I am eight hours in to Dead Cells’ latest DLC, Return to Castlevania and I expect to be done with the game soon. When I get through every inch of the new content, I’ll expand my thoughts, but, for now, it’s clear this is an experience every Dead Cells and Castlevania fan should give themselves.
For those Castlevania fans unfamiliar with the game, or really anyone who has yet to dive into Dead Cells, you can launch into the DLC without concern. The quick and compact tutorial will have you cutting through enemies in no time, and players can access Return to Castlevania almost from the beginning.
Having been recently resurrected, I open a door that hides a swarm of red bats. I duck to avoid them and make my way forward toward a set of stairs that seem to stretch far beneath the earth. A stranger clothed head-to-toe in blue, complete with matching headband — who will seem familiar to some — asks for my help before bounding away. There’s nothing to do but follow him through a door marked Castle Outskirts.
On the pathway to the mysterious location are themed stand-ins for Dead Cells’ typical prep team. Shanoa, master of glyph magic, acts as The Collector and transforms my hard-earned Cells into helpful items, like a health flask, random starting weapons, and a backpack to help expand my inventory.
I also still get to pick a mutation — which grants me abilities like limited resurrection or extra damage on killing enemies — and drink from the life-replenishing beaker before stepping into the land ruled over by creatures of the night.
The first thing I notice, and love, about Return to Castlevania’s first area is the music. Unlike Dead Cells’ more subtle tunes, the Castle Outskirts blasts with a metallic ode to old-school vampire hunting. It sets the mood perfectly. I also appreciate the level’s design, which allows me to set up a shortcut that alleviates some of the tedium inherent in Dead Cells’ roguelike structure.
Players will die. It a part of the game, and when I die, I start from the beginning. There is no going back to grab Cells lost in defeat or teleporting to newly discovered areas. Each run requires going from level A to level B and so on every time. So, in the Castle Outskirts, finding my way to the level that drops a drawbridge that helps me bypass a section of the location is a moment of celebration.
Despite the level’s perfectly creepy vibes — crumbling gothic architecture, hordes of monsters, and an ominous full moon can have that effect — the developers inject Dead Cells’ signature levity with obvious respect for the Castlevania franchise.
I stumble onto a coffin at one point and decide on a whim to knock on it, waking its occupant whose befuddled reaction at finding an unexpected guest blundering through the realm earns a chuckle. I also enjoy an unexpected meeting after I snatch a key from a white cat running around wildly.
The blonde woman — a Castlevania fan favorite — trapped behind the key’s door explains she sent the feline companion to help her escape, and I messed up her plan. However, I do get to pet the cat and take it with me on future runs to help scratch up the baddies.
I’ll spare the details on the DLC’s other “biomes,” to avoid spoilers, but there are four Castlevania-specific lands to traverse. These are stuffed with monsters inspired by the franchise, like frogmen that spit fire, bone-throwing skeletons, and animated suits of armor.
Luckily, I also have an arsenal of vampire-hunting tools to bring them down. This includes a throwable, boomerang-like cross, a scythe worthy of Death itself, and Alucard’s shield. And, for even better immersion, I can don twenty different Castlevania looks after finding them sprinkled in the levels.
All of this vampire flavoring is the icing on top of Dead Cells’ smooth-as-silk combat and absorbing gameplay loop. Besides a few moments of confusion on exactly where to go to get to the next section of the DLC (and Alucard with his gloriously flowing locks being absolutely useless, losing both his shield and sword which I find lying about random locations) Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania is an enthralling experience so far.