"The formula of dungeon crawler, roguelike and rhythm game works. It works so well."
With the surge in popularity of roguelikes, it was an eventuality that developers would need to do something other than merely make another punishing dungeon crawler like the original Rogue. While there have been many grand takes on the formula by entrants like Rogue Legacy, FTL, and Nuclear Throne, the last concept I was expecting was a roguelike crossed with a rhythm game. I wondered how this mashup would even work, but it turned out that the answer was quite simple; you just press the arrow keys in time with the music’s beat while traversing floors of a dungeon. Simple premise, but Necrodancer is deviously challenging because of its rhythmical movement, even if it can suffer from incredible roguelike luck.
Dance Dance Revolution meets a dungeon crawler is the quickest and easiest way to define the game. Both the enemies and your movements are tied to the music’s beat, where trying to move on an offbeat will result in an awkward hop in place, and skipping a beat will act as a ‘passed turn’, both dropping your combo. Most enemies have a specific pattern or interaction with the beat, like how skeletons will raise their arms for one beat before moving forward on the following one, or how minotaurs will charge in a straight rhythmic line upon direct sight. Learning these patterns and quirks will let you dance around enemies, and pulling out deft, tactical evasions of enemy mobs never fails to be incredibly satisfying. Items and equipment are available to be discovered or purchased (via a rather vocal and potentially homicidal shopkeeper), including weaponry like longswords that supply an extra square of attack range, boots that let you walk across hazards without a care, rings that bestow various effects like increasing the amount of gold dropped by enemies, spectacles that will let you see what treasure you’ll get from chests and other containers, and other fun utilities. Some loadouts of equipment are more preferable than others, and gathering them becomes a priority in order to make later sections laughably easy. No need to worry about lava or ice when you can just float above the floor! No need to worry about health when you have a blood bow that lets you kill enemies from afar and replenish your health! There are trade-offs between items and gear of course and your ‘this is the run’ loadout will no doubt vary from my own, but once you get an optimal loadout, the game’s later challenging sections become trivial save for boss fights. On the flip side, poor luck resulting in less than ideal loadouts can also occur, and raw player skill can only go so far in some cases.
The challenge in Necrodancer primarily comes from how the enemies never -ever- falter in their timing and movements with the music; The player however can (and will, on your first few attempts) make mistakes, thus making a missed beat punishing or potentially run-ending - Not to mention you lose your gold multiplier from being struck by an enemy. Many roguelikes require situational and environmental awareness in order to avoid losing a run, but Necrodancer demands auditory awareness on top of it all, what with how the music is your means of moving. Thankfully the developers included a visual aid of a heart that beats with every beat, as well as scales that close in on the heart to cue you on when movement or attacking is possible, which is both kind and intelligent on their part. I cannot list the number of times I’ve panicked and had to look at the heart beat in order to get back on rhythm. The music doesn’t last forever however, and if you’re still on the dungeon floor before the song ends and you don’t reach the exit, you’ll automatically be ejected to the next floor. Also as a kind gesture there’s a bestiary that lets you practice against encountered enemies to study their patterns and traits - Considering the later difficulty, these aids help balance the field.
Necrodancer had more characters and modes of play added during its period in early access, like dance mat support, a cooperative mode, and even a custom track function to let you jive around dungeon floors with your own music. The core game doesn’t really change, it simply becomes modified with the various characters and different rules. There’s even a puzzle mode that gives you a floor to tackle using specific items and strategies that quickly becomes head scratching, and of course included is a daily seed that gives all players the same dungeon to take on and go for a high score. Once you get a solid grasp of the game and can get successful runs frequently, these various ways to play improve the longevity of a game that would’ve otherwise been rather short and easy to gleam over.
Your purchase for Crypt of the Necrodancer will primarily rely on whether or not you enjoy the soundtrack; if you don’t, chances are you’re not going to have a good time. Rhythm games can only be so enjoyable if the soundtrack doesn’t sit well with the player, and in my case I’m a fan for most of Necrodancer’s tracks. Danny Baranowsky’s composition is full, vibrant and seldom with any musical downtime, which lends a very active listening experience to the game; for a game where the combat and movement is based on musical beats, having any song be boring or lacking instrumentation would result in dull gameplay. The backing synth for many of the tracks end up giving the soundtrack an almost gothic/horror feel but doing so within its techno/rocking manner. Of course, that’s when you discover later on that there are not one but -two- remixed soundtracks in later sections of the story mode, with the first striking chords of a laser disco and the second more grounded in reality with heavier, nastier rock. All three soundtracks have been uploaded to YouTube if you want to judge for yourself, which is advisable homework when it comes to purchasing rhythm games.
Necrodancer’s strengths lie in its longevity, challenge and gimmick; like many roguelikes the difficulty does become somewhat trivial once you are knowledgeable of its components and mechanics. That said, the demands the game makes of the player ensures that you can know what items work well together and can dance around enemy patterns easily, but it all means nothing if you can’t execute tactfully. Back up this challenge with fantastic music and multiple ways to play, and you get a roguelike that is both satisfying and incredibly enjoyable.
Community review by Dinoracha (February 26, 2016)
Dinoracha is a world-renowned internet famous Let's Player, voice actor, writer, reviewer, e-sports competitor, masterful stream host and man of the people. These may or may not all be gross exaggerations.
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