Crypt of the NecroDancer Review – Tapdancing On Your Tombstone

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Crypt of the NecroDancer was crafted by indie developer Brace Yourself Games, and published by Klei Entertainment. The main concept of NecroDancer is that of a rogue-like that produces procedurally generated levels in old-school retro pixel form, with the main focus being rhythm based combat. The only problem I have with this game is that it is currently in alpha (via Steam Early Access), so it’s hard to fully give an intricate review when a good amount of features are missing, so bear with me as we delve deeper into the Crypt.

Let’s start off with something NecroDancer did very well – the gameplay is extremely fun and rewarding. Roguelikes are supposed to be known for their challenge and this game produces that on an entirely different level. In my previous experiences with roguelikes, there ends up being a situation that just shows you have bad luck and that’s it. No matter how skillful you can be, there are moments when you are bound to die.

Sometimes it progresses normally by giving ways to improve your character, so that you may conquer the feat after several tries which is a tried and true method but leaves little to the challenge when reaching a character-based checkpoint.  Other times gameplay can be just too excruciatingly difficult that the user avoids playing the title anymore in pure bitter rage. NecroDancer does a phenomenal job of balancing this out with many different options and learning curves that are fun, and these are provided to make the game more accessible to both novice players or hardcore players.

I found the three major difficulty curves are understanding enemy patterns, nailing down your timing to the beat of the song, and understanding the weapons and how they can work on your strategy.  To aid or detract on your conquest in the crypt are special tombs that can give you special equipment or abilities. These tend to be mostly there to give some sort of negative effect such as blinding the character, which means you can only see the eyes of the enemy – while you’re guided by an arrow to where the stairs are located.

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All three learning curves are incredibly fun to learn. Weapons and sometimes even armor can have positive and negative effects. Enemies have fun, varying patterns to ascertain, coupled with the added challenge of going with the beat to one of Danny Baranowsky’s songs, or one of your favorite songs (which you can upload). With daily challenges, hardcore modes, and unlockable characters that change the style of gameplay, quite a lot of things just add to the mayhem. The game does an outstanding job with content, and there’s always a lingering desire for more varying equipment, enemies, and music. To play the devil’s advocate, despite the hype train there are a few things I believe could be worked on, revolving around gameplay.

I had a gripe with traps, while it is great to see enemies be able to fall for the same trap repeatedly, it’s actually quite easy to avoid any of the traps since a lot are clear as day (unless you’re blinded) and that element revolves mostly around human error – specifically in relation to staying with the beat. I believe there should be more challenge, like accidentally triggering a trap via breaking normal walls to reveal a trap, as mostly any special area normally showcases a very distinct visual crack on the wall. None of the cracks I saw during the alpha had any major traps, which could be something added in newer updates. For enemies, there is enough variance in patterns to be satisfied, but I felt a strong desire for even more enemies and more variation. I take that as a good thing for what they’ve accomplished.

Delving deeper into the gameplay, before going into a zone (which offers 4 floors per zone), you can take the time to unlock permanent upgrades to your character and also unlock new items and equipment by using diamonds that are excavated from the zones. Diamonds must be used before proceeding to the next zone as they will be deleted, which pushes the concept that at some point the character needs to jump to a new zone as they wouldn’t be able to mine the amount of diamonds needed for some items.

Players can also select Zones 1-4 (Zone 3 was the max in the alpha), change character skins (which change gameplay drastically), and give access to the daily challenges and hardcore modes for those uninterested in permanent upgrades. During your travels of the first and second zones, you can free some companions that aid your progression when returning to the hub. Some of these options that were showcased in early alpha are the BeastMaster and Boss Tamer. As previously mentioned, the game offers ways for the player to learn the ins and outs of the game, but if you want to be a true master of the title and have access to any type of ability, you’ll have to visit these two people.

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For critiquing sake, when visiting either of those two people, you would have to go down the stairs to the certain enemy you wish to fight. When you’re done training, the player would have to go back upstairs, where they will be teleported to the central main hub. They should add the optional staircase to go back to the Beast Master or Boss Tamer’s room, when you consider that the player moves rhythmically in the dungeon, meaning you’ll also be moving in that manner in the hub. It can become tedious if you are trying to train with several monsters, only to be sent back to square one.

The story is sadly not really there, and I’m not sure if it will be fully there either. You basically take the role of Cadence as she wishes to take part in some sort of quest, as people told her she wasn’t qualified. Shortly into her search she falls in a crypt, smashing her skull in. She awakes to find that she survived the fall, although she’s mysteriously had her heart taken away by this evil vampiric entity. She then travels deeper into the crypt and that’s pretty much it. It’s not entirely a big gripe as there are situations in game. I feel that as long as the gameplay is extremely fun, story can sometimes be thrown out the window and really, that’s what happens in this title. The only suggestion I could make would be to do cutscenes after each zone is completed, to give a little bit to work on for the story. This could help the title feel a little more complete with events at the boss areas, or when you conquer a zone for the first time.

Art is your traditional, good ol’ pixel goodness. Most of the sprites are all in small form with very defined bodies, due to lack of anti-aliasing. However, this has a positive effect and makes the form stand out. In conjunction with music, I like that the animations of everyone in the game are defined by the beat tracker, so it adds more to the music by affecting gameplay. This can be said of the art and animation of the game, as well. This game tends to create a full experience, like how chest armor pieces will effect the players look in the game, as well as the weapons having fully different sprite animations when attacking.

There are only a few types of weapons that follow similar animations, but they follow a different rule with either extra movement or possible distance of attack. These can be things like a rapier which the character can attack from two spaces away, but it actually lunges in when attacking by moving one space up. Although the sprite animation of the weapon is nearly the same, there is a variance to the learning curve of each weapon, again one of the fun parts to learn about the game.

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Now what I find to be the golden attribute of the title is the music. The combination of Danny Baranowsky’s music and some awesome subtle quirks within the game really show how much thought the development team and composer put into the game. For one, the music is extremely catchy and a ton of fun to listen to while following the rhythm in the game. The repeatable animations of the enemies and the dance floor effect while you are in a combo really makes you feel the dungeon is a giant dance floor.

One of my favorite moments is when the player meets the dungeon shopkeep. When a song reaches a segment within a few seconds into the song, the shopkeep will sing in harmony with the song. This is used in two ways as its fun and genius in meshing the game and music together, but it also his audio cues are distanced the further you are from him which builds an auditory map for the player which again I find to be genius. Another favorite audio bit is when you head into zone 3, which is an ice and fire influenced stage. The magic happens when the player can see the transition between fire and ice.

When crossing the border the music uses a soft transition between two styles of the same song. Flame section being more of a rock track with crunchy, distorted, guitars, and ice being influenced by more techno-synth pop audio – all within a chiptune soundtrack. This title is nothing short of mesmerizing in it’s utilization of audio in gameplay. One of the selling points to the title was the ability to use your own soundtrack, which the game utilizes an outside beat per minute tracker. I found a few issues with this function. As much as I loved having zombies dance to Andrew WK’s I Get Wet CD; navigating to find your files in the custom music selector is a bit tedious for people who may not be as computer savvy.

It’s not extremely difficult but I feel as if there could be an easier way of selecting music, such as setting up a path to your music folder and letting it read your files from there. This would be ideal over having to sift throughout the vast file paths a computer may have for every song/track per floor in each zone. It may also benefit having an optional randomizer function from a particular album in effect when uploading. Also, the player should be aware of any song that has any tempo changes – for example I tried playing Anamanaguchi’s Fast Turtle which ended up having the beat measurer lost for a little bit. When it does recognize a constant rhythm; it works amazingly.

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Suffice to say, this game produces with guns blazing. It’s a refreshing take on roguelike games that adds multitude of learning paths and difficulty curves. Crypt of the NecroDancer has rewarding gameplay and amazing, intelligent music-oriented gameplay which makes this game stand out amongst most rogue-likes. The game has a ton of potential to grow, even more of which I am excited to see what Brace Yourself will produce more with this title.

Crypt of the NecroDancer was reviewed on PC using a code provided by Brace Yourself Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

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I have been an avid gamer since I was a child, playing Legend of Zelda on the NES and began true niche gaming during the SNES/Genesis battles.

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