Monday, December 7, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Crypt of the Necrodancer

Crypt of the Necrodancer
  • Publisher: Klei Interactive 
  • Developer: Brace Yourself Games 
  • Lead Designer: Ryan Clark 
  • Release: PC, 23 April 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action / Rhythm 
  • Players: 1

Here we go again, another bloody Roguelike for another bloody Indie-Cember. Oh, but of course I wouldn't even be bothering with it if it didn't bring something new to the table. Today's subject, Crypt of the Necrodancer, doesn't involve a drastically different genre, but it still does its own thing and is all the more unique, engaging, and memorable for it. Read on.

There are multiple playable characters that can be unlocked in Crypt of the Necrodancer, but the default character, and the one you'll be spending the most time with is, a young woman named Cadence. In the opening cutscene, she went out digging in a graveyard one night, when she fell into some catacombs and nearly died. She comes to and discovers that she was kept alive by a curse which keeps her heart beating at a steady rhythm and forces her to move in time with it. In gameplay terms, this means you must move from space to space within the various dungeon levels in time with the background music. You must overcome this handicap and struggle your way through four zones, conquering the miniboss on each floor before you can move onto the next one. Thankfully, you can start a new game from any of the zones you have unlocked, instead of being forced to start from zone 1 all the time (which is still an option for really skilled players).

Indeed, just about everything in Crypt of the Necrodancer follows the beat of the background music. There are many types of monsters to be found, and they all have their own movement patterns. Some monsters move in a set pattern, some follow you, and some may even move more or less randomly. And while you're trying to work out their patterns, you have to keep moving to the beat as well. If you stand still for a beat, you lose the coin multiplier you build up by killing monsters. It's not a huge penalty, more of a mental conditioning to keep you playing by its rules. Still, having to keep moving and processing where all the enemies are going to move is a bit much for some players to handle. And sure, one of the unlockable characters ditches the rhythm aspect altogether and just has the enemies move when you do, which is great for practicing the game, but where's the fun in that?
The many enemy types can be hard to keep track of,
especially when you have to keep moving yourself.
Despite having only four zones, Necrodancer makes up for its short length not just by the difficulty, but by the many unlockable items, characters, and modes. You are armed with a basic dagger to attack monsters with, and a shovel to dig through walls with. The starting dagger only deals one point of damage to one space in front of you, so you would do well to find a new weapon. There are many, many types of weapons and items as well. You may find them in treasure chests, or buy them from the shops that are found on every floor. You can also pick up diamonds during your travels, and spend them in the post-game lobby for permanent upgrades, such as more heart containers to start with, or new kinds of items to find or buy in-game. (And no, there are no microtransactions for buying diamonds with real money, thank God.)

Necrodancer is a rhythm game, to a certain degree, so naturally the music will make or break the experience. I am pleased to report that the soundtrack, composed by Danny Baranowsky, fits the bill with flying colours. One bit that stood out was the third zone, where all the floors are split in half between a fire theme and an ice theme. The music in the fire half is a more intense rock/metal piece, whereas the ice half uses the same song arranged in a chill electronic style, and the two songs seamlessly transition from one to the other depending on where you are in the level. Now, if that's not originality, then I'll be a Green Slime. You can also stream and buy it from his page on Bandcamp. Still, if that's not enough for you, you can also set up your own MP3s to play in the background, and the game will automatically detect the tempo for you. Graphically, the game uses a pseudo 16-bit art style which doesn't appear all that special at first. It's the animations that pull this game's look together, whether it's the tells that inform you of an enemy's imminent action, or just the dance-y idle animations of some monsters. Every moving object in this game seems to have a bounce to it, adding a much-needed visual reinforcement of the rhythm that drives this game.
Collect diamonds to permanently unlock additional items.
One last extra I'd like to bring up is the Dance Pad Mode, available from the beginning. Basically, it's an easier version of the first zone, so as to accommodate players who wish to use a dance pad. I've tried it, and well... it didn't exactly work out for me. Maybe it's because of the way I've trained myself to play Dance Dance Revolution, to alternate my feet as much as possible, or maybe it was this style of game forcing me to think on the fly, but I was pretty much two left feet here, pardon the pun. Still, think about it this way: it is 2015 as I write this, and there has not been a new DDR game made for home consoles in four years (seven in Japan!). So if Konami's not gonna play ball, what other use will there be for your dance pads? And even if they were, where else can you break it out for a genre other than simple beat-matching? Basically what I'm saying is, it's the thought that counts.

Despite all my hangups about Necrodancer being a Roguelike, I somehow found myself playing round after round after round. Maybe it's the vain hope that what little mental experience I've gained from previous failed attempts will give me the luck I need to conquer that one zone. Or, maybe it's just fun. I think I'll go with that. You might not have thought about the flavours of dungeon crawlers and rhythm-based gameplay going together, but they do indeed work, and with any luck will open the possibilities of other such melanges. Be it on a keyboard, controller, or dance pad, there is simply nothing like Crypt of the Necrodancer.

+ A unique and compelling concept.
+ Awesome soundtrack that fits the gameplay perfectly.
+ Loads of extra content.

- It's a Roguelike, so it can be tough to make progress.
- The many enemy types are hard to keep track of.

Control: 4 diamonds out of 5
Design: 4 diamonds out of 5
Graphics: 5 diamonds out of 5
Audio: 5 diamonds out of 5
Value: 4 diamonds out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

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