Sense of Pride and Accomplishment

In addition to Hollow Knight, I have been playing a bunch of Dead Cells lately.

Because apparently I hate myself.


I definitely recommend letting traps do the heavy lifting.

Dead Cells is basically a roguelike Metroidvania that has more in common with Rogue Legacy and Binding of Isaac than, say, Hollow Knight. Defeating enemies occasionally gives you a currency (Cells) that you can spend at the end of each level to unlock permanent upgrades and blueprints of items that are then seeded into the item pool of future runs. Of course, that assumes you make it to the end of the level – die before then, and you lose everything you were carrying, and have to start over at the beginning of the game.

Of course, that’s how roguelikes work. It’s expected that you start over a bunch of times. And in this regard, I definitely felt less terrible after a death in Dead Cells than I did in Hollow Knight.

…up until The Hand of the King encounter, that is.

The final boss in Dead Cells is so absurdly more difficult than anything that comes before it. While its attacks are not inherently “unfair” beyond their massive power – they can be dodged just like everything else – most of them will prevent you from utilizing health potions, lest you get hit again mid-swig. Thus, you have very little opportunity to practice learning his moves, and dying here means it’ll take at least ~30 minutes of re-clearing everything else along the way to get another shot.


Amazing ranged synergy… what could go wrong? (Failed run)

Well, after 26 hours /played in Dead Cells, I finally killed the last boss.

According to conventional wisdom, I should be feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. I died to this boss at least ten times, re-clearing the entirety of the game to get another chance each time. The fight itself is difficult, and difficult = rewarding. Permadeath confers a sense of risk, and overcoming risk = rewarding. Right?

I feel none of that. And it sorta makes you question the whole “difficulty” edifice.

To be fair, I did not expect to win on the particular run that I did. The items offered on each run are random, and while you can sometimes affect the odds by resetting shop items, the best gear drops from bosses and you don’t have many shots at those. I had strolled up to the final boss several times before with what seemed to be unassailable combos, only to die embarrassing deaths. On the winning run, I made a last minute substitution that basically had no particular synergy with anything – it simply offered an extra 30% damage reduction, which apparently was enough to get me over the finish line.

I have never particularly believed that difficulty was valuable in of itself. But the total emptiness of having beat Dead Cells makes me question why I ever tried to debate anyone on difficulty previously. It is often taken as a given that “log in, collect epix” is bad, and defeating the game on extreme permadeath Ironman mode (or whatever) is good. But I know for a fact that I would have enjoyed Dead Cells more had I beaten the last boss two runs earlier than I did two runs later. And that disappointment and dissatisfaction I felt at losing was not made up by eventually winning.


Successful run items. Ice Grenade was a late addition.

What makes the situation all the more absurd is that there is a lot more left to Dead Cells. Defeating the last boss unlocks “Boss Cells” which are essentially bonus modifiers you can apply to all enemies and bosses. Defeat the last boss on this new, higher difficulty and you unlock another Boss Cell slot. And so on, up to 4, which is the current limit. Ergo, the last boss could have been easier, and everyone else who craved a harder game could have been more than satisfied with four additional difficulty tiers.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m still just salty from winning when I didn’t expect to, and losing (several times) when I did. Perhaps that was the secret sauce all along – expecting to lose from the start led me to have lower anxiety levels during the fight. Or maybe I had seen the boss’s moves enough to commit them to muscle memory.

All that I know for certain is that difficulty, by itself, doesn’t particularly add anything meaningful to a game. In fact, it often can poison an entire experience. I’m not sure how you balance a game such that there are difficult moments without being frustrating, but Dead Cells ultimately did not get it right when it comes to the final boss. Which is a damn shame, because I otherwise had fun.

Posted on October 26, 2018, in Impressions, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I think part of the answer is you are playing games you don’t actually like, and so when you beat them you don’t feel happy about it because you didn’t really like the experience of playing (even though you feel like you should, because you feel like you should enjoy this style of game). You didn’t like Hollow Knight, you just endured it because of its art/sound style. Here you don’t really enjoy the core loop of the game (fail, grow, try again, fail, grow, try again, succeed, make harder, try again, fail, etc etc)

    The other part, about difficulty, I’ll get to in a blog post shortly, as its a big too long to leave as a comment.


    • I disagree. As noted in the post, I actually enjoyed playing through Dead Cells… until the last boss. All the other bosses were fine, even when I died to them. I died a bunch of times on the level leading to the last boss and was fine with that too. I enjoy roguelikes generally, including Binding of Isaac and Don’t Starve and so on. Hell, I had to stop myself from booting up Dead Cells again last night – 99% of the game is legitimately fun to play. It’s a very responsive game.

      What I don’t like is wildly disjointed difficulty. The last boss is overtuned. The last 10 hours of Hollow Knight is overtuned. It’s beatable, and I overcame the challenge, but it wasn’t a fun challenge, and it did not build (IMO) on what came before. I’ve heard rumors that the next Dead Cells patch is going to remove enemy scaling – a dumb mechanic that punishes you for upgrading yourself – and it’s possible that that will solve the issue with the final boss.


      • I’m not a fan of the genre so don’t play them often if at all, but isn’t one of the core principles of those games that they scale up, sometimes incredibly fast, in difficulty and basically require trial-and-error ‘gameplay’? I don’t enjoy that hence I don’t play them, but from my understanding that is exactly why people who do play enjoy them; to overcome that ridiculous spike or to conquer something that initially seems absurd.


      • Yes and no. There is often trial & error in the introduction of boss moves/tells, especially early on. Which moves can you evade? How do you know when the boss will use them?

        The thing about the last bosses in Dead Cells and Hollow Knight is that they change the “rules.” Specifically in both, the boss hits for WAY harder than anything up to this point – in Hollow Knight, each hit costs two hearts for example – and they have mechanics to make it difficult to heal mid-fight. Thus difficulty is increased on two axes simultaneously, resulted in fewer opportunities to even learn the moves in the first place. One or the other should have been good enough.

        As far as ridiculous scale-up of challenge, I have only really experienced that in card-based roguelikes, honestly. Slay the Spire, for example, requires you to have some kind of deck synergy/combo in order to succeed. Same with the Dungeon Run game mode in Hearthstone. I might put Binding of Isaac in a similar category, especially because the later (“Mom”) levels starts dealing two hearts of damage instead of just one or less. At the same time, I consider Isaac to almost be a card game insofar as I would abandon a run if the first few item spawns weren’t good enough.

        Dead Cells, meanwhile, you really don’t have an expectation that you’ll keep any of your starting equipment, so you’ll only know you have a weak item run after having made it to the last level.


  2. To be honest, I always loathed the ridiculously hard (measured by my own, not terribly high skill) games. I play to have fun, and most of the time also to relax, not to grind my teeth.

    If a game has an overall above average difficulty it’s mostly not a problem. Hard bossfights I thoroughly dislike though. Hence I’ve never even touched a Dark Souls title or anything resembling it. My feelings after I beat a hard boss are the same as yours. No pride or accomplishment, just relief that I’m done with it.


  3. I wonder if the predictability (or unpredictability thereof) was a contributing factor to your potential enjoyment (or lack thereof.)

    As in, satisfaction may have come more readily if the game allowed you to make a hypothesis about how to defeat/solve/conquer the obstacle, execute said hypothesis and then been rewarded with success or progress based on this hypothesis.

    Contrast that with “you make a hypothesis and the game just offers an RNG chance of success or failure that seems independent of the hypothesis”… at which point, you might as well be pulling a lottery lever. Which might still be rewarding to some, but not to your personal type of satisfaction-seeking.

    If so, I’d also wonder if game design is barking up the wrong tree following some vocal but not very articulate players’ desires for ever increasing difficult challenges. Perhaps the key is more about giving players a sense of control, of autonomy, of being capable of solving problems and defeating obstacles and affecting one’s destiny.

    I’d presume the vocal challenge-seeking players -do- experience a sense of autonomy and control when taking on ever-harder difficulties. Perhaps they’re optimists, or experts, or just have immense self-confidence or are ultra-competitive to the extent that they feel they are capable of learning to defeat whatever a game throws as an obstacle in their path.

    For anyone not in those categories though, there runs the risk of player frustration at either something perceived to be too difficult for them, or player emptiness when the challenge is no longer perceived as something meaningful enough to spend the necessary time to surmount.


    • Well, let’s be real here: twitch gaming skills are highly, highly required in these games too. I’m sure there are Youtube videos out there with people killing the final boss with the starter items or whatever.

      So, yeah, the times when I had awesome items and then lost anyway, had a lot to do with my personal failings at button pressing. I would argue that the awesome items should have helped more than they did, e.g. the boss was overtuned, but I definitely cannot blame RNG for Dead Cells and Hollow Knight. The order of attacks is randomized in Dead Cells, and you can sometimes find yourself in a very weak position, but better-skilled players will have less (or zero) issues.


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