Rift Keeper’s product description successfully manages to mask its influences. Whether this was intentional or not is unclear. A rough outline of what to expect is duly provided – suggesting a 2D side-scrolling rogue-lite – but it’s not until entering the first dungeon that it reveals itself to be a rather brazen clone of Dead Cells, right down to even mimicking some of the visual effects.
This took me by surprise. The clues were there, this also being fast-paced, but I guess I never expected somebody to outright copy Dead Cells in such a brazen way. Perhaps I should consider myself naïve. Motion Twin’s magnum opus was such a colossal hit that an imitator was bound to appear sooner or later.
Launching on consoles for around £8, this is the low budget alternative. That’s low budget not just in price point but in all other areas too, I should note. The animation and general presentation aren’t as slick, the controls are less fluid – the integral rolling mechanic is notably stiffer – and the music is wholly inconsistent, featuring a couple of excellent electro-rifts mixed with ear-offending melodies.
It’s the core structure that’s had the most changes, putting a slight twist on the proceedings. As a rift keeper, it’s your job to restore balance by entering ominous red portals and destroying the threats within. Well, at least 70% of the threats, which gives leeway as to which enemies to tackle and what paths to take.
Once your minion slaying quota is met it’s time to find an exit – which are conveniently highlighted, helping to keep the pace flowing – before heading back to the quaint town hub world in order to re-equip and re-charge between dungeons, buying/selling equipment and exchanging collectables. Five easily found collectables (flying books, if you’re curious) bags a new random item – a generous pay-out, especially if that item turns out to be rare.
To reach a boss and progress the story, ten random dungeons (from a pool of thirty) must be cleared without dying. Only an occasional health top-up is provided, and although it is possible to gain a perk by activating obelisks, it’s at the risk of receiving a curse. Trying to reach the final boss, ergo discover their identity, is a compelling draw and beating a dungeon unscathed always feels satisfying.
The skill tree can also be found within the town, permanently boosting health bars, damage ratios, and movement speed. These perks are your path to eventual success, as upon dying all loot is lost. This includes any rare or expensive weapons; the kind that take several successful dungeon runs to acquire. It’s not all take, thankfully. Gold also carries over from one run to the next, meaning the default metal chain weapon can often be ditched when starting anew.
Axes, swords, and projectile-spitting runes also feature, with projectiles being the only attack that can be performed while jumping, which makes dispatching enemies from afar a breeze. Runes have an incredibly brief cooldown meter, a la Dead Cells, making them an invaluable part of the crimson-haired hero’s repertoire.
Finding a winning combo of weapons and equipment allows for experimentation, working out the most cost-effective way to boost stats. After finding a working formula it’s easy to become overpowered at an early stage, killing enemies with just one or two hits. With every passing boss encounter, the difficulty soon rises.
Enemy AI is par for the course, with the monstrous enemy types (zombies, undead nights, skeletal archers, and rolling slimeballs) casually patrolling their platforms. Break their line of sight and they’ll make a beeline to your location, swiftly sapping your health bar. Their behavioural patterns are very easy to learn, which in conjunction with a smaller enemy roster, makes progress far quicker and easier here than in Dead Cells.
The lack of enemy types is something of an issue, however, as the full line-up is revealed far too soon. A bigger variety of backdrops wouldn’t go amiss either. For the most part, the dungeons comprise solely of brick walls with the odd potion lab or torture rack here and there.
At least the developers cared enough to ensure the fundamentals are present and correct. Death may come quickly at times, but it always feels just and fair, and while the dungeon layouts are lacking surprises, they’re enjoyable enough to navigate thanks to the multiple exits. The optional target times are fair too, awarding a bag of gold for a swift completion.
The biggest issue here is a lack of identity. The developers haven’t tried to better Dead Cells, or even put their own stamp on things. Due to a low budget and a lack of online features, it was always destined to be an inferior product. With its choppy animation and lack of finesse, it doesn’t feel like a homage either; this is no love letter. But nor does it feel like a cheap cash-in – as per this review’s opening, the developers have chosen to keep its influences lowkey.
They presumably wanted to create their own Dead Cells alike and had their own personal ambitions and goals to achieve. If those goals included making an experience that’s easy to get into and not too taxing to master, we can consider this a success. Everything else is a moot point.