Thursday, December 7, 2023
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Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania DLC Review

There are few franchises that have changed, evolved, and influenced the gaming landscape as much as Castlevania. Over thirty years, its entries have ranged from genre-defining classics (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse for 8-bit side-scrolling adventures and Symphony of the Night for exploratory Metroidvanias) to ambitious failed experiments (the chaotic multiplayer of Harmony of Despair and the smartphone-exclusive Grimoire of Souls). The series has laid dormant since the critical and commercial disappointment of Lords of Shadow 2, existing exclusively through a strong Netflix animated show and revamped collections of previous titles.

While the absence of the vampire-hunting clan of the Belmonts may be felt amongst fans who grew up with Konami’s flagpole IP, there have been plenty of developers (both large and small) that took the gothic setting, monstrous creatures, and multi-layered level design to push the genre into new directions. One such game is 2018’s Dead Cells, a highly addictive and very humorous roguelike homage to Castlevania. Thanks to an ingeniously rewarding gameplay loop and constant updates (both free and paid) from developer Motion Twin, Dead Cells has stayed among the top charts of most-played indie games of recent years.

The game is back with a surprise collaboration, as Motion Twin convinced Konami to let them create new content set within the universe of Castlevania. Enter Return to Castlevania, the fifth DLC for Dead Cells and the first one to feature a non-independent licensed property. With two new biomes (the outskirts and inside of Dracula’s castle), three bosses, a dozen new enemies, and fourteen weapons straight from the game, there is plenty of bank for everyone’s buck. Getting the chance to meet series staples like Alucard, Richter Belmont, and Maria through the game’s highly stylized 2D visuals is an absolute treat for fans who grew up with that series.

The new areas that players will fight their way through are some of the biggest in the game, taking between ten to twenty minutes to go through each one of them. There are surprises and references aplenty, from Dracula randomly appearing in his castle to taunt players and play tricks on them to a secret Richter mode that recreates the gameplay of early Castlevania, the DLC is a nostalgia-laden trip that is definitely more rewarding for those even marginally familiar with the series rather than for newcomers. The signature challenge at the core of Dead Cells remains intact, even if the two new biomes lack enough variety to make repeat playthroughs particularly memorable, and the final secret boss has one of the most frustratingly long health bars in the game.

The addition of fifty-one original tracks from across the entire series, plus twelve reimagined tracks, would be more than enough for some to buy Return to Castlevania. For anyone who has any level of attachment to Konami’s franchise, this is a terrific piece of downloadable content, despite the low number of locations. Getting the chance to cosplay as Alucard, brandishing the Vampire Killer, while “Dracula’s Castle” from Symphony of the Night plays in the background, all through the buttery smooth and highly refined gameplay that has made Dead Cells a modern classic, is an instantly memorable gameplay experience. Whether that is just the nostalgia high talking, only time will tell.

Nicolò Grasso
Nicolò Grasso
Filmmaker and cinephile, owner of the EnjoyTheMovies production company and YouTube channel. Also reviews video games for Cult Following and the EnjoyTheGaming YouTube channel.

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