REVIEW: Return to Castlevania is a victory lap for the stellar Dead Cells
Updated: Mar 10
Dead Cells has earned its reputation as one of the best roguelikes of all time with its fast-paced action platforming and Metroidvania-focused design elements. Motion Twin has produced yearly DLC releases since its launch in 2018 and the content never seems to lose momentum. As the years go by, Dead Cells continues to raise its bar for quality higher and higher, and just when you thought it could have reached its peak... its best content yet hits the market.
Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is a beautiful love letter to the "vania" half of the genre, a reminder of the brilliance of the long-dormant franchise, and ultimately a perfect addition to an already top-tier game.
Bravo, Motion Twin and Evil Empire.
Just the Facts
Developer: Motion Twin, Evil Empire
Publisher: Motion Twin
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Price: Base Game - $24.99 DLC - $9.99 Bundle - $22.99
Release Date: March 6, 2023
Review key provided by Tinsley PR.
I cannot overstate how much I miss Castlevania. Konami hasn't given new life to the franchise in nearly a decade — with the 2014 release Lords of Shadow 2 standing as the last new game in the series — only giving fans bundled re-releases of games in the years since.
Luckily, they were less than stingy with the Dead Cells crew when it came to opening the Vania Vault and letting them play with anything and everything they wanted, resulting in a content pack that feels incredibly natural, feature-full, and simultaneously perfect for casual and dedicated fans alike.
Once more into the breach, Dead Cells' protagonist — a beheaded prisoner eternally seeking answers for the confusing immortal life he dwells in — finds the shifting biomes of the island suddenly a bit spookier. Hordes of bats dart by overhead, the island's weapons are decidedly more vampire killer-y, and well... some kind of king vampire has moved in. Stumbling upon a centuries-long conflict, The Beheaded agrees to help Richter Belmont to eliminate some guy named Dracula, albeit mainly because there are certainly new bits of loot to pick up in Dracula's domain.
Starting on the outskirts of Dracula's castle, a climb through a giant tower up to the castle's gates introduces The Beheaded to a ton more people who have conflict with this Dracula guy. There's Maria Renard, and more importantly, Maria's cat, who will join your journey forward. There's the silky-haired beautiful man Alucard, slumbering peacefully until a timely trademark kick from our hero disrupts him. And there's Richter Belmont, who after meeting The Beheaded finds himself promptly trapped deep within the castle.
The amount of Castlevania lore hidden amidst the shifting halls of Dracula's Castle ain't nothing to sniff at and it's all implemented beautifully. There are lore rooms with iconic visuals from the series, like a familiar ball of corpses or a comforting... blood fountain. It's simple but effective, especially since it could be years since you last saw any of this.
If you have no connection to the franchise, you obviously won't get much out of it. But The Beheaded's blasé reaction to everything and cheeky responses to these vampire hunters and the horrible beasts they're locked with in eternal battle should elicit a smile from just about anyone.
With two new gigantic biomes to explore, 14 new weapons, 20 new outfits (Dracula delivers unique dialogue depending on which hunter you're dressed as), a whole new batch of classic Castlevania baddies to encounter, 60(!) Castlevania tracks to turn on at any point while playing, and three fantastic boss encounters, Motion Twin and Evil Empire definitely delivered on their promise of making this their "biggest DLC yet." What I can report, though, is that it's their best yet too.
The Beheaded already felt like an even more agile version of Alucard in Symphony of the Night, and when you start equipping him with the classic undead destroying wares usually wielded by the Belmonts, it just feels right.
The ways they adapt classic Castlevania weaponry into this "keep moving, keep pushing" offense-friendly roguelite both pays homage to its roots while staying true to the gameplay experience you might be expecting from the core game. A favorite weapon of mine from the DLC — which can take you anywhere between 8 to 15 hours depending on your skill level — is the Bible.
In Castlevania, the Bible spins wildly around the hero and hurts any enemy who comes into contact with it. In Dead Cells, The Beheaded just grabs hold of a giant version of it and bashes enemies with it, eventually spawning the traditional spinning bible after a few hits. It's little surprises like this, the subversion of what you remember from Castlevania adapted into Dead Cells' aggression and cheekiness, that make exploring everything so new and fun.
It's important to note that accessing this content is pretty easy, even for folks hopping in for the very first time. You'll need to progress through the game's opening stages and get through a bit of the tutorializing. But once that's done, meeting up with your vampire friends (...well, vampire-hating friends) is super easy. Starting the DLC is as simple as exploring the first biome in the game, the Prison, to find Richter waiting at a descending staircase to ask your help with a pesky pale-faced pest named Drac. Hop through the door at the bottom of the stairs and your Castlevania adventure begins.
It's admirable that the team kept it incredibly easy to hop into the content, rather than gate it behind hours and hours of playing the core game. There's a clear sense here that the team knows this DLC will bring tons of new eyes onto their game, and the fact that they removed as many barriers as possible for folks to dive right in is appreciated.
With Dead Cells already having a ton of Symphony of the Night in its DNA, every biome, enemy, and weapon just settles into the gameplay loop as if it was always meant to be there. The main difference is obviously the style of play you'll use to get through it all. Castlevania certainly has action, but it's a more methodical kind of combat. Castlevania's physics and varied weapon styles ask you to consider every step you take to avoid a dangerous hit or trap. Dead Cells, as described previously, is all about constantly moving, constantly killing, as you glide through stages with ease. There are traps, to be sure, and getting hit in Dead Cells is just as costly as ever, but it's generally a more high-speed version of the Castlevania experience.
Veterans of the Dead Cells experience will find the first half of the DLC content, which ends with a super fun boss fight against Death itself, to be fairly easy. And I think even Castlevania veterans will find it approachable. You'll probably slide through pretty easily, but then the roguelite of it all reveals itself. The second half of the DLC asks you to find the Clock Tower biome to access a new version of Dracula's castle. This is where you'll spend a lot more of your time, because the difficulty certainly ratchets up here. Between having to defeat two of Dead Cells' main game bosses and trekking through the biomes to get to them, you'll be doing the live, die, repeat loop a lot. The more you play, the stronger you get, so try to not get too discouraged.
Across your runs, bosses will be unlocked, new versions of existing biomes will reveal themselves, and runs will continue back into the core Dead Cells content seamlessly when you've done all you can in a run to penetrate Dracula's defenses.
"Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is pitch-perfect revival of a franchise we're desperate to see anything new from and a perfect excuse to spend another week of sleepless nights back inside this iconic roguelite."
I found this to be my favorite part of it all, as I personally hadn't touched Dead Cells since... well, since before its full launch. Having an excuse to wander through this masterpiece in between pushing the Castlevania story forward was a dream and only served to remind me just how good this game is.
If you're here PURELY for Castlevania though, you might find yourself frustrated by how many times it forces you back out into the core game before you can progress. But I promise you, there are far worse ways to spend your time in between Castlevania storytime.
Especially when you consider one of the DLC's greatest little suprises, Richter Mode. Unlocked after a few runs, Richter Mode places you into the iconic vampire hunter's shoes and into a non-randomized version of Dracula's Castle. Every aspect of the game changes into a classic Castlevania. You've got the iconic arcing uncontrollable jump, the heart ammo for your secondary weapons, and a dash instead of The Beheaded's dodge. It's ultimately just a fun diversion from your runs: Dying dumps you back into the run you were on, and winning gives you the cells you collected while playing as Richter. But it's a great comparison point for classic Castlevania and the Dead Cells experience.
An aside before I wrap things up: THE MUSIC IS SO GOOD. Dead Cells' composer Yoann Laulan's reinterpretions of classic Castlevania tracks is phenomenal, and tracks like Bloody Tears and Vampire Killer are just as amazing as you remember, even in new hands. Playing through a full Dead Cells run with the alternate pure Castlevania soundtrack is also an experience that any fan of the game needs to do, even if they have no connection to these tracks. They're just that good.
Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is pitch-perfect revival of a franchise we're desperate to see anything new from and a perfect excuse to spend another week of sleepless nights back inside this iconic roguelite.
If Motion Twin and Evil Empire decide to hang up their Dead Cells hat after this, this would be just about the best way to say goodbye. (The only thing they could do better is announce that they're developing a new full Castlevania release themselves...)
Fans of Castlevania need to hop into this as soon as they can. Fans of roguelites who haven't played Dead Cells at all yet need to use this DLC as their excuse to get into this game immediately. And those that aren't either... well you might just become mega fans of both franchises after a few runs through this DLC.
WHAT IS A MAN? A MISERABLE LITTLE PILE OF GOOD VIDEO GAME IDEAS?
Video Games Are Good and Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is . . . GREAT. (9/10)
+ a wonderful love letter to the franchise that inspired Dead Cells, all the additions serve to remind you of the quality of both Castlevania and Dead Cells, just very fun, and the music WHIPS (get it?)
- those looking for pure Castlevania action will be disappointed by how often it tosses you back into core Dead Cells, difficulty and higher pace action will definitely take some adjusting for those coming into it fresh
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