Crypt of the NecroDancer Preview
A Dance with Dragons (and minotaurs, and skeletons, and blue slimy things)
I must be mad.
I am not a dancer. Dancing is, and always has been, for people with greater natural agility and fewer inhibitions than me. Even in high school, when classes were roundly whipped onto the basketball courts and forced to dance to bloody Cotton bloody Eyed bloody Joe, you would have needed a theodolite and at least four points of triangulation to determine that I was, in fact, moving at all. And yet, my internet history doesn't lie: dance pads. I think I need one. It's insane, but I just have to try it. God knows how I'm going to convince Australia Post to sneak it into the house under cover of darkness, though.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is the culprit behind this radical change, the latest in a long line of games that take a roguelike, drop it into a food processor with some unrelated genre, and press the 'on' button to a chorus of hideous graunching sounds. A rhythm-action roguelike on Early Access. It almost sounds like a weak joke, the kind I'd make while harping on about Risk of Rain and Eldritch and such, but it's a surprisingly natural fit. And of all the roguelikes I've covered – I'm still determined to shoulder the term 'rogue-lite' out of existence, thank you – Crypt of the NecroDancer is probably the most traditional so far: you move in cardinal directions on a grid – hence the DDR pad – engage in turn-based combat (sort of), walk around some boxy rooms, pick up a ton of weapons and armour, and get to the stairs before time (or in this case, the song) runs out. It is, admittedly, a great deal more streamlined than traditional roguelikes – no inventory management, no elaborate damage system, no searching through the manual for ten minutes looking for the key-bind that lets you identify nearby traps – but it has a unique depth all of its own and more than enough potential combinations to keep me happy.
Of the two genres mashed together here, neither of them have exactly made a name for themselves via their storytelling, but Crypt of the NecroDancer does have – for lack of a better word – a premise, and it's less contrived than you might imagine. It's the opening cinematic that sets the scene: Cadence, our protagonist (music puns, ahoy) is out digging in a graveyard for slightly cloudy but presumably good purposes – unless the big twist is that she's a Necrodancer, and she just needed some fresh corpses in a hurry, I don't know – when the roof of the titular crypt caves in underneath her, causing a near-fatal fall. She survives thanks to the sudden appearance, stage left, of the real Necrodancer, who looks for all the world like an eighties fantasy cartoon villain – complete with billowing cloak – but nevertheless fulfils his duty as a good citizen by restarting her heart. Alright, so it only beats in time with nearby music, but that's a small price to pay, right?
In a roundabout sort of way, the fusion of rhythm-action and roguelike makes perfect sense. Combat in traditional roguelikes has always been something of a turn-based dance; carefully stepping here and there, into recently-vacated space and away from encroaching foes, to maximise damage and dodge enemy attacks. Necrodancer – I'm just going to call it Necrodancer, because stylised capitalisation is the work of language heretics – simply speeds things up a little bit. Instead of having all the time in the world to ponder your next move, you and everything else in the dungeon are compelled to move to the inexorable beat of the song. Suddenly, through this one small change, the game becomes an intense exercise in constant planning, thinking ahead, and split-second decision making. Situations that you could have once tackled over the course of a few minutes now have to be solved in seconds, all while moving to that wretched, overpowering beat. Within moments of entering a room, you need a plan. Step left, step up, lunge at the skeleton, dig out a wall to skip a beat, cut the slime that just moved into range, dodge the fireball, step around the trap tile... whoops, looks like you didn't take that wind wizard into account, you dolt. Now you've been pulled off course, you've missed a beat, dropped your coin multiplier, and you're about to be attacked from three different directions. You have about twenty-five milliseconds before the next beat hits and those attacks land. It's exhilarating, being put on the spot like this, and there's nothing more satisfying than fighting your way out of a chaotic melee without taking a scratch.
That's the truly beautiful thing about Necrodancer's combat: it's almost always possible to handle a fight in such a way that you completely evade damage. Every enemy moves according to a certain pattern, some simpler than others, and the key to survival is to dance around them; to step nimbly out of reach on the beat before a scything attack, to dart in and strike while they're recoiling, to move warily around them until the perfect opportunity. You'll have to learn to dance like this too, at least if you plan to beat the game at some point, because Cadence is as fragile as a sheet of plate-glass being carried across a busy road, which I suppose is inevitable when you go out on an adventure in your gardening gear. In the very first level of the very first zone, there are certain enemies that can kill you in a single hit, and it only gets harder from there. Initially it feels ruthlessly unfair, punishing you needlessly for even the slightest slip-up, but as you learn enemy patterns and weapon behaviours, it smooths out into a more reasonable – but still, of course, exceptionally challenging – experience. It's a brand of difficulty that will seem very familiar to any seasoned Spelunky player, in the sense that death is avoidable but nevertheless entirely expected, and first and foremost your fault. Oh, it may be down to a matter of ignorance sometimes, but the learning experience is part of the fun.
Right, I think I've soaped the game's armpits for long enough: let's talk about rubbish. Necrodancer is Early Access, after all; a platform that has acquired something of a reputation for being a mixed bag full of rusty gardening equipment and awful me-too survival sandboxes. Though Necrodancer might not be nearly as bad as some of the examples that intrepid people have dredged up, it is nevertheless undeniably incomplete. Of the four zones planned only three are actually available, with the fourth and final zone lying tantalisingly locked-off on the hub screen. Since each zone has a unique set of enemies this essentially means that an entire quarter of the game's content is still in the works, to say nothing of the conspicuous absence of a final boss. I'd get more up in arms about it but I can't, partially because the stuff that's already in the game has been polished to a 16-bit shine, but primarily because I estimate that I'm not actually going to successfully beat zone three until about late 2015. It's hard, okay?