Crypt Of The Ne­cro­dancer

EDGE - - PLAY - Brace Your­self Games, Klei En­ter­tain­ment Brace Your­self Games PC Out now

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.

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