It often happens on this site that I set out to write a simple article and realize after I begin that I just have a lot to say about the subject. It happened when I reviewed Patrick McCabe’s novel Breakfast on Pluto; it happened when I analyzed Steven Spielberg’s movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and it happened in your previous Mid-week Mission post, on LUFTRAUSERS. Today I want to rectify my last review’s rambling by actually writing a simple article about a relatively new indie game, Crypt of the NecroDancer by Brace Yourself Games. Let’s see how I do.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is a 2-D top-down rhythm-based roguelike. Right off the bat, if you’re anything like me then you’re wary of a genre mash-up that seems to have most of its justification in being a quirky gimmick rather than being a well-reasoned basis for gameplay. But I’m now almost 25 hours into my experience of NecroDancer, and I’m ready to start singing its praises (preferably as a duet with the game’s vocally gifted merchant NPC).
Roguelike and Rhythm in Crypt of the NecroDancer:
Interestingly, the core mechanics of Crypt of the NecroDancer are closer to the forebears of the roguelike genre than many of its most prominent recent titles (like Spelunky, FTL, and The Binding of Isaac). In addition to the randomization, permadeath, and punishing difficulty shared by so many roguelikes and roguelites, the movement in NecroDancer is grid-defined and the enemies act when you act (essentially retaining the turn-based gameplay that those other modern roguelikes largely abandon).
The rhythm mechanics merely make it so that the enemies are not required to move because of your movement—unless you’re playing as Bard—but merely happen to move at the same pace that you do. After you become familiar with the items and enemies, playing Crypt of the NecroDancer becomes an exciting balancing act between strategic decision-making and intuitive action, reminiscent of a much flashier version of speed chess (it seems somehow poetic that one of the bosses is a massive, aggressive chess set).
Now, I’m not a big fan of the rhythm genre in general. The only rhythm games that I’ve enjoyed, including time with friends and at parties, are the Guitar Hero games and the rhythm-based indie RPG Before the Echo. Other than that, all I can think of are loosely rhythm-based games I have liked, such as the WarioWare titles, Super Hexagon, and BIT.TRIP RUNNER. I have no considerable past with DDR titles, nor with singing games, nor with Elite Beat Agents, nor with Audiosurf. My interest in NecroDancer stemmed as much from the promise of a Danny Baranowsky soundtrack as from the gameplay concepts on offer.
But I have to admit that I’ve been blown away by the successful integration of these two apparently disparate genres. There is certainly nothing wrong with a mechanical choice that is simple or gimmicky, provided that, as I have previously written, the execution is solid.
Everything about the design of Crypt of the NecroDancer is informed by the rhythm of its songs. This does not feel like a roguelike with a rhythm game tacked on. Not only are movement and action of players and enemies tied to the beat, but the different tempos delineate the advances in difficulty throughout the game (including at least two elements that make use of irregular tempos for added challenge). The designs and behaviors of the enemies are fine-tuned for fast-paced, rhythmic interactions. All of the game’s bosses are designed around (or possibly in conjunction with) their music. The levels are perfectly sized to be fully cleared and explored (plus a return trip to the shop) with just about enough time to reach the exit stairs before each song ends the level—though obviously faster strategies are very possible. And, of course, the aesthetics and the story do a reasonably good job of providing further justification for the genre combo.
Customization and Complaints in Crypt of the NecroDancer:
In addition to such strong core gameplay (which comes dressed in a smooth, beautiful example of one of my favorite art styles: pixel art), Crypt of the NecroDancer offers a complete array of training modes, daily challenge runs, and a truly immense capacity for customization.
NecroDancer‘s customization includes a level editor; ten playable characters with unique play styles; different interchangeable soundtracks for different characters; the ability to add custom tracks in place of the game’s stock music; support for keyboard, controller, and dance pad; fully rebindable inputs for all three control methods; mod support; and Steam workshop support. So if you ever get tired of any aspect of the game as it is shipped, you can rest assured that there will be numerous alternatives available to you.
The game is not without some minor flaws. First, the item unlock system (as well as the associated item headstart and item culling systems) are entirely irrelevant to the ‘All Zones Mode’ that quickly becomes a player’s primary focus and goal.
Second, the third character in Crypt of the NecroDancer‘s string of story mode characters represents a jarring upward spike in difficulty, demanding absolute perfection in both strategy and beat while restricted to the game’s worst weapon (cutting out one or even two of these restrictions would still make for an interesting progression, and this full suite of punishment could then be reserved for a later unlock).
Third, the gameplay challenges of NecroDancer‘s later bosses implement new mechanics that the player will never have seen until getting all the way there. While these fights are satisfying and fun after you get the hang of them, this state of affairs basically guarantees that no new player will be able to beat the game on the first time that they battle their way to the final boss—this issue is combated somewhat by having those finales become unlocked in training mode after first being reached, but this feels like a patchwork solution at best.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of Crypt of the NecroDancer for me, though it pains me to say it, may be Danny Baranowsky’s soundtrack. And that’s not really fair to say, because the music is very good, and I do definitely enjoy it. The problem is that it’s very standard fare, and it most assuredly pales in comparison to the stellar atmospheric work he did for the original Binding of Isaac and the tonally perfect soundtrack he provided for Super Meat Boy.
The individual level tracks in NecroDancer tend to blur together (potentially because they all had to be heavily and consistently beat-driven), although admittedly several of the boss tracks are every bit as good as I was expecting the entire soundtrack to be.
Despite these imperfections, Crypt of the NecroDancer is a fantastically fun game that I highly recommend. It’s tough as nails, looks and sounds amazing, and feels great when you’re playing well. Add to that its high level of polish and high number of customizeable features and you’ve got a truly solid title. (As an aside, I think both of those latter attributes can be credited to Crypt of the NecroDancer being a rare example of how to run an early access campaign right—with the full release earlier in 2015 following a not-overly-lengthy period of early access development and clear communication).
The only group of gamers I would probably advise to not get this game would be newer or more casual players; the game doesn’t pull a single punch, and assumes that its players’ tenacity will see them through (or else the various training features might have to). And while I would also tentatively tell people who are totally averse to rhythm games to skip Crypt of the NecroDancer, the execution and design of the rhythm-based aspects are strong enough to be integral to the game’s unique enjoyment, and no one else ought to miss it.
In the Beginning was the Beat: