REVIEW / Crypt of the NecroDancer (PC)

 

I first experienced Crypt of the NecroDancer at Bit Bash, an event in Chicago that showcased a myriad of excellent indie titles. There, the game was set up for use with a dance mat. It had been quite a while since the days when I amazed friends with my DDR skills, so it was hard to really enjoy the game while also trying to figure out the controller. Fortunately, I’ve now been able to play it normally, and I’m glad I did.

 

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Crypt of the NecroDancer is a rhythm game, but more than that, it’s a roguelike. This means a few things: only one life, upgrades that can help you in future runs, randomized dungeons, and serious difficulty. As a rhythm game, it requires players to keep up with the beat to succeed. It isn’t a combination that one would expect, but it works well here. At its core, the game is about progressing through levels and defeating bosses. There are 4 zones, each with three floors. The floors will be different each time you play, but they’ll always have the same types of enemies. You start with a basic dagger and shovel, but you can find new items in chests and shops within each floor. Essentially your goal is to reach the stairs, which will lead to the next floor, digging through walls to find new paths.

But of course, there’s more happening than just that. Throughout play, you have to pay attention to the game’s excellent soundtrack. A bar on the bottom of the screen will help you keep track of the beat, which is good because everything you do needs to be on rhythm. You control your character with either the arrow keys or a dance mat, meaning there are only four commands – up, down, left, right – as is typical for rhythm games.  You can walk into enemies to attack them, and walk into walls to dig through them (provided you have a strong enough shovel).  But if you try to move off of the beat, you’ll lose your coin multiplier.  Enemies move and attack in specific patterns, moving to the beat just like you.

 

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The biggest challenge in Crypt of the NecroDancer is trying to figure out and memorize enemy patterns.  This becomes even more difficult when you’re near the stairs, as you have to deal with many opponents at once.  There are a few common enemies that I still haven’t figured out how to deal with, and facing a bunch of them at a time can be a serious pain.  You can imagine how much harder it would be with a dance mat, which is why the game has an easier mode for steppers.  Fortunately, it rarely feels like the difficulty is tacked on or unnecessary; instead, it feels like a worthy challenge.

With the high difficulty, you’ll be starting over a lot.  Fortunately, there’s plenty to keep things interesting.  In the stages you can pick up new weapons, shovels, and tools to help you on your way.  There are also two types of currency you can obtain: gold and diamonds.  Gold is spent in the shops in each stage, while diamonds are spent on the menu.  There are a number of merchants and others to speak with on the main menu, and most can be unlocked by either buying or finding keys to open chests.  One vendor sells upgrades that will stay with the character forever, and those are key.  Others sell items that will show up for your next run, or provide other valuable services.  One, for example, lets you practice fighting individual enemies.

 

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The variety of power ups is nice, and it leads to situations of crucial decision making.  It is somewhat annoying to have to unlock each of them, but that’s par for the course in a roguelike.  You can even replace the game’s excellent soundtrack with your own music for each floor, though that only works well if the song’s beat is prominent.  It’s a nice option to have, especially because the existing soundtrack is good enough that customized songs aren’t necessary.  Changing the songs can also help complete the transformations of the graphics made available with mods.

In addition to everything you can do to help a character, you can also unlock new characters with special rules. One has infinite kickable bombs, but can’t attack normally.  Another can buy items in the in-stage shops for free, but immediately dies if you pick up any gold.  I usually stick with the main character, Cadence, but it is always nice to have options.  Some allow for insane challenges, like characters that die if you miss the beat just once.  Considering how tough the enemy patterns can be to get down, only very advanced players will want to choose something that makes the game harder.  Curiously, there’s also a character unlocked from the start that ignores the beat altogether.  The rest of the game is more difficult to compensate, but it seems odd to even include such an option.  Still, variety is nice, because again, there are only 4 main zones in the game.  Not that this feels like too little; repetition is the bread and butter of roguelikes, and randomized maps mean that there are many possible layouts for each floor.

 

8

 

Everything comes together really well in Crypt of the Necrodancer.  While tough, the gameplay is rewarding and entertaining enough to keep you playing.  Really, there’s just one thing I don’t like: the graphics.  Crypt of the NecroDancer uses a 16-bit pixel art style, like so many other games.  There are so many possibilities for graphics in a game like this, and it’s a shame that the developer went with such an overused option.  Even though this game uses it well, I’d still prefer to see something more original.  It’s a game that really needs to stand out, because it’s one of the most complete and intuitive roguelikes I’ve seen in quite a while.  Even if you aren’t into rhythm games, Crypt of the NecroDancer is an excellent introduction to the world of roguelikes.  A different graphical style would make it an easier sell, and help it stand out against a sea of pixelated games on Steam and other platforms.

Despite the uninspired graphics, Crypt of the Necrodancer adds rhythm to a roguelike game in a way that feels natural, and even though it’s difficult, it rarely feels unfair.  There are enough ways to differentiate each run that it doesn’t feel too repetitive, and the soundtrack is top notch.  It’s true that I’m not a fan of the graphical style, but Crypt of the Necrodancer is still a great choice for fans of roguelikes and rhythm games.  Even if you only like one or the other, it does both well enough to make up for that.  And if you aren’t very familiar with roguelikes, this is an excellent place to start.

 

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