Anyone who knows me knows that music and video games are two of my favorite things. They also know that I’m a sucker for female protagonists. So when I first heard about Crypt of the Necrodancer, a rhythm-based rougelike from Brace Yourself Games, I knew it was something I would be interested in. The game was in Early Access (a work in progress on Steam) for a while, but was completely released on April 23rd, so I figured this’d be a good time to give it a full review.
For those less savvy in gaming lingo, a rougelike is a game that typically features dungeon crawling of some sort, with permadeath—meaning if your character dies, you lose everything and start again. Additionally, the dungeons are procedurally generated, meaning that every run will be differently arranged. A common calling card for these games is grid-based and turn-based movement, with enemies moving just after you do. In Crypt, the movement is tied to the beat of the soundtrack, so everything is constantly moving. But it is all moving in a pattern. Each enemy has a tell or movement style; you’ll know when they are about to move or attack. (The skeletons even do a funny little dance that telegraphs their movement.) As I’ve found, this is a difficult genre. But that’s not to say the game does nothing to help. To start, there is an optional (and repeatable) tutorial that lays down the basics very well to get the player started, and there are training sections to fight the monsters from each zone, their mini-bosses, and the big bosses. From personal experience, these help a lot. They need to be unlocked first, but it is built that way to not ruin the surprise of seeing new enemies in each stage.
Once the player has a handle on what is going on, there is much to do. There are single zone runs, which let you play three stages and a boss before returning to the lobby; All Zones mode, which lets you play all the zones in succession and keeping items from zone to zone; Daily Challenges which involve aiming for the fastest time against players globally on the same map; and Co-Op mode; All Characters Mode, which is beating the game with each character in succession; and Story Mode, which is the same as All Characters Mode, but just features the story centered characters. There is also a stage builder to keep the fun going.
Using collected diamonds from single zone runs, the player can acquire permanent upgrades such as more health, or putting new items into treasure chests. Similarly, some stages have allies in cages that can be unlocked by hidden keys. Once these allies are free, they will return to the game’s lobby with some kind of new training section, or way to spend diamonds. Besides unlockable items, there are additional characters besides the default Cadence, that all put a slight variation on gameplay. The two other story characters are her mother, Melody, and grandmother, Aria. (There’s a naming theme in most things here.) Melody uses a Golden Lute that damages enemies she moves near, which is a completely different experience. Aria brings the game to its logical and difficult end, as she has the absolute minimum of health, cannot heal, and missing a beat will kill her. There are other characters as well with more complex and unique variations.
While the game stands primarily on its mechanics and gameplay, the developers didn’t just slap an Excuse Plot on and call it a day. There is a bit of mystery with what exactly is going on with the Necrodancer, his crypt, and associated magics. Cadence embarks on a quest to find her father, who had gone to find help for his wife. It’s a little tricky to explain without spoilers. But each character with story elements adds a bit to the lore. The amount of story is light, so it doesn’t get bogged down too much. Crypt stars primarily women. While men are in there and affect the plot, the story doesn’t follow them. In addition, there are people of color as NPCs and playable characters. It’s nice to see some representation even if they aren’t the focus. One Black character, Bolt, uses a spear (why this could be seen as problematic; trigger warning, slurs in the link) as her primary weapon, but I hesitate to call it instantly problematic. The spear weapon was implemented before she was, to my knowledge, and it fits her playstyle. When playing as her, there are twice as many beats to hit, so it’s good to have the extra reach the spear provides. Other than this small detail, the game handles characters pretty well.
A draw to the game is its simple control scheme; the only buttons used are four directional buttons and a pause button (typically the Esc key). Attacking enemies, opening chests, or digging through walls are as simple as pressing the direction they’re in. To use other functions such as dropping bombs or using items, a key combination is pressed, such as Up+Left. This simple design, paired with the musical element, has made the game playable with a dancemat a la Dance Dance Revolution. There is even an additional, easier, mode built specifically for playing with a mat. No matter your preferred control scheme, the game is relatively easy to understand and pick up. Even though the game does get pretty difficult, the difficulty comes completely from the game itself rather than frustration with the control.
Crypt of the Necrodancer has very charming graphics. Everything is drawn in a pixelated style. I hesitate to use the word retro, because there are effects used that aren’t reminiscent of oldschool games. But the colors used in the characters and backgrounds are vibrant and lively even in dirty caves. Other than when the game purposely wants to make it difficult to see, you can always tell what is going on. Even the character art and cutscenes (which are of the moving-slide-show-with-voice variety) are pixel drawn. Again, this looks more charming than “cheap”, without the feeling that they are aiming for nostalgia points. It hits those same notes, but it doesn’t feel cynical.
For me, the icing on the cake is the amazing music. This is critical for a game whose main mechanic is rhythmic based movement. The primary soundtrack is composed by Danny Baranowsky, from Super Meat Boy and Canabalt fame. Each track is mapped to a specific zone/level combination and they fit extremely well. From caves to forests, the sound fits. Additionally, there are two separate soundtracks by composers A_Rival and FamilyJules7x that are EDM- and metal-based, respectively. Each are remixes of Baranowsky’s original tunes, but with their own flavor; they feel completely fresh, yet familiar. Finally, if you don’t like the provided songs, or just want to jam to your own, you can import tracks for each level and boss from your own library, and the game will find the beat to them. This can make the game even more fun, if you’re into that idea.
Unfortunately, no game is perfect, much as we’d like them to be. Some characters/modes feel a little too difficult for even relatively seasoned players, such as the previously mentioned Aria. While it is definitely great that these challenges are available for those up for them, it feels a little rough that story elements are tied to success with them. Difficulty also seems to spike into third zone, with there being a very good chance that you will spawn in a way that you can be swarmed by enemies with little wiggle room. The difficulty definitely spikes going into Zone 4, with enemies having much more erratic movement and attack patterns. While it doesn’t feel cheap, and it’s a logical step from Zone 3, it almost feels like having a Zone in between may have flattened that spike some. With the rougelike elements so heavily present, success sometimes feels a bit tied to luck, such as what items spawn, and where/what enemies do. This is often part of the fun, but it is just as often frustrating when going for a high score/low time.
All in all, I really enjoy this game and think it’s well worth the $15 price tag. Despite some difficulty that may initially turn some away, I believe the game hits a lot of the right notes, and rarely misses a beat in its execution. With lovely visuals, interesting characters, and amazing music, I would recommend this game to fans of the genre and to anyone willing to try something a bit different. For the sake of rating scores, I give it an 8.5. It won’t be for everyone, but I definitely recommend it!