Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania Review

A juicy wall meat treat

By Paul Hunter

I try my best to play most big-name titles as they release but for one reason or another Dead Cells’ original launch slipped past me. Being a huge fan of roguelikes—shout out to my three favs Returnal, Hades and Spelunky—I knew one day I just had to dive into Dead Cells. It was a must.

With this week’s much-talked-about Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania DLC drop I thought it was the perfect time to check the game out. I grew up with Castlevania classics like Simon’s Quest and Symphony of the Night, so the thought of diving back into Konami’s beloved franchise merged with Dead Cell's gorgeous pixel art and roguelike gameplay was certainly enticing.

Developers Motion Twin and Evil Empire have been transparent from the get-go that their hit game is heavily inspired by Castlevania, so it's not hard to imagine how excited the studios must be to work on this dream crossover. That passion has clearly carried forward into the new DLC as I was genuinely delighted and surprised at well these two game worlds mesh together. Moreover, Return to Castlevania packs in a ton of Castlevania-inspired content—including new biomes, weapons, minor mobs, bosses, and outfits, plus original and reimagined tunes—that combined make this the largest Dead Cells expansion in series history. Let's head to the island and explore what the new DLC has to offer, here are three things I liked...and one I didn't.

Liked: Flawless Gameplay

I'm going to back up for a minute and discuss Dead Cells' gameplay in general since this was my first time checking out the game. I was amazed at how easy the gameplay was to pick up, with its simple focus on melee, ranged and shield parrying combat. But like any good roguelike, there's a massive rabbit hole of weapons, elemental affinities and perks to explore run after run. Seeing the huge weapon bottle room in the Prisoners' Quarters was staggering—particularly for me since I joined the series late and have tons of other DLC packs to check out—and even after 25 hours I only managed to find about a quarter of the blueprints used to unlock weapons.

With so much gear to discover, no two runs ever felt alike. One foray into Dead Cells' dark and deadly world I'd find a Blood Sword that causes bleeding mixed with a magical Frost Blast that would allow me to freeze enemies to close distance for the kill. The next, I'd find deployable Wolf Traps that ensnare enemies and a poison Blowdart to rapidly drain away their health. Mixing and matching the many swords, grenades, deployable traps and bows is incredibly fun, made even better by how all gear can be upgraded with improved DPS and new attributes to help you survive dungeons longer.

Looking specifically at the Return to Castlevania DLC, there's a veritable treasure trove of iconic items to find from across Konami's venerable series. There are 14 Castlevania items to collect, with the first one I found being the classic Cross that spins after a set distance, dealing critical damage, then returns after a few seconds. I paired that with Alucard's Shield (the best shield I had stumbled upon thus far), which can be used to inflict a three-hit melee combo and can also parry enemy strikes.

Many of Castlevania's most beloved items can be discovered in the new DLC biomes, albeit with some unique changes to make the items fit in with Dead Cells world and gameplay. Take Death's Scythe (acquired after beating the mini-boss) for example, this incarnation lets you unleash crushing scythe blows and then defeated enemies respawn as ghosts that seek out other enemies and explode—cool! Perhaps my favourite Castlevania item in the game though is Maria's Cat Byakko, which you find by first chasing and catching the frisky feline within the outskirts of Dracula's Castle, whereupon you get a key to free Maria and as a reward can call upon Byakko. Her cat hilariously runs around scratching enemies within sight, but can also jump on your shoulder to unleash a deadly three-strike claw attack.

I could go on and on about other classic weapons I found like the Throwing Axe, Whip Sword, Bible and yes, even the Holy Water is obtainable, but the bottom line is the Castlevania items are amazingly fun to experiment with and the ones that fit nicely into your preferred playstyle will surely become devastating new additions to your arsenal.

Liked: Castlevania Enemies and Bosses

The Return to Castlevania DLC is light on story, mainly revolving around your character the Beheaded awakening Richter Belmont who asks you to help him vanquish the great evil, of course being Dracula himself. Alucard will also be at your side throughout this quest to conquer the Castle's outskirts and Dracula's Castle itself, including destroying the Count himself.

As I quickly discovered, Dead Cells is a very punishing game and the Castlevania DLC may just provide the steepest challenge yet. A whole host of iconic Castlevania lesser evils guards the castle walls, like meddling Vampire Bats that often attack in swarms or Mermen that will gladly spit fireballs into your face. Once you reach the Castle interior the enemies get fiercer, such as the spinning Buers that steamroll right through you or the Dire Werewolves that are even more ferocious than the basic Werewolves.

Seeing all these classic Castlevania foes return with neat Dead Cell visuals and attack pattern twists was great, but the bosses were an even bigger highlight. Right when you think you're about to face off with Dracula himself the game throws a curveball at you as you're dragged down into Death's Defiled Necropolis biome for an epic boss battle against the reaper himself. Death is a tough fight that really put my skills to the test, not only because he unleashes homing scythes that can be tricky to avoid but he can teleport at a whim making it harder to target him.

Eventually, you'll come face-to-face with Dracula for an epic showdown in his decorative throne room that looks just as good as I remember from SNES and PlayStation classics. To my surprise, beating Dracula doesn't end the DLC content—far from it—as you'll eventually revisit a remixed version of the castle with a stiffer challenge, including a high-intensity showdown with Medusa who now holds the key to Dracula's Throne. A final battle with Dracula in his true form finally completes the main quest, plus it unlocks the new Richter mode—but more on that later.

Liked: Gothic Graphics and Stellar Soundtrack

Just as the developers nailed the presentation in the base game, the Return to Castlevania DLC has gorgeous visuals in the series' signature pixel art style. Seeing the red mist covering the blood moon in the Castle's outskirts sent a tingle down my spine, as did the lavish interior complete with blue-glowing candles and decorative gothic paintings. The team did an amazing job adapting Castlevania's unique art style with that of Dead Cells, creating an aesthetic that feels like the perfect blend of both. I also appreciate the many nods to classic Castlevania games, like the floating geometric shape in Symphony of the Night save rooms or the ominous castle silhouette propped up against the pale blue moon.

On the audio side, the DLC adds killer remixed Castlevania tracks that sound great, including new versions of Vampire Killer, Bloody Tears and Simon Belmont's Theme featuring aggressive guitar riffs and drum beats. Helping to further immerse you in the illusion are 51 original Castlevania tracks from throughout the franchise's history, which you can flick on in the new biomes plus the other 20-plus biomes in the game.

Didn't Like: Less Mystery

Make no mistake, Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is a near-perfect roguelike experience that absolutely is a must-play for anyone that enjoys the genre or Castlevania. But if I had to be picky for a moment, I do wish the two new Castlevania-inspired biomes had a bit more mystery and intrigue like you'd see in Konami's classic series.

I totally get it though: Whereas Castlevania has painstakingly laid out maps filled to the brim with secrets, Dead Cells has randomly-created biomes and all the excitement (and limitations) that model offers. While playing Return to Castlevania I couldn't help but think that the levels were a little too straightforward and I wish there were more hidden walls, hidden chambers and other delicious surprises that harken back its Castlevania inspiration.

On the bright side, completing the DLC as the Beheaded unlocks a secret Richter mode where you'll complete an altered version of Dracula's Castle playing as Richter himself. He has different physics, a tweaked moveset and a limited set of weapons compared to the Beheaded, with gameplay more resembling traditional Castlevania. You'll even need to strike down candles to collect hearts in order to use Richter's special weapons, a neat nostalgic touch.

The Verdict

Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is a glorious mash-up of two incredible franchises and it's simply sublime. Whether you're a long-time fan of Dead Cells or a newcomer like me, this is a meaty Castlevania expansion that you can really sink your teeth into.

Final Score: 9.5/10 - Amazing

Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania details

Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: Motion Twin, Evil Empire
Publisher: Motion Twin
Genre: Roguelike, Metroidvania
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

A key was provided by the publisher.