Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania, the newest DLC for Dead Cells, was created to be a love letter to the game’s biggest original inspiration in Castlevania itself while also having it be an expansion, an improvement, a reason to pick up the game again without it just being a reskin. It’s an interesting balancing act but one that I think Motion Twin pulls off with aplomb.
Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania opens up right from the very first biome and relatively early on at that, allowing you to jump right into it. You’ll meet Richter at the top of some stairs, run down the stairs and walk right into the transition stage before the first DLC biome, Castle’s Outskirts! The first thing I noticed was the enemy designs. They were considerably less mobile than usual enemies while also having a more predictable attack pattern. Now, that sounds like, “Okay, so they just downgraded the enemies?” but it doesn’t feel like that at all once getting past the first little patch of them. Just because the skeleton bone throwers always use the exact same throwing arc doesn’t mean you won’t underestimate them as you focus on a more dangerous enemy before that bone hits you in the head real, real hard. And it’s in that simple little interaction that really ties the DLC together. The gameplay is ever so slightly changed to harken back to Castlevania, with older AI, and before procedurally-generated dungeons became a big aspect in these sorts of games, yet it’s still quintessential Dead Cells.
Speaking of the procedurally-generated dungeons, this DLC tones it down considerably, if not outright tossing it out in some parts. The very beginning of the first biome drives you straight into a giant closed gate that you have to go down and around to open (permanently, I might add) before taking an elevator up a tower in a start-stop adventure. The second biome, which I will not spoil, but I imagine no one going into this DLC will be surprised, also features more dungeon mapping. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a bad development; if anything, I think it adds to the love letter aspect of this DLC, but as I’m absolute trash at these games, I found myself getting a bit worn out of constantly going up and down that first biome the same exact way multiple times. I imagine not mindlessly spamming this DLC in your future runs will be a pretty good solution to the staleness that might be brought on.
The gameplay basics aside, Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania introduces an assortment of weapons, enemies (as some were previously mentioned,) and a few new bosses. Some of the weapons have been very fun and offer some different playstyles, especially with the unconventional ranged weapons like the Throwing Axe and, to a lesser extent, the Cross. For any of you costume collectors, there are also a handful of those thrown in for your pleasure. All these unlocks will keep you coming back to this DLC again and again because truly, these weapons are quite refreshing, and I’d wager to say just plain ol’ more fun. Not to mention that this DLC adds a whole new game mode with a completely different playable character and style, which will go unnamed for spoiler reasons.
After all this, I’ve really only covered how the game feels. Rest assured: the aesthetics are absolutely on point. It’s all more of that high-quality pixelated art that seems to never go out of style, but what the backdrops of the biomes mixed in with the new music tracks add cannot be overstated. Where I mentioned that the enemy designs operated a little slower, the music makes sure to keep the faster tempo and, at least for me, what I can only call the frantic playstyle of the base game. The designs of the two biomes are gorgeous, nailing the feel of exploring a big, bad castle steeped in history and blood. They fit right in with biomes from the base game, such as Ramparts and High Peak Castle, but upping the ante to convey that “yeah, the King is bad, but wait until you meet the lord of this castle.”
With this DLC, Motion Twin found themselves able to play with the proverbial toy that so clearly inspired Dead Cells and were given the chance to marry the two together. Dead Cells has been a fantastic game so far, but it is not easy to create something that is unmistakably yours while also paying heavy reverence while also operating within the very world that set you off on your journey in the first place. I don’t think love letters such as this are ever so simple, as it is beyond easy to just take the basics and what is recognizable on the surface and not actually dig into what truly made the original such a fantastic experience in the first place. To put it simply, it’s just missing the point. Motion Twin did not do that. They did not simply play with the toys and leave them as just some reskinned maps with character cameos. They understood what made Castlevania such a legendary franchise, and even better, they recaptured it.