Dead Cells - Return to Castlevania DLC
via Motion Twin

Review: ‘Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania DLC’ is a beautiful love letter to Konami’s iconic series

Motion Twin smash this 'Castlevania' DLC out of the park and leave us hungry for more.

It’s safe to say Konami doesn’t have a great reputation. In the mid-2010s, the once-loved Japanese gaming giant controversially pivoted away from console games to focus on pachinko, gyms, slot machines, and mobile gaming. As such, beloved franchises like Metal Gear, Silent Hill, and Castlevania have gone without a new entry for years.

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Silent Hill recently got a shot in the arm with the confirmation of the Silent Hill 2 remake on PlayStation 5 and several other Silent Hill titles, but there are no signs of life from either Metal Gear or Castlevania (we take the perennial rumors of them being unveiled at E3 with a huge pinch of salt). While a new Castlevania title is still a pipe dream, we now have the next best thing.

Motion Twin’s Dead Cells has been an indie success story since it was released to rave reviews in 2018. The roguelike Metroidvania has since been ported to just about every modern platform, delivering a tough-as-nails but supremely addictive platforming experience in which you explore spooky environments, collect powerful weapons, and go toe-to-toe with tricky bosses. You die (a lot…), but gradually grow more powerful and are able to slowly push further into the game.

Dead Cells - Return to Castlevania DLC
via Motion Twin

The developers dubbed Castlevania “one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, inspirations behind Dead Cells” and now, after somehow convincing Konami to give them the license, we have the Return to Castlevania DLC. And, as a seasoned Castlevania fan, hearing those tunes, seeing those characters, and squaring off against Dracula with the Vampire Killer whip in hand brought (bloody) tears to my eyes.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that prior to getting my review code I’d never played Dead Cells, and jumping straight into the DLC of a game with as fearsome a reputation as this had me nervous. Would I even be able to access it without playing through a substantial slice of the game?

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s a straightforward process to unlock Return of Castlevania from a fresh save. After reloading the opening prison area and stumbling across the reassuring figure of Richter Belmont, you can quickly proceed to the ‘Castle Outskirts’. An incredible remix of ‘Vampire Killer’ kicks in, and you’re free to whomp skeletons, bash mermen, and generally immerse yourself in all things Castlevania.

Dead Cells - Return to Castlevania DLC
via Motion Twin

The bad news is that reaching the DLC’s true end and fighting Dracula is a little more involved. Getting to Drac’s castle for the first time is easy enough, though when approaching his throne room, you’re dragged down to a tough boss fight with another series staple. Beat him, and Alucard informs you that you’ll need to get to the ‘true’ Dracula’s Castle via Dead Cells‘ Clock Tower. This means battling your way through six Dead Cells biomes and taking out two very tricky bosses before you even get a sniff at the real ending.

It was a little dispiriting to finally reach this harder version of Dracula’s Castle, only to instantly die to a boss and be sent all the way back to the start of the game to try again. But at least Dead Cells is a whole bunch of fun, and by the time you’ve unlocked a few upgrades and know the levels, it’s not too much of a hassle. Plus, while the voyage there was a little frustrating, facing down a wonderfully realized multi-stage Dracula boss fight (with big shades of Symphony of the Night) was a dream come true.

That had me grinning like an idiot, but the DLC’s “Richter Mode” really goes above and beyond. This puts you in the sandals of Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night‘s lead Belmont, delivering a linear Castlevania level with mechanics much more reminiscent of Konami’s games than Dead Cells. An obvious effort has been poured into this brief mode, so it’s confounding that it’s so hard to unlock.

Dead Cells - Return to Castlevania DLC
via Motion Twin

You’ll need to painstakingly reach the ‘true’ Dracula’s castle, search out and free Richter, start a new run, fight your way back to that room through those six biomes, and only then do you finally get the chance to crack that whip. Plus “Richter Mode” is only a single self-contained level and, as far as I could tell, you can’t take his cool movement and battle mechanics out into the rest of the game.

It was around this point that I finally delved into Dead Cells‘ accessibility options, which let you lower things like damage received and enemy health, and add checkpoints on death, making things go by a lot faster. So, if you don’t care about Dead Cells and just want to enjoy a trip down Castlevania memory lane, just switch the game to ‘Easy Mode’ and soak in the sights and sounds without worrying that a swipe from a random enemy will end your run.

Still, this is such an accomplished DLC, I’d have crawled through broken glass to play it, so learning how to play a game as good as Dead Cells wasn’t too big an ask. Every inch of it is packed with attention to detail, from Easter Eggs to past heroes like Sypha Belnades, a room containing the (thankfully inert) pile-of-corpses Legion boss, a nod to Rondo of Blood’s horse-drawn carriage opening sequence, and, inevitably, a tribute to Symphony of the Night‘s notorious Richter/Dracula exchange.

Dead Cells - Return to Castlevania DLC
via Motion Twin

Beyond that, there’s a swathe of unlockable costumes (letting you dress up as Richter, Alucard, Sypha, Death, and Dracula), unlockable Castlevania-themed powers, and several cool new toys ripped from the franchise’s long history. Just hook it to my veins!

With the recent Silent Hill announcements, Konami has proven that they’re willing to let third-party developers work on their most iconic IPs. After playing through Return to Castlevania, this feels like a job application from Motion Twin to greenlight a full revival of the franchise, with “Richter Mode” serving as a vertical slice demo of what they might achieve.

I say give Motion Twin the rights and turn them loose in Transylvania. Return to Castlevania is a dream come true for any Castlevania fan and a heartfelt love letter to one of gaming’s greatest franchises.

This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Motion Twin.

Dead Cells - Return to Castlevania DLC
I can't imagine a finer tribute to 'Castlevania' than this incredible DLC. Easily accessible to new 'Dead Cells' players and brimming with content, this left us hoping that Konami will turn Motion Twin loose on a brand new whip-cracking, Drac-smashing adventure.

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Author
David James
London-based writer of anything and everything. Willing to crawl over rusty nails to write about 'Metal Gear Solid' or 'Resident Evil.'