If the melding of a roguelike dungeon crawler and music rhythm game sounds like the perfect recipe for incongruity, prepare to be surprised. Brace Yourself Games' Crypt of the Necrodancer artfully weaves elements from both those genres into a game that works… and works surprisingly well.
Released last year on Steam, but now available on PS4 and PS Vita as a cross-buy game, Crypt of the Necrodancer is a roguelike first and foremost. It sports typical 2D, top-down roguelike elements: There's a series of four procedurally-generated dungeons filled with threats and enemies that you have to work through. Each dungeon comprises four different levels, the last of which is a boss battle. Death is permanent, so when you kick the bucket – which happens very often – you have to start over again at the beginning of whichever dungeon you're tackling. And there's plenty of useful treasure, items, and gold to find.
So what of the music rhythm element? This comes into effect the moment you start playing. Every enemy moves in time to the beat of the game's soundtrack, and so must you. Well, you don't have to, but doing so spins up your coin multiplier bonus, and puts you in the best position to destroy the dungeon's monsters that you'll inevitably encounter.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is all about learning patterns. Each of the game's many enemies moves to the beat in its own way, whether it's tracking your footsteps and tailing you unrelentingly, or simply following a back-and-forth movement pattern that offers no immediate threat. Knowing how to deal with each of the enemy's movement patterns – and doing so in time to the music – is the key to mastering the game. Much of this can be learned on-the-fly as you repeatedly work your way through the game, but there's also a set of training levels that enable you to practice dispatching dungeon denizens in a controlled environment. I found this a real boon, and once I'd taken some time out to learn how to approach and destroy specific enemies, my performance in the main game improved dramatically.
The game's objective is simple enough: Make your way through a series of sub-dungeons and beat the boss to unlock the next, more challenging dungeon. As you move along in time to the music, there's gold to grab, which you can use to buy items in any dungeon shop you find. Stuff for sale includes armor that improves your defenses, health replenishments, and better weapons. Useful items can also be garnered from chests that are randomly found in each dungeon's numerous rooms, and there are also diamonds to collect, which can be spent at the stores on the main title screen to earn you permanent upgrades. One of the most helpful of these is additional hearts that boost your health, which you'll most certainly need, because Crypt of the Necrodancer is a tough, tough game to play.
Deaths come thick and fast, but this is what helps give the game a serious case of one-more-go appeal. Because enemies are actually very predictable in their movement patterns, most deaths feel like they're your fault, because you simply failed to deal with whatever dispatched you in the correct fashion. While that's sort of true for all games, Crypt of the Necrodancer neatly rests the blame for death at the player's feet because almost all deaths are due to the player either mistiming an attack, or failing to read the movements of an enemy in the right way. Sure, the game might be tough, but ultimately deaths are fair, and this consequently makes its action very addictive. When you make a mistake, you feel that maybe next time you won't do that again, so you have another go… and another… and before you know it, minutes become hours as you continually keep on hammering away at the game.
The only area where the game can sometimes feel frustrating is luck, or rather, the lack of it. In typical roguelike fashion, items are found in chests that can boost your abilities. For example, a wide-attack broadsword can be a real boon for your offensive capabilities, since it takes out enemies in a wide arc. If you manage to grab one of those early on in a game, it can seriously help you make progress, while not finding anything and having to work with the standard dagger can make the proceedings comparatively more challenging.
Luck also comes into play in terms of the procedural nature of the game. Some dungeons are much easier to play through than others: Sometimes you might have a giant dragon to deal with, whereas the next game will have far easier enemies to take down. But while the random nature of dungeons and items can be frustrating, it's also true that luck helps further drive Crypt of the Necrodancer's addictive qualities. When you finish a game, you end up thinking that perhaps next time you'll get lucky and maybe find a useful item that'll really help make a difference on your next attempt – or the dungeon might not be so difficult the next time around. So you have another go just to see, and another… and… well… you know how it goes.
As you can probably tell at this point, I found Crypt of the Necrodancer to be a highly addictive and enjoyable game. I did find it very hard learning all the enemy patterns and putting them into practice, but yet I had a huge amount of fun doing so. There's something to be said about applied knowledge that can make gaming progression feel extremely rewarding, and Crypt of the Necrodancer taps into that incredibly well. When you first start playing, you die within seconds of entering a dungeon, but as things begin to click into place, and you start learning enemy movement patterns, games go from lasting seconds to minutes, and then tens of minutes. The going might be tough, but it's very satisfying – a testament to Crypt of the Necrodancer's excellent design.
What also works well is the game's aesthetics. While old-school retro-pixel art has become a common theme for many indie games over the last few years, Crypt of the Necrodancer pulls off that look nicely, with just enough detailing for it to feel contemporary and give it its own identity, and avoid it feeling like a generic throwback. But the real star of the show is Danny Baranowsky's highly original music. Crypt of the Necrodancer's exceptionally catchy chiptunes provide a pounding soundtrack that suits the action perfectly. Additionally, the music's beats-per-minute increase as you move from dungeon to dungeon and from level to level, essentially upping the speed of the action and making the proceedings feel ever more intense.
Despite me being very positive about Crypt of the Necrodancer, I don't think it's a game that everyone will enjoy. Some may find its required pattern-learning a little too rote and fussy, and its random elements frustrating rather than endearing. Although I've already said it a couple of times, I have to reiterate that it's an unforgiving game. I do think that it's fair, but it is unremittingly tough, requiring you to be very precise about the way you take down creatures and bosses. It's a game that you need to play a lot to master, which means it has a degree of repetition that will definitely be off-putting for those who aren't completely enamored with the beat-matching gameplay. Speaking of which, it also helps to have a good sense of rhythm. If that's not you, I imagine the game could become very frustrating to play.
But for those who are undaunted by those caveats, I think Crypt of the Necrodancer is a thoroughly entertaining game that delivers classic, old-school roguelike gameplay with a musical element that really helps freshen up the genre. It's a clever pairing that delivers a challenge to test the mettle of even the most adept of gamers – but seeing just how much progress you can make into this game is a really fun and rewarding experience.
The procedural nature of the game combined with the tough, tough gameplay means this is a game that'll take a lot of practice to master.
Crypt of the Necrodancer's chiptune soundtrack absolutely rocks!
Simple, but effective retro-pixel art gives the game an old-school style that looks great.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is a brilliant, fresh spin on the roguelike genre. It's uncompromisingly tough, but its pattern-learning, beat-matching gameplay is also highly addictive and very rewarding to play.