrets like new weapon blueprints.
My biggest complaint on this front is how quickly you can work through the content if you get a good roll on your gear; even exploring every nook and cranny of the castle, I didn’t spend a ton of time in these new levels each run. That’s par for the course for Dead Cells’ levels, but I still had a moment where I was surprised to already emerge on the other side of the Castlevania content.
I also had one run unceremoniously come to a screeching halt when the ledge I needed to reach for the final boss battle was just a little too high, and I could no longer progress. This was extremely frustrating since it happened so late in a run that felt destined to end with Dracula’s defeat, but instead, I needed to start over with no way to save my cells or gold. That may showcase the woes with the base game’s procedural generation mechanics more than this expansion specifically, though my colleague Kyle Hilliard ran into something similar on his run through the Castlevania content as well.
[Update: The developer tells me this issue has been addressed in a patch, but we have not been able to verify or test it ourselves and may be unable to fully test it due to the procedural nature of the level generation]
Being immersed in the content, taking down merman, werewolves, and skeletons with my newly acquired throwing axe is a blast, but my favorite weapon has to be the transforming whip sword. I love how these areas are intertwined within the typical Dead Cells runs, allowing you to experience a mini Dracula-focused narrative within the larger story of Dead Cells. My favorite part, though, was bringing the new Castlevania weapons out of the expansion and wreaking havoc on the base game’s enemies.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Dead Cells without some supremely challenging boss battles. These white-knuckled encounters grant you the unbridled exhilaration of victory if you’re able to take down Dracula’s top-ranked creatures and progress. But as Dead Cells veterans know, the agony of a promising run coming to a screeching halt is often the result, making the stakes feel as high as ever. These encounters show a clear understanding of and respect for the Castlevania franchise. In fact, that statement is true for this entire DLC package; every detail feels faithful to the Castlevania franchise (minus the fact you can’t destroy the castle’s candles) and delivers one of the best Castlevania experiences in decades.
With the basic formula of Dead Cells still highly effective, Return to Castlevania is a terrific and natural addition to any run. From the moment Dead Cells’ remix of “Vampire Killer” blasted over my speakers, I lost track of the number of times I smiled. The Castlevania series may feel forgotten by Konami, but this Dead Cells DLC proves there are still plenty of developers and players who still love it.