Necropolis Preview - PAX East 2015
We hack and slash through a unique world
If you’ve heard the name Harebrained Schemes, you’re likely familiar with their popular Kickstarter RPG, Shadowrun Returns, and its excellent expansion Dragonfall. Harebrained has been a studio on the rise over the last couple of years, and thanks to that success it got another Kickstarter funded to make Shadowrun: Hong Kong. So when the Washington-based developer was showing the action title Necropolis at PAX East, I was instantly taken aback at what a departure it was from the studio’s recent RPG hits.
Describing Necropolis requires a lot of “like”s. It’s a Souls-like and a Zelda-like, a rogue-like, an action-RPG of sorts, but as far as the demo went there was no stat upgrades or level ups. Using the Souls and Zelda series might make it seem like Necropolis is a game lacking in ideas, but its mix of the Souls’ challenge and combat, the targeting of the 3D Zelda games and dungeon crawl design didn’t feel rote when I got to play the game.
I started with Necropolis by choosing between multiple aesthetic choices for my character. The character design in Necropolis is polygonal, and to some degree it looks like a stick figure in armor, wielding a sword and shield. Even with this simple design, there’s something different to each character. Some look like they have more of Eastern influence to their armor, others look more like your traditional knight. While the look is the main thing that changes, each character seemed to have their own backstory and history as to why they had journeyed to the labyrinth-like tomb.
The lore and story behind Necropolis is actually fairly deep. The archmage Abraxis has died and rumor has it that he now resides in the powerful, magical tomb that calls to warriors from many different walks of life. These warriors enter the Necropolis for its secrets, but the tomb actually feeds on them for its magical energy. The story seems to run deeper, but there isn’t a lot of time to sit around and appreciate the lore of the game as it’s more about action than words.
Immediately, I was greeted and guided by a small, floating pyramid called Brazen Head who is a servant of Abraxis, sent to guide warriors into his tomb. This character provided tips and hints, giving me information about what I was seeing and explaining how to use the controls.
I was quickly taken in by the dark, overbearing look of Necropolis. The Demon/Dark Souls comparison shines through in the combat, but also in the weighty and daunting look of the game world. The dungeons are lathered in blacks and greys, accented by bright blues and neon reds. The contrast of the light and darkness give off an almost-noir vibe.
Again, drawing on the Souls comparison, the combat of Necropolis is timing based and revolves around keeping enemies in front of you. You have two attacks - powerful and normal - both of which leave you vulnerable when executed. In the first room I entered, I was swarmed by enemies and had to keep my distance, dodge their attacks, and then strike at the opportune moment. The patience required and the difficulty of the AI makes Necropolis feel very tactically demanding for an action-RPG.
In Necropolis, your health is measured by a meter, as is your vigor. All of your attacks require the use of vigor, but heavy attacks will more quickly deplete the meter. Again it becomes important to wait for the right moment to strike, as you need to make sure you’re not depleting your vigor. Both of these meters can be filled by potions which are collected off of defeated enemies.
In addition to a sword, your character also has a shield to use for defense or to bash enemies with. Much like your attacks with the sword, blocking and bashing are all about timing. Being overzealous and clumsy will quickly get you surrounded and knocked around. Blocking is also crucial. When enemies got too close, I had to quickly block their attacks and then dodge out of the area.
Just as important as timing is the direction of your attacks. I previously mentioned how the enemies of Necropolis will try and surround you, so your positioning can become very important when attacking and defending. You might initially think the enemies of Necropolis are slow and lumbering, but they can quickly dodge behind you, making for a quick defeat. In order to help your positioning, Necropolis has a targeting system which is similar to Zelda’s Z-targeting. Using the targeting system to make sure you’re facing the right enemy is one of the most important mechanics in Necropolis’ gameplay.
The early, and likely some of the easier enemies in the game are called the Grine. While they usually attack en masse, they were fairly easy to dispatch compared to the next enemies I faced. These enemies weren’t as numerous as the Grine, but they were bigger and dealt far more damage. Armed with only a sword and a bull-headed sense of duty, these enemies would immediately charge on sight, forcing you to quickly give ground until they got tired, literally bending over to catch their breath and giving you a chance to strike.
The combat felt satisfying; landing blows was rewarding and every victory I had felt like I had earned it. It only takes one lazy moment to be killed in Necropolis, so each win is an accomplishment in itself. But nothing is more satisfying than when you land your heavy attacks against enemies. These animations have your character flipping around, wielding their weapons with deadly flair.
After defeating the big, lumbering oaf who charged me, I get a special reward as my sword is upgraded to the Great Sword. This sword has more range and does more damage than my initial weapon. After accepting my reward, I take an elevator down to a lower level of the necropolis. This time there isn’t just one, big enemy ready to charge, there’s half a dozen of them.
As they all converge on me, I am constantly dodging backward, simply trying to stay alive in the hopes that these enemies will make a mistake and give me an angle to attack. As I take damage I try to drink potions, but getting enough distance is difficult; their bull-rush attack doesn’t leave much time for potion drinking. As I’m continually chased around the enclosed space, I find that I can get these big guys to hit each other. Furthermore, when they strike a friend, the wounded party will retaliate. Soon I have all of my enemies brawling with one another, doing the dirty work for me.
The room cleared, my health nearly depleted, I face off against one more of these larger enemies on a bridge I have to cross. I dodge the incoming attacks, but can’t find a time to strike. Finally, after a near-miss, I am able to use my shield bash to knock the enemy off of the bridge to his doom. Only to be immediately killed by a handful of Grine in the next room.
My short experience with Necropolis was a thrill. The game’s tactical and challenging nature made my time with it feel all too short. I instantly was ready for another chance to see how far I could progress to the underground tomb, certain I could do so much better with what I had learned during my first playthrough. Needless to say, I’m going to have my eye on Necropolis as I eagerly await more news about this grueling and tactical action game from Harebrained Studios.