WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Reviewing the Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania DLC has been incredibly hard. As a collaboration between one of my favourite game series of all time and a game that I have sunk hundreds of hours into since its release in 2017, I am extremely impressed to see the culmination of developer Motion Twin’s hard work to create worthwhile collaborations and free updates over the years in the form of an officially licensed collaboration with Konami. But, I can’t shake the feeling that this DLC could have been so much better.
At this point I have now unlocked all but 2 weapons, played the secret ‘Richter Mode’, and completed multiple runs of the normal and harder versions of the 2 new biomes, and quite honestly, I was expecting a lot more from an officially licensed collaboration DLC. Before I begin, the caveat for this entire review is that, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the content that is included in this DLC, but upon reflection when preparing for this review, I genuinely found it hard to be as enthusiastic about it as I was prior to release.
Where is the Content?
There is no denying that Motion Twin have made an incredible job of providing true value to their fanbase. Since 2017, the Dead Cells developers have released a consistent flood of free updates, collaboration events with popular roguelike games, gameplay and mechanical upgrades, and paid DLC- this is a huge triumph for a modern game developer, and one that should certainly be praised in the world of $20 skins and in-game currency bundles.
The problem with this DLC is that, much like their previous paid DLCs, the new content is over before it has really begun. If you are an entirely new player to the franchise, it will take you a while to get through the tremendous amount of content that makes up the Dead Cells experience in 2023, but for returning players, making your way through a brand new biome takes a matter of minutes, even if you decide to fully explore all sections of the map.
The new content for this DLC is introduced when the player meets Alucard in the Prisoner’s Quarters, who compels you to enter the new ‘Castle Outskirts’ area in search of his father, Dracula. Once players complete this new biome, they are led into the next biome of Dracula’s Castle, which is preceded by a battle with one of the DLC’s new bosses, Death, before the player is unceremoniously plonked back into the base game- and that’s basically it. Once you’ve finished your battle with Death, the player will come across Alucard once more, who basically tells the player to start a new run and enter the Castle Outskirts for a second time, except now the player must first defeat the base game’s Time Keeper boss in the Clock Tower to access the DLC- after which the same 2 biomes will spawn again, and the player can fight through them both to reach the end, this time fighting Dracula instead of Death.
This artificial lengthening of the DLC is frustrating from a new content standpoint. As an actual addition to the ‘1 more run’ aspect of Dead Cells, the 2 new biomes are a fantastic inclusion that offer a nice alternative to some of the older biomes, but the fact remains, it’s still just 2 new biomes. This is an officially licensed product, a collaboration with one of the oldest and best-known franchises in gaming history, a series which has not seen it’s own mainline release since 2014’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and in reality we get 10-15 minutes worth of new Castlevania inspired content for almost the same cost of the Castlevania Advanced and Anniversary collections. It truly feels like, if the makers of Motion Twin are genuine Castlevania fans – which you would assume they are, then they really dropped the ball here by missing an opportunity to create something that truly scratched the itch caused by that lengthy gap in Castlevania releases.
There is really no need to force the player to start a new run to re-access the new biomes that were already presented to them from the start of the game, and ask them to play the normal version of the game again for another 25-40 minutes to play the same biomes again at a slightly higher difficulty. It makes the entire DLC feel much longer than what it actually is, and I can’t help but think the developers were aware of how short the new content was when they implemented this idea.
It Should Have Been Called ‘Return to Symphony of the Night’
Considering there are almost 40 years worth of Castlevania games to draw from, the ‘Return to Castlevania’ Dead Cells DLC essentially just uses 1997’s Symphony of the Night as the basis for its inspiration. This isn’t exactly a huge problem, SotN is one of the best loved games in the series, but for a DLC that looked as if it would be a sort of nostalgia trip through the entire Castlevania series, it ends up feeling more like a retread of the series’ most referenced and best known game. The 2 biomes that are included in the DLC are just reimaginings of the first 2 levels of Symphony of the Night, with the final battle against Dracula in the DLC being almost identical to the opening battle between Richter and Dracula featured in SotN.
Sure, Symphony of the Night is a fantastic game to reference, but with such a wide plethora of bosses, maps, npc’s, and enemy designs to include in a Castlevania homage, it feels like a wasted opportunity to only include those from the series’ most obvious reference point, especially for a life-long Castlevania fan.
The Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania DLC is a fun and welcome addition to the overall experience of the base game. Once the new content has been completed, the new biomes add an interesting alternative route to the previous biomes, but Return to Castlevania feels like more of a slight nod to one specific game in the franchise, rather than a full-blown collaboration, and its shortness really leaves you with the feeling of: ‘Was that it?’.
It’s worth playing if you’re already a Dead Cells fan desperate for new content, but don’t go into it expecting a nostalgia trip through one of the best loved series in video game history.