Historically, Dead Cells DLC has been difficult to properly review in a vacuum. It often adds new levels, bosses, weapons, outfits, but none of them are unique experiences. Once integrated into Dead Cells’ labyrinthine structure, they feel as though they’ve always been there – and the superb Assist Mode allows you to tailor the difficulty across the board. But for the first time, Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania truly feels like something extra that exists alongside the standard game.
Which is not to say it’s not integrated just the same. You don’t select this campaign from the menu or a special door in the Sewers, instead you will come across the entry to this strange alternate world via a set of familiar stone steps early on. Here you’ll also meet legendary vampire hunter Richter Belmont, who will ask for your help to vanquish a great evil.
Your Beheaded Prisoner is hardly one to shy away from a challenge. Or even question the potential life-ending danger of what lies ahead. If you’ve ever slain the Hand of the King and finished the initial campaign, you’ll know it’s all just a cruel and bizarre cycle anyway. But the Castlevania portion handles things a little bit differently.
The first time you fight through the new area, you’ll meet Alucard, protagonist of Symphony of the Night. In standard fashion, the Beheaded wakes him up by hammering on his coffin in the clueless, bumbling way we’ve come to expect. Alucard then gives you his Shield, a powerful new weapon, and sets you the task of meeting him deeper in the castle.
Without a doubt, this expansion is built for Castlevania fans. It drips with atmosphere, from the spectacular music to the enemy design, peppering in themed weapons like Holy Water bombs and the Vampire Killer whip, and upping the pace of gameplay to match. You could never stand still in Dead Cells for long, but in Return to Castlevania you’ll also contend with new traps, crumbling or turning platforms, and a host of new enemies.
It also looks incredible. It remains quintessentially “Dead Cells”, but the new biomes lean heavily into the Gothic aesthetic of Castlevania. It’s a little strange when you begin to realise just how much Dead Cells was inspired by Konami’s seminal, genre-defining series in the first place.
The broad strokes of gameplay don’t change much, of course, and the handful of new bosses are as challenging as you’d hope for. I won’t spoil who they are, but it’s suffice to say that fans of Castlevania will lap up the encounters. You can’t complete the entire DLC in one run, either. Once you complete the first boss, you’ll be set back on the course through Dead Cells’ usual biomes, and will be approached by Alucard during the next run to embark on the following phase.
New weapons and outfits add to the flavour and variety. There are 20 skins to unlock in total, including Richter and Trevor Belmont skins, and over a dozen weapons to add to your pile of random drops. But it’s the music that really sets the tone here. Motion Twin have recreated more than 50 classic Castlevania tracks that relentlessly play on those nostalgia strings. Newcomers will find some of the best in-game music ever composed, while those familiar with the original franchise will find new versions of old favourites lovingly reimagined for the present day.
There’s something deeply fitting and “right” about this crossover. It’s not just that I’m a Castlevania fan, and it certainly isn’t the first game to crossover with Konami’s legendary franchise, but Dead Cells was always compared to Castlevania, and having the two meet in this way with such reverence on the part of Motion Twin is weirdly heartwarming. This is a bigger, more ambitious expansion than we’ve seen in this universe, and it proves without a doubt that Dead Cells – and Castlevania – are still very much alive.
Lots of nostalgia-bait
New levels and bosses are great
Non fans might be a little nonplussed