Continuing our look at what’s shaking in the Early Access scene. Since you can’t review an unfinished game, we tell you what they’re about, what state they’re in and what you get for your early buy-in.
Once upon a time roguelikes were an obscure and long-forgotten offshoot of the RPG genre. Increasingly left behind as the industry became enraptured with the golden idol of Accessibility, the notion of adventure games specifically designed around killing you and making you start over again and again seemed like a crazy relic of an age best left far behind.
As with a lot of old genres long thought dead, the rise of independent development changed that fate, with titles such as FTL and Dungeons of Dredmor showing a gaming public that had gotten used to being held by the hand the joys of gaming cruelty. Now, of course, we’ve reached the stage where the roguelike has become so ubiquitous we’ve started moving onto mashups to keep things interesting, such as with last year’s excellent Rogue Legacy which seamlessly blended Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins style platforming with roguelike mechanics to create a new variety of persistent addiction.
Cue Brace Yourself Games and their much-lauded new game Crypt of the NecroDancer, which has just launched on Steam Early Access. Conceptually, it’s classic roguelike fare: take control of one of several characters, traverse a randomly generated dungeon, buy and find items, fight monsters, die a ton, start over and see how far you get next time. The twist is that it incorporates rhythm gameplay, with control only possible by using keys, a controller or a dance pad to the beat of the soundtrack. Any input that falls off the beat will not register, and wipe your coin multiplier to boot which in turn makes it more difficult to afford better equipment and weapons. Keeping rhythm is especially essential to combat, which hinges on timing and positioning and can be fiendishly difficult until you learn an enemy’s movement pattern. It’s an odd conflux of skills to use in tandem, and does take a few goes to get used to.
Thankfully, Crypt of the NecroDancer breaks off from the traditional roguelike enough to at least give you some progression between playthroughs. Diamonds collected in play can be spent in a lobby to unlock items that can be accessed in the game’s chests, or add to your row of Zelda-like heart-shaped life containers. These purchases are permanent, creating an element of persistence that helps you do a little better with each playthrough – that is, until the game conjures up another new monster to ruin your day. Adding to the pressure is the length of each song acting as a time limit: if you haven’t gone through a level’s exit by the time the song ends, you’re unceremoniously dumped into the next level sans your earned items.
The basic gameplay works surprisingly well, aided by an excellent soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky. You can add mp3s from your own music collection, but this involves a clunky interface that can’t access your My Music folder – instead, you have to paste your tracks into a dedicated custom music folder then assign individual songs to each level. It’s a far from ideal solution, and not explained at all in the game. To be honest, none of the tested tracks worked as well as Baranowsky’s boisterous epic-techno songs which suit the game perfectly.
Crypt of the NecroDancer takes a quirky premise and fashions it into a solid roguelike that nails all the fundamentals of the genre, with a decent selection of items and weapons, a nicely balanced range of enemies and an upgrade system that allows the player to feel progressively stronger while not making them overpowered. The rhythm-based system also adds to the sense of risk-reward crucial to the genre, though it can occasionally feel a bit like busywork when backtracking across the levels to stock up on items. The only problem is a lack of depth relative to other roguelikes on Steam, like FTL or the underrated (And much cheaper) Dungeons of Dredmor. That said, the rhythm gameplay, while a gimmick, also makes Crypt of the NecroDancer a decent choice for newcomers as it provides a solid grounding in the tenets of the roguelike genre with less of the intentional denseness of the more hardcore games. The developers have promised to add the final level and boss soon, but the game still feels fairly substantial content-wise in its current form.
For $15 Crypt of the NecroDancer may not be the most expensive alternative out there, but nor is it the cheapest and its appeal may vary. It’s a fun and original approach to the roguelike , however, that is recommended both to neophytes and veterans who own the games listed above and who may be up for something slightly different.