You’ll probably have heard of Crypt of the Necrodancer already; it’s a “rhythm-action roguelike” with a pun name so terrible it loops all the way back around to awesome, and which got a lot of positive press when it came out on Early Access around August last year. The concept was interesting enough that I broke my Early Access rule to try it for a couple of hours, but while I was pleased to see there was a lot of promise in the core mechanic of moving your character in time to a beat the amount of actual content present was a little bit limited, and so I left it to what I assumed would be a protracted period of Early Access limbo. However, developers Brace Yourself Games have shocked me by actually bringing Necrodancer out of Early Access a mere eight months after it first appeared on Steam1 and pushing it to full release last week. Unlike its Early Access phase this is something that’s gone almost completely unremarked upon by the gaming press at large (or at least the parts of it I follow), and this confuses me, because this finished version of Crypt of the Necrodancer is the best roguelike I’ve played since Spelunky.
Only *since* Spelunky, mind; Necrodancer is not quite as polished or focused as Spelunky and I think it suffers a little for it, but it makes up for it with a sprawling plethora of items, weapons, enemies, encounters and game modes that serve to inject a huge amount of variety into the game. A better comparison would probably be Gaslamp’s now-classic Dungeons of Dredmor, which took a similar more-is-better approach to content and which was more than happy to let you kill yourself the first time you picked up an unknown item. And my god, you will end up killing yourself a lot in Necrodancer, either because of the items themselves or because of the way they interact in unexpected ways with the various different monster types infesting its dungeons.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. It’s probably best to start properly by outlining Necrodancer’s core gimmick: its music-based move-and-attack system. Necrodancer is set up with the typical top-down roguelike perspective where your character is controlled by the four arrow keys, but the twist it applies is that you should move in time to the irritatingly catchy music that accompanies each individual dungeon stage. Each beat of the music represents a single turn of the game, and successfully boogieing on through the level while hitting every beat will raise your coin multiplier, increasing the amount of money you get from killing enemies (very important) and having other beneficial effects depending on what items you have equipped. Missing a beat will reset your coin multiplier to zero and you’ll have to build it up from scratch again.
Doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking, does it? The really clever thing Necrodancer does, though, and the thing which absolutely makes the game in my opinion, is that it has every single enemy type you encounter move in time with the beat of the music too. Each of them has their own movement pattern that you learn the hard way over the course of many, many deaths. It starts off simple, with slimes and zombies that move back and forth over fixed paths and skeletons who will move towards you every other beat, but soon ratchets up the complexity the further in you get. It’s in your interest to move in time with the music because doing so is the best way to avoid getting hit by monsters who are doing the same thing.
What makes this tricky is that the music in Necrodancer is so finger-tappingly awesome that your own hands will betray you. The need to stick to the beat becomes a compulsion, a high-wire act that, played right, will have you surfing through a level slicing up monsters left and right – but one wrong button press and you could find yourself stuck in a very bad situation indeed. And since the amount of time you have to think about what your next move is the amount of time until the next beat of the music, it’s very easy to fuck up and get stuck in a corner or paralysed by one of those sodding monkeys while other enemies beat the shit out of you.
Like every good roguelike, Necrodancer is very unforgiving of this kind of screw-up; you can buy a bunch of passive upgrades to make the single-zone modes a bit easier, but All Zones mode (aka The Way It’s Supposed To Be Played) gives you just three heart containers to start with and no easy way to refill them once you get hit. Your starting weapon is a terrible dagger that does one measly point of damage and can only hit enemies directly adjacent to you. The one concession the game gives you is that you will always have a shovel that you can use to dig through soft portions of the dungeon wall and maybe uncover a secret room with a pickup such as bombs or – even better – a chest that’ll have a useful item inside. Because you’re at such a disadvantage from the get-go the first three levels of Necrodancer are probably the joint hardest in game (drawn with the final zone, which I’ve yet to beat). You focus on not getting hit, keeping your coin multiplier high, and amassing enough money to buy one or two items from the level’s shop.
Every single level in Necrodancer is guaranteed to have a shop staffed by an opera-singing shopkeeper (who cuts in over the regular level music with an appropriately vocal version). These shops can sell anything from weapons to armour to magic rings to torches to spells; I really wasn’t kidding when I said there was a huge array of items in the game, to the point where you’ll see maybe five percent of the selection on a full runthrough. Most items are powerful upgrades in one way or another, and what I find interesting about them is that Necrodancer resists the urge to make them give boring bonuses like +1 to damage or whatever. Instead, nearly every single item will dramatically change the way your character plays. Most basic weapons do the same amount of damage as your crappy dagger, for example, but each of them also has its own specific attack pattern that hits a certain range of tiles in front of or around your character, allowing you to either hit multiple enemies at once or stand off and strike them from a distance. There are bog standard rings that increase gold pickup or make shop items cheaper, yes, but also rings that provide a single turn of invincibility after monster kills that can prove vital when you’re in the thick of combat. Even the torches can have special properties, providing trapsight or casting fireballs whenever you dig through a dungeon tile with its own wall-mounted torch.
Because they’re individually so powerful (at least compared to your starting equipment) combining two or more items together can end up defining your run. The last one I did featured a blood rapier (dash into an attack from two tiles away for double damage, recover half a life container every ten kills) and the invincibility ring mentioned above that also provided +1 to damage. This made my character sickeningly powerful on the attack, dealing 3-4 damage per strike (enough to one-shot most monsters), teleporting to the space my unfortunate target had occupied and enjoying a turn of invincibility while I looked for my next victim. As long as I could stay in the rhythm of slaughtering monsters I was untouchable. I managed to keep this up all the way to the very last level, when the sheer weight of enemies and the speed of the beat overwhelmed me; the combo meant that I had to keep killing every single turn to stay alive and I couldn’t quite manage it. The run before that I’d picked up some levitating boots and a titanium crossbow, which had a long range, high damage and piercing properties, but which had to be reloaded every three shots by pressing the up+down arrows together. As soon as I forgot to reload and moved into an approaching monster by accident I was dead.
Unfortunately investing so much of the game’s fun into the items has a flipside; because they’re so powerful, and because the specific items that come up are completely random, it feels like the success or failure of a run will be decided during the first three levels when you’re scrounging together a decent set of kit. If you get some good drops you can keep your multiplier high and get lots of money, which lets you buy more items, which lets you get more money etc. etc. If you don’t, then you’re probably going to die when you reach the second zone and the difficulty level undergoes a step change. Yes, this is a problem that a lot of roguelikes have, but because Necrodancer’s variety is so heavily weighted towards its items it suffers particularly badly from it; it doesn’t have Dredmor’s class system or Spelunky’s secret shop that guarantee at least a chance of making it to the end of the game. I have no doubt that you could complete Necrodancer with a figuratively naked character if you were good enough — there are even characters available that severely limit your equipment choices and make things even harder for you, if that’s your thing — but after spending ten hours with it it does seem like getting good enough to do that would require a significantly larger time investment than most comparable games. Otherwise you’re heavily dependent on your item loadout, which is to say that you’re heavily dependent on an RNG. That, or I’m just terrible at rhythm action games2.
It doesn’t help that Necrodancer isn’t particularly interested in handing over information. You’ll get a short description of each item before you get it up, but they’re so pithy as to be downright cryptic and unless you go to the Necrodancer wiki (of course there’s a Necrodancer wiki) you’ll be stuck figuring things out through a lot of trial and error. Because a lot of the items have negative as well as positive properties it’s very easy to kill yourself without fully understanding how. In Spelunky you always know exactly how you died, even if you were taken by surprise; here I found myself staring at the screen muttering “What the fuck…?” a little too often for my liking.
Aside from that not-so-little niggle, though, Necrodancer is an extremely solid roguelike with a huge number of mutators and extra features – most of which I haven’t tried because I’m a bit of a purist at heart, but I appreciate the thought. Its central gimmick does a good job of keeping you on your toes, while its vast array of items and monsters provides variety and some level of depth. So what if it’s a little too dependent on the RNG? There’s still a decent skill ceiling thanks to the music, and it even lets you practice against monsters and bosses that you’re finding particularly difficult if you want. It also has a couple of features that other roguelikes would do well to steal wholesale, like the ability to go to the leaderboards and watch replays of other players’ high-scoring attempts. I don’t think my involvement with it is going to be the long-term affair that Spelunky was, but it’s served to jolt me out of the gaming doldrums I’d found myself in recently and for now, at least, I can’t put it down.