Crypt Of The Necrodancer
There’s a dark magician buried deep within Brace Yourself’s rhythm-action dungeon crawler, but it’s not the one immortalised in the logo. No, his name is Danny Baranowsky and his synth-drenched musicality is the pacemaker strapped to the pulsing heart of Crypt Of The Necrodancer. Across four varied zones of procedurally generated dungeon, you’ll hear him exhume myriad musical styles – heavy rock riffs collide with twinkling electronica, chilled club floor anthems give way to cochlea-rattling bass – while the relentless beat drives you ever onwards.
The game his music animates is no less entrancing. You’ll start as Cadence, a determined hero whose heart has been plucked from her in a bizarre ritual, and so who can now only move in four directions and in time with the music as she delves after her quarry. Drop a beat and she’ll stand stock still, losing her coin multiplier. If you want to buy the best gear from the golden-walled shops, you’ll have to keeping moving.
It’s a complicating factor in your high-stakes danceoffs with a bestiary of conventional gribblies rendered entirely out of the ordinary by also being enslaved to the rhythm. Every foe has a ruleset or pattern of varying complexity. A simple blue slime, for instance, hops between two squares, pausing a beat between each leg of the journey, whereas a mounted skeleton on a phantom horse moves every beat and actively chases you down, becoming a shield-bearing undead knight when stripped of its mount. Even the toughest foes, such as parrying blademasters and dragons with flash-freezing breath, can be defeated flawlessly once you know their openings and figure out a sequence to exploit them.
In theory, that means all damage is avoidable, though mobs, floor traps and tight confines contrive to make even well-educated runs fraught and improvisational, rather than rote algorithmic deconstructions. This is a puzzle where the pieces are shifting every moment, and solutions are found instinctively as much as tactically. The best runs induce an absorbing, trancelike state, and beating a difficult stage that’s killed you countless times delivers a rapturous buzz.
And with a bevy of loot at your disposal, found in chests or bought from shops manned by delightful warbling merchants, no two runs are ever totally the same. A Crown Of Thorns, for instance, exacts a blood price from your meagre stock of hearts, but restores some vitality after every ten kills. A frost dagger freezes enemies it strikes and then deals ludicrous damage to any monster covered in ice. Longswords extend your attack range to two squares, while flails and whips broaden it out from just the tile in front of you. And since you stay in place while you strike, and are typically hit by enemies that would move into your tile, each new attack pattern has implications for your footsteps in this demanding tango.
But even the basic toolset is capable in rhythmically gifted hands. Cadence starts each zone with a shovel, dagger, and a single bomb, and every item has uses beyond the obvious. Digging opens up new paths, sure, but it can also act as a buffer, soaking up a beat by destroying a block without crumbling your multiplier. Bombs are good for clearing tougher walls the basic shovel can’t handle, but the three-beat fuse makes it effective for impromptu mine traps. Even the dagger is flexible, a combo press of up and down flinging it in the direction of your next keystroke, damaging all in its path at the cost of being defenceless until you fetch it. It’s this level of nuance, the steep difficulty, and a quietly subversive spirit that elevate Crypt Of The Necrodancer far beyond the realm of one-hit wonder. While the three levels and boss fight in each zone can be conquered in minutes, it took us hours of instructive deaths to see the fourth area. As areas fall, you’ll unlock new characters, each remixing the rules and often heightening the difficulty. The more fragile Bard, for instance, sets the beat rather than follows it, making the game turn-based. The Monk will die if he breaks his vow of poverty, so gold deposits become lethal obstacles. Dove is a pacifist, only prepared to stun enemies rather than kill them, though she doesn’t need to defeat minibosses to unlock the steps to the next level. And genderqueer Bolt ups the pace and the pressure.
A lavish number of modes and options give you just as many reasons to keep coming back. You can play with a co-op partner, or plug in a dance mat and take on a simplified version of the game. Daily challenges and All Zones mode ask you to heighten your skills again, with leaderboards to climb. You have a level of creative control, too, able to swap out that excellent soundtrack for the tunes of your choice, with a level editor chaser if you also tire of the algorithms that build your gauntlets.
Crypt Of The Necrodancer hits a lot of high notes, then, but one or two bum ones as well. You’ll often feel at the mercy of loot drops, and while diamonds unlock new items for the item pool – as well as take old ones out of it – having to jump back to the lobby to spend them between runs does lend the game a rather staccato rhythm at first. That soon fades, however, because while the game’s loot hoard is generous, the unlock system isn’t broad enough to sustain the gems’ relevancy into the late zones, let alone the late game.
Those are incidental details in the face of such a virtuoso feat of creativity, finding a new way to express old ideas and kick both the rhythm-action and indie Roguelike up to 11. It definitely plays to a certain nerdcore crowd, with few concessions to the timing deficient or impatient, but few games waltz through the fires of Early Access and arrive out the other end in possession of this much grace and charm.