It's always nice to be proven wrong. When I first saw a trailer for Brace Yourself Games' Crypt of the NecroDancer, I thought, "That's a cute idea, but I can't imagine it sustaining an entire game."15 minutes later, and I realized just how much rhythm-based action can lend to roguelikes.
In their most traditional form, roguelikes offer a relatively slow-paced crawl to the bottom of a dungeon, with plenty of time to consider your options. Since these experiences play out in turns, everything else in the world remains frozen until your character takes an action. Step in any direction, and enemies scattered throughout the level move as well—even the ones you can't see. It's the foundation of the genre, one that Crypt of the NecroDancer lights a fire under with the elimination of those endless breaks to ponder your next decision. And the engine of this revamped roguelike is a thumping beat.
NecroDancer's infusion of rhythm elements makes its action play out as a sort of bizarro roguelike: Instead of the world moving only when the player does, enemies take their turns perpetually, timed to the beat of the song currently playing—the same beat that determines when your character can act as well. And, since these tunes usually feature one strong beat per second—visually indicated by UI elements at the bottom of the screen—NecroDancer emphasizes constant, on-the-fly decision-making. You don't necessarily have to take an action with every beat, but successfully doing so throughout a level without getting hit or missing a step lies as the key to success in NecroDancer. As your combo builds, the game applies a multiplier to the gold pieces enemies drop, which are necessary to buy life-saving items, armor, and weapons from the merchants you'll discover throughout the dungeons.
Though it's easy to miss the beat due to the many distractions encountered throughout NecroDancer, the game offers a wealth of visual information to support its music. GUI elements pulsate along with the drums, and, when you begin a combo, the tiles around your character's feet begin glowing in alternating colors, disco-style. Being forced to take a turn every second-or-so doesn't leave much time to dig through menus, so NecroDancer eliminates them entirely. In a streamlining similar to how Half-Minute Hero simplified the traditional RPG, everything in NecroDancer is performed with only the four arrow keys. Any weapons and armor you pick up equip to your character automatically, and usable items automatically assign themselves to key combinations (like pressing down and left together) that may be a little trickier to pull off in the middle of a combo.
Combat in NecroDancer is equally streamlined: press the arrow key in the direction of the enemy, and you'll attack automatically with your equipped weapon. And while enemies are all bound to the same rhythm, they each need to be approached in different ways. Slimes, with their fixed movement patterns, need to be hit from the side, while the gigantic minotaurs need to be lured into charging at walls so you can deliver a few hits while they're dazed. Each enemy requires a different strategy altogether, and some of NecroDancer's most challenging moments come when you stumble into a room full of many different types whose semi-predictable patterns turn into chaos when they start bouncing off one another. And remember, you're required to process all of this information and make a move every second as the madness unfolds.
Thankfully, NecroDancer provides plenty of opportunities for improvement. Its central hub features many different kinds of training modes, where you can square off against individual enemy types in order to nail down their patterns. And to give players even more of an edge, diamonds found in NecroDancer's dungeons can be spent at the shops of rescued shopkeepers for permanent upgrades and the chance to find new items as you explore the depths. As with any roguelike, though, death comes suddenly, so you'll never be too prepared for the dangers ahead.
NecroDancer might only be in Early Access stage at the moment, but what I've played feels incredibly polished, and the central mechanic just works. What gets me, though, is how the musical element of the game doesn't only exist as a gimmick: It's there to reinforce constant action and decision-making, something I haven't seen a roguelike focus on until now. True, the genre's getting a little crowded—we had two roguelike reviews on our front page last week—but NecroDancer's genre meddling adds up to a transformative experience rather than just a quirky one.