Early Access: Crypt of the NecroDancer

It turns out that the monster mash does not involve mashing buttons – at least, not if you want to live.

Crypt of the NecroDancer

Crypt of the NecroDancer

Welcome to the Crypt of the Necrodancer. Your eyes deceive you not – it’s actually not a typo. This is what you get when you take a rhythm game, undead, rougelike gameplay and shovel it all into a blender with a literal shovel.

Welcome back to the land of the living, now grab a shovel and start digging!

Welcome back to the land of the living, now grab a shovel and start digging!

Actually, no, you’d probably just get a lot of shrapnel. Alright, well whatever. The point is, Crypt of the Necrodancer is a fairly straightforward explanation of what the game is… your character, either Cadence or one of the extra unlockable choices, is lost within the crypt of the necrodancer, and must bounce and dance their way to freedom in time to some rather catchy tunes.

Operatic Shopkeeping is a totally legit skill

Operatic Shopkeeping is a totally legit skill

CotN (Sound familiar to SotN? Hrm…) is a rather unique little indie title dreamed up by Brace Yourself Games of Vancouver, Canada. So what makes the Crypt of the Necrodancer so unique? Several features besides the obvious gimmick, surprisingly enough.

The most obvious is the main gimmick of the game – it’s based around music, or more specifically, the beat of the music. Essentially, CotN is a turn based game, except each turn only lasts one beat, so if you’re playing a 120 beat per minute song, each ‘turn’ only lasts 0.5 seconds. Trying to move, attack, or perform any action off the beat causes the player to miss their ‘turn’ and resets the gold multiplier – which can be a problem when you need that gold to buy items to survive with.

Receiving damage, trying to move into a square you can’t move into, moving too early or too late, or not performing an action at all on any given beat also resets your gold multiplier.

Behold, the dragon layer!

Behold, the dragon layer!

To be honest, the idea actually is a lot more enjoyable in practice than it sounds on paper, much like most rhythm games in general.

Now, as a roguelike, you should expect to die. A lot. As in you may as well install a revolving door on your casket kind of death toll. Fortunately, the enemies are all fairly predictable, and with practice, you can learn to gut them with ease – which is great since the continual need to keep up with the beat of the music means you don’t exactly have a lot of time to think or plan out tactical combat maneuvers. You’re pretty much always kept on your toes, in a rather literal sense.

I meant to do that. Honest.

I meant to do that. Honest.

In fact, to digress a moment, the idea of the enemies being predictable is rather intentional – Brace Yourself Games have specifically stated that the intent behind the game is to have a roguelike which has luck, but of a controlled manner; skill should trump luck most of the time, and a good player will be able to bring down enemies consistently without harm even if they don’t get tons of lucky item drops.

In addition to the rhythm based gameplay and the skill-over-luck roguelike balance, another interesting feature is that the game’s heroine, Cadence, is a grave digger by trade, and her shovel comes quite in handy for digging through walls, expanding the level, finding hidden rooms and so on. The shovel can be upgraded into several other forms, such as turning it to glass, upgrading it to an obsidian shovel able to break through stronger walls, or even shift it into a pickaxe with a bit more oomph, to name a few.

There's something funny about this wall - hint, there's a diamond in it.

There’s something funny about this wall – hint, there’s a diamond in it.

This idea of using a shovel adds an element of exploration, especially due to randomly generated levels and items which greatly aid your ability to explore, such as explosives, torches to increase your sight radius, items which give the player the ability to see items even through hidden walls, or even a miner’s helmet which lets you bound immediately through a block on the first swing instead of having to break the wall and then step through, saving you precious time.

Ah, yes, time… you are, in fact, on a time limit. The levels only last as long as the music does – when the beat drops, so do you, down to the next level, whether you cleaned the previous one out fully or not.

Several other nice features are available as well, such as the ability to use your own music to play along to, thanks to a beat detection algorithm built into the game, daily challenges, local co-op, unlockable characters and merchants, persistent unlocks between games purchased with diamonds found during the levels and quite a few others.

Now that you know what the Crypt of the Necrodancer is… here’s the real question: is it fun?

Kraid! Wait, wrong game.

Kraid! Wait, wrong game.

Fun is such a vague term, but there are some things that developers (the good ones, anyway) have learned are not fun, such as losing to a blind luck roll of the dice. CotN goes quite far out of its way to avoid this fate and repeatedly emphasizes skill over luck. There are some bits of luck which take place, but for the most part, it’s of minimal impact on gameplay. If you play it a lot, you’ll simply live longer, not even due to itemization, but simply from getting better at the game. When you die, it’s almost invariably because you made a mistake, meaning you can avoid the pitfall next time by being more careful. That feeling of control is a big deal, and one many roguelikes fail to offer.

Other aspects are also enjoyable, such as a high replay value from the randomly generated levels and exploration based gameplay, two traits which have been around since at least December 31, 1996 with the release of the original Diablo. Still, it’s a good pair of traits to have since they keep the game new without stifling players with a random number generator from hell. Even if it would be rather fitting, in this case.

Another important aspect to the game is that there are actually quite a few different types of weapons, each with their own little unique traits to them. The dagger you start off with does a simple stab into the square to aim at, while a spear can poke up to two squares away. A longsword can hit both squares in a straight line, and a broadsword can cleave enemies in a full fowards arc, hitting three squares at once. Rapiers lunge forwards a space, but can hit up to two squares away and deal bonus damage to help pay off the lack of control in movement, and whips have an enormous range, though they tend to be a bit finicky to control. Toss in timed bombs, and several other toys to play with, and each player will find they have a weapon they prefer to use, and the game’s not shy about giving you your weapon choices early on so you can probably get something good to work with within the first level or two.

With some really well written ear worm worthy songs, and the ability to use your own music as well, players will find they can smack around the undead to their heart’s desire to a good beat, which is a must with any rhythm based game.

Huh, diamonds really are a girls best friend after all

Huh, diamonds really are a girls best friend after all

The addition of progression between games through the diamonds you mine also helps players want to keep playing for a longer period of time.

For tricky enemies and bosses which are truly annoying to deal with, players are even given training courses to fight them as many times as they like so as to perfect their skills in combat with a dagger until they can reliably slay their foes without panicking when both beat and beast are breathing down your neck.

So there’s a lot of good design choices that really emphasize an ideal design. There’s some really nice thought that was put into Crypt of the Necrodancer which goes a long way. There are, however, some drawbacks as well.

It's a trap!

It’s a trap!

One of the biggest issues is the problem with pausing or changing levels – though you can pause the game at any time you like, doing so makes it fairly likely you’ll miss the beat when you unpause. It’d be nice if there were a short 2 second lead in grace period before you started moving again, though this may be intentionally left out due to potential abuse for players having time to actually think about what they want to do while paused, which goes against the whole premise of the game. There are ways around it, but none have been implemented as of the writing of this review.

Another nuisance that I found was the diamonds themselves were rather annoying in that they disappear if not spent on your next run. While this is intentional for balance purposes, it can also become rather frustrating to have a large sum of diamonds, but not having anything you can unlock because you’re one short, and seeing them all go to waste.

I also noticed that the training for enemies and bosses, while a great feature to have, are limited to only using the dagger, which is unrealistically going to be used against most of these enemies, and outright impossible to use against some (such as the dragons).

Did anyone get the license number of the ground?

Did anyone get the license number of the ground?

Additionally, having to pay diamonds to unlock training for bosses is kind of counter-intuitive, since the players who need the training the most are the ones who don’t live long enough to get the diamonds. For the normal enemies, at least you don’t have to pay diamonds to train against them, but you do have to actually have killed the enemy before, which, again, is counter-intuitive in that the players who need the training the most are the ones who don’t have access to it.

One last thing that bothered me is that, while CotN’s a nice distraction, it’s also a rather… invasive distraction. It’s not realistically plausible for most people to do much of anything else while playing. It’s not intellectually stimulating enough to keep your whole attention, but it’s too strict on following the music to do much of anything else, and letting your mind wander for even a second or two will tend to be penalized rather harshly. While there are some, few, individuals out there who can multitask to the level needed to chat with friends and play CotN at the same time, you’re looking at only about 4% of the population sadly. And no, the “women can multitask better than men, so it’s okay!” myth is just that – a myth, one wrought from a fundamental misunderstanding of what certain test results actually meant.

As such, sorry ladies, but it means CotN is more or less incompatible with Skype or other distractions on the side, and doesn’t quite provide enough to keep one’s attention solely focused upon the game, either, leaving it in an oddly awkward position where many players will find themselves not quite fully immersed, and wanting to fidget, but being unable to due to the nature of the game.

Now, admittedly, overall the gripes are few in number and not really game breaking. As a whole, CotN does almost everything just right, with a nice variety of enemies, each with their own unique attacks to deal with, and a good variety of toys to play with on the player’s side of things as well.

If you’re into roguelikes, you’ll probably find CotN to be one of the better ones out there, especially as it recognizes the difference between “real” difficulty and “screw the random number generator!”

If you’re not into roguelikes, but enjoy dungeon crawls or rhythm games, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that the vast majority of the annoying pitfalls that roguelikes often bring with them are lacking in CotD thanks to some rather clever design choices.

Betamax test! Wait, didn't that flop horribly? Well, hellbunnies.

Betamax test! Wait, didn’t that flop horribly? Well, hellbunnies.

So here’s the real rub: sure, it’s fun, but is it worth $14.99 worth of fun? $14.99 as early access without even a discount?

We-ell… probably not, no. Let’s be honest, here. It’s a rather simple game, and though it has some really nice ideas, and fairly good replay value, it’s really not the greatest thing since sliced bread by a long shot, and again, while it’s a nice distraction, it doesn’t quite immerse the player enough to truly be worthy of the pricetag attached to it.

Now, if you were to see CotN pop up for $9.99? That’s probably about what this title’s honestly worth. If you can catch it on a Steam sale for $7.49 or less, it’d be a steal and well worth looking into.

Of course, these are all personal opinion upon my part, but to be blunt, the game simply doesn’t have quite the incessant addictive qualities needed, nor the immersion value or production aspects required to warrant a $14.99 pricetag for most people out there. There will be those who disagree with me, but for the average person, I’d suggest waiting for it to go on sale, but definitely consider taking a look at it even if it’s not your normal preferred genre of game, since it’s in a bizarre little niche spot that makes it more fun than the sum of it’s parts.

Dare you enter the chamber of farts? Not with that torch.

Dare you enter the chamber of farts? Not with that torch.

Final verdict: Crypt of the Necrodancer’s definitely worth looking into, even if it’s not your preferred genre, but probably a bit overpriced. As early-access titles go, though, it’s a lot farther ahead than the vast majority of titles under that banner, and may be polished to an even greater shine before it’s officially released, so keep in mind that what has been said here is subject to change as CotN is still under development.

About Catreece MacLeod

Catreece MacLeod has worked as a writer, editor, video game designer, teacher, 3D artist and quite a few other roles. Her specialization is pre-production writing, most notably, world design and IP creation.
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