I loved Dead Cells, but it never particularly struck me like Castlevania. Motion Twin’s acclaimed action roguelike certainly had some similarity in some of its combat mechanics, but not enough that I ever made any connection to Konami’s vampire-hunting franchise. So when the studio announced it was creating an expansion modeled after Castlevania, I was definitely intrigued, but also surprised. How would that work, exactly? Very well, it turns out, as Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is a clever fusion of the structure of Castlevania Homage and Dead Cells, and it helps explain how Castlevania DNA has been a part of Dead Cells. .
The similarities between the two cut their differences into stark relief. Castlevania, and in particular the Symphony of the Night sub-genre that serves as the basis for much of this expansion, is an exploration-based action game, featuring a castle full of tightly-knit secrets and progression. Gating is accurate like clockwork. Dead Cells isn’t much, as its roguelike biomes mix and match different pieces like Lego bricks. You’ll recognize some of the pieces after playing it enough, but it will always be impossible to make a coherent map or tell a friend where to find the secret key. In this regard, they couldn’t be more different.
So the blending in Return to Castlevania can best be described as Dead Cells doing their best Castlevania impression. Castlevania biomes are still randomized in the roguelike style, but the pieces feel more oriented around puzzle-solving and mysteries than in the main Dead Cells game. In fact, it’s one of Castlevania’s most impressive moves — it’s still built around interlocking pieces, but the more mystery-solving components don’t feel contained in smaller, individual parts. It’s almost as if the game is creating a new, relatively small, Castlevania map every time you respawn.
However, the most recognizable honors come in the form of new enemies and weapons. Those foes range from the lowly fish man to giant armored knights and, naturally, confrontations with Dracula himself. You’ll almost immediately find legendary sub-weapons like the Cross and Holy Water as you make your way through the castle, and once you’ve unlocked them, they’ll be available to upgrade with modifiers, like any other piece of equipment in The Dead cell. Seeing combat against familiar foes with recognizable weapons really shows how Dead Cells’ remarkably satisfying combat has always felt like Castlevania’s best moments.
The story is slight, consisting mostly of characters like Richter or Alucard showing up for a quick chat about where to find Dracula, but it’s serviceable and helps point you in the right direction. The soul is fickle as the prisoner shrinks and thumbs his way through this wild new adventure filled with video game royalty. Certain story moments reward you with powerful new primary weapons or skins after Castlevania heroes, and wearing these skins even makes some characters recognize and talk to you as if you were Simon Belmont.
Some of the best cinematic moments aren’t related to the story at all, but rather when you stumble upon some ultra-specific Easter eggs that reference a moment in Castlevania history. At one point I sat and watched ghostly dancers move around the screen for minutes, hypnotized, before finally realizing that the scene would go on forever if I let it.
It’s dead cells, it’s also remarkably tough. Dead Cells was already known for its challenge, and Return to Castlevania felt a bit more difficult than the main campaign. That means it’s ideally suited for seasoned prisoners looking for a new challenge, but don’t need to regress into endgame content. That’s because the Castlevania content itself gives you such a steady stream of powerful new equipment that you don’t need to wait for the stars to align with a run that gives you a good build.
The fresh batch of weapons are also inventive in new ways that both fit Dead Cells’ surroundings while also feeling iconically Castlevania. For example, the weapon you get for defeating Death creates an electrifying rush to combat, encouraging you to pick on weaker enemies to empower you against stronger ones.
All this makes Return to Castlevania an excellent taste of Castlevania within the framework of Dead Cells, but it is only a taste. After all, it’s an expansion, so it adds a few new biomes that, all put together, make up only a fraction of the map space of a typical Castlevania game. It’s also mostly straightforward, instead requiring traditional backtracking to open new paths with additional powers. The expansive scope of the immersive environment is part of Castlevania’s core identity, so its absence is a reminder that this is still Dead Cells with Castlevania flavor. Depending on your luck and skill level, it will take a few hours to explore the contents and reach Dracula, and probably a few more to find and unlock new gear.
It’s also a dead cells extension with no easy shortcuts. After all, it’s a roguelike, so once you know the secret to finding Dracula’s inner sanctum, you’ll have to work hard to get there. If you die – for example, against the challenging final fight with Dracula – you’ll need to do it all over again.
Those properties are part and parcel of the dead cells being expanded. It retains its original identity, so the small random biomes and lack of shortcuts are part of its nature. They aren’t particularly reminiscent of Castlevania, but the entire expansion has been infused with Castlevania flavor. Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is a smart, frenetic fusion of a modern action-rogulike and classic gaming royalty.