Every year since the release of Dark Souls, developers have been using its name to point out how hard their new game is. "It's like Dark Souls" or "Soulslike" is used as shorthand for "Our game is a bit hard and will probably kill you." I sometimes roll my eyes when I hear about Dark Souls in relation to a game that doesn't play like Dark Souls.
Necropolis does play like Dark Souls though. Harebrained Schemes' newest project is clearly inspired by From Software's dungeon crawler. It's a little faster and a bit more forgiving, but the basic feeling of combat and exploration is the same. Part of my issue with Dark Souls is every action is slow because From Software wants every move to be planned and deliberate. It's a design choice that works for many, but is simply not my preference. Necropolis hits fast-forward a bit.
"We're trying to make it a little more action-y and faster-paced than Dark Souls. We do want the challenge level, but maybe not quite as brutal and unforgiving," says Necropolis art director Mike McCain. "We had a lot of Dark Souls fans in the office. We wanted to branch out from Shadowrun, so we thought it'd be cool to have a more actiony game."
I like the improved speed. Necropolis offers up some basic tools to players: a quick, weak attack and a slow, strong attack (both chargeable), a dodge, and a shield block. I acclimate to the basic controls easily. Early fights are simple. Dodge and slash. Block and slash. Fighting one or two enemies just requires waiting until the right moment to exploit their vulnerability windows. Then the game starts throwing more enemies and larger foes at you. Aging lost soldiers who scream as they charge you, only to huff and puff after an attack. The giant shark-like Gemeaters, who take a long time to whittle down on your own.
The demo I'm playing has two available weapons, the quick Hooked Blade and the large Greatsword. Each weapon has a different style; I'm quite nimble using the Hooked Blade, but the Greatsword causes my adventurer to commit and step into attacks. McCain expects "half a dozen unique weapon types" at launch and a variety of weapons within each type.
You'll will die in Necropolis. Just aping Dark Souls wasn't enough; instead the developer decided to meld that basic gameplay with a roguelike system. The Necropolis has stood for ages, holding arcane secrets and buried treasure, so many adventurers come to plumb its depths. Every time you die in Necropolis, you begin as a completely different, randomly-generated adventurer, all led by the sardonic, Guilty Spark-like Brazen Head. It and you, are the only constants.
"We saw a lot of roguelikes really tearing up Steam and people were having fun with them in the office, so we thought it was a good mix. We realized that there hadn't been many fully-3D roguelikes that made it big, so it felt like a good opportunity," says McCain.
"You'll die a lot. You're supposed to die. We actually made a trailer about how much you die," he adds. "Each time you play, you'll have a different experience and you'll have new tools that will help you through that experience. There's books that unlock certain upgrades for your characters. You can also collect different outfit sets that have different bonuses."
Your randomly-generated adventure can be male or female, though the designs are largely the same. You get a different family name and background. The game throws a random outfit set on you. You may be a female knight on one playthrough and a male samurai on another. You'll be able to set certain starting outfits if that's your preference though.
"We're randomly generating their name and background," says McCain. "We have female and male versions of the characters, but we didn't want to hyper-sexualize them. We generate the colors and we're going to introduce more outfits to the game. There should be a huge variety to begin with and you'll unlock more as you play. You might find a dead adventurer in the dungeon with a new armor set. Once you find them, the next time you play, you'll be able to play as that armor set."
The entire game is presented in a low-poly art style. On current PCs, this means there's more power to use on things like the environment. The Necropolis itself is comprised of platforms stretching out into space; thanks to the art style you can see far off platforms in the distance and later levels of the Necropolis below. It helps with the game's sense of scale. McCain says if you craft something like a featherfall potion, you can jump down to any lower level. Hardbrained Schemes wants you to be able to go where you can see. "It's kind of a growing trend in graphic design these days, doing really simply low-poly geometric stuff with nice lighting and shading," says McCain when I ask about the art style. "I think we've hit a point in 3D game art where there's so many things you can do. It doesn't have to be realistic. I'm excited about how much we can remove and still make it look interesting.
"We're definitely inspired by Journey and Wind Waker," he explains. "I heard someone describe the low-poly look as a log cabin. It shows off the building materials and the structure. We're showing off our polygons instead of trying to hide them."
Every level in the Necropolis is procedurally-generated. All the bridges and rooms are thrown in at random every time you play. Harebrained didn't stop there though: in certain places, you can actually shift the layout of the level you're on. Having trouble fighting a Gemeater? Shift over a room full of tasty gems to get it out of your way. Bring over a platform full of other enemies and pit them against each other.
"The entire environment is built with procedurality in mind," McCain says. "There's what we call 'the ecology of threats' in the Necropolis. As a player, you can start to learn how the environment works and how these different creatures behave, and use those things to their advantage."
Don't get cocky though. Not only is room movement not always available, but the Brazen Head isn't your friend; it might be shifting rooms without your knowledge. Tricksy bastard.
The build I'm playing is pre-alpha, running on PC. The team at Harebrained is aiming for PC, Mac and Linux release on Steam, but McCain remains hopeful for expansion into consoles. Necropolis is going to be single-player in its original state, but co-op multiplayer is on the table. McCain outlines "emergent Journey-style co-op" as a potential multiplayer addition in the future.
"We feel like we've done a pretty good job of proving how it'll feel, we just need to build a lot more of it," he tells me. "More systems, more enemy types, more weapons. Making the environment bigger with more variety to it. We see it as an ongoing game. The best roguelikes have a constant influx of content post-launch."
I'm looking forward to playing Necropolis less for its Soulsian nature and more for its unique shifting levels. I prize the exploration aspect over the combat, though the combat tested my mettle in my short demo. (I died four times.) It remains to be seen when that launch is coming though. I'm hoping 2015, but McCain wouldn't commit to anything. He's probably working for the Brazen Head. Tricksy.