Some games feel unloved, devoid of any soul, almost sterile. Pushed through their miserable development cycle serving only to line the pockets of those who see gamers as blind cattle to be herded into digital pens and milked dry of all their money – the metaphorical cash cow. Some of these games are from long established, accolade collecting studios, whose profits and back catalogue are tremendous; others are from smaller studio’s looking to make a quick buck or capitalize on the latest trend. Crypt of the NecroDancer is not one of these games. In fact, it’s the polar opposite.
Upon first booting it up and getting into its brief tutorial you can feel the fun, the love, the warmth of those who carried and cared for the game through every step from initial planning to final release. It has an unmistakably genuine charm, the likes of which is seldom felt or seen in today’s gaming world. Crypt of the NecroDancer is also unique. Its excellent, yet simple concept is deceptively deep. In short, it’s a rogue-like whereby everything in the game world is synced to the tempo of the games soundtrack. Movement, attacks, and spells – for both players and enemies alike – abide by this very simple rule. Miss a beat and your character does nothing, leaving them wide open for an attack and unless you have an item that permits you to do more, and you can only do one action per beat.
On paper it sounds like a mess. A discarded leftover from a brainstorming session whose remnants can still be seen on the fringes of a freshly wiped whiteboard as the team prepares to try and think of something less shit, but when you play it all locks firmly into place. It feels natural and intuitive, pulling on our instinctive ability to follow and act upon a steady tempo, the constant beat hypnotizing you as it pushes you further in, driving you on it gives you only a split second to react to your situation, shifting into a game of quick strategy and careful considerations and all while you sniff out special items and diamonds to upgrade your character to give them an edge.
You only need to use four keys out of the 100-ish on your keyboard. Yep you read that right. Four keys, and for good reason too, as Crypt of the NecroDancer is hard. Ball-breakingly, keyboard-punchingly, seizure-inducingly hard. The first few dungeons offer a fair challenge, allowing you time to learn the push and pull with the slower bpm (beats per minute) of the music, learning how to build up your coin multiplier to enable you to purchase items from the wholly charming singing shopkeeper. You will also want to use this first dungeon to free the handful of prisoners who will return to the crypt lobby and offer their services in exchange for the diamonds you pick up. Getting access to the better weapons and items (of which there are a fair number) is a massive help, allowing you to develop your play style to suit your given strategy.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is a rouge-like, so you will loose all your items when you die and each restart is a fresh chance, with a new roll of the dice in terms of dungeon layout and item placement. An interesting thing that the game does is to grant you the opportunity, using diamonds, to remove items from the spawn pool to help tailor the pickups and shopkeeper items, thereby increasing the chances of finding the items you feel most comfortable with. Not all items are available for purchase, however, as some can only be obtained from special shrines and portals you will find in the dungeons but there is a trade-off, some of your health for example.
After the first proper boss (there are mini bosses), who is randomly selected of around four, you start getting into the area of Crypt of the NecroDancer that start to really test your mettle. Enemies that you grew accustomed to in the first stages now have modified move sets, and new enemies are introduced with different attacks. It forces you to switch up what you were previously doing and adopt a different approach as everything gradually increases in complexity and when it’s all happening at once, enemies moving in different patterns, traps, environmental hazards and the pounding kick drum which must be obeyed, your brain will spasm transforming you into the moth flittering around the flame – you will get burnt and it will be your fault.
In the first level of a dungeon it’s not much of a problem, a quick restart to clear your frazzled mind and try your luck again. But in levels two and three it can be soul crushing or rage inducing to make an error and snuff it, especially since by that point it is likely that you will have a decent set of items and be feeling confident that you can make it to the boss with enough health to take them down, compounded by the fact that most of the time your error is a small mistake that could have been avoided. In fact all of the time it will be your fault, but it won’t feel that way. I guarantee you will cry ‘bullshit!’ at least 70% of the time.
So after all that suffering why would you want to continue to play Crypt of the NecroDancer? Well you might not want to, at least straight away and that would be understandable considering its difficulty. But whilst you take a break the kick drum keeps beating away at your insides, boring its way through your brain and pounding on your skull until you succumb once again to the rhythm, entranced, you dance willingly back into the crypt. Crypt of the NecroDancer stays with you long after you finish up a play session, partly due to the excellent soundtrack but mainly the sense of challenge, after a period of reflection you can admit it was your fault that you died last time but this time will be different. Also Crypt of the NecroDancer has on overwhelming charm that is inherent to pixel art games but going further. Its enemies are wonderfully animated to dance with you and the serenading shopkeeper is always a highlight.
There does come a point when you have seen nearly all the game has to offer, and depending on how much you struggle with a particular dungeon it might come sooner than you expect. For example, I had trouble passing the third stage, which afforded me the opportunity to collect lots of diamonds and spend them on upgrades, but it meant that I’d bought everything the game had to offer after a dozen restarts. Nothing was held back or staggered through the levels. Even after defeating a boss, nothing extra is unlocked; you just get a lot of diamonds, and Crypt of the NecroDancer really misses a sense of character progression because of it. There is plenty of other content to get stuck into, with daily challenges, a level editor and a decent selection of unlockable characters. Each of who add their own rule set to the dungeons adding an extra layer of challenge. So far my playtime has been 30 hours (at least ten of that was trying to clear one of the harder dungeons) and your own mileage will vary, still, the game is generous with its content for its price.
If you enjoy rhythm based games, rouge-likes and a fair challenge, then Crypt of the NecroDancer is for you. Even if pixel art rogue-likes are not usually your thing, it’s well thought out simple – yet deep game mechanic is enough to draw most unwilling travelers into its depths with its pumping electronic soundtrack and dancing enemies. Charming the pants off you and trapping you for a longer stay it certainly has a very unique hook that must be played to experience it properly. Also, if you don’t like the soundtrack then try one of the others, perhaps the metal based one or even import your own music to explore away with; just remember it was your fault you died. No really it was.
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Review Statement: The reviewer was provided with a build of the game by the publisher