Crypt of the NecroDancer Review
Rumbling and rumbaing through a remarkable rhythmic roguelike
I also have a problem with Necrodancer’s permanent upgrade system: specifically, the part where it exists. In between runs you can spend a semi-permanent currency - diamonds, for no particular reason - on bonus health, a better coin multiplier, more items to go into the item pool, that sort of thing, and it kind of rubs me up the wrong way. There’s nothing, at least theoretically speaking, stopping you from beating Spelunky or NetHack on your very first try; the barriers are all in your head, and progress is dependent on your ability to lower them. They’re long, torturous roads of self-improvement, and success is sweetened by knowing you’re only here because you learned from your hundreds of failures - with maybe a little helping hand from the random number generator here and there. Necrodancer takes that warm sense of self-worth and gobs in it like a bitter cafeteria cook. Every time I completed a zone, I just couldn’t silence the little voice that wondered how much of it was my own doing. Would I have still won without that extra heart container? Would that chest have still been there if I hadn’t tipped the odds in my favour? I bought my victory. Bought it. And that’s every bit as hollow as it sounds.
Fortunately, all this faffing about with individual zones and upgrade systems is, in the major scheme of things, really little more than an overwrought tutorial designed to ease all the big babies into the meat of the game without scaring them off: buy more equipment once you know how to use the stuff you already have, buy upgrades so your constant embarrassing botched runs don’t feel like complete wastes. Necrodancer rightfully nullifies the whole system with what I like to call the ‘real’ gamemode, which floods the equipment pool with everything, throws away the asinine upgrades and pushes you through all four zones back-to-back. Here - where the tension has the time to ratchet up, where Cadence can actually accrue value, where the full insanity of the game’s items can be unleashed - is where Necrodancer truly shines, as a game that not only expertly tickles all my roguelike spots but also takes a fascinating core mechanic and never stops running.
And when I say ‘never stops running’, that’s only sixty to seventy percent hyperbole. End-to-end, Necrodancer isn’t a particularly long game - you could finish a full run in a lunch-break, and trust me when I say that’s not going to happen often - but between its exceptional difficulty and the way it stuffs itself silly with extras, it’s a serious contender if you ever have to go into space for six months and shipboard policy demands that you only bring one game.There are a couple of extra gamemodes stowed away, including a daily challenge - more proof that Spelunky is essentially the perfect template for all roguelikes -an especially forgiving dance-pad mode and local co-op, but the real meat and potatoes are the extra characters. Cadence is only one of numerous adventurers looking to delve into the crypt - I suppose that’s only natural, given it’s the only place in this fantasy world with a working dance floor - and much like The Binding of Isaac, some of these characters radically change how the game plays: Eli has infinite bombs but can’t use weapons, Monk can’t touch gold, Dove can’t kill anything, so on, so forth. That having been said, some feel like kind of a cop-out in the sense that they just have obscenely difficult conditions loaded onto them. Bolt, for instance, just has to move everywhere at a finger-destroying double-time. Cadence’s grandmother, Aria, essentially fills the role of an NG++ mode, so there’s no question that by the time you’ve unlocked her you’re pretty slick at the game, but even so, a character who dies instantly upon missing a beat just seems cruel and crudely designed.
On the musical side, the game has certainly expanded quite a bit since its Early Access debut: aside from the extra tracks added for zone four, you also get two bonus playable soundtracks consisting entirely of EDM and metal covers of Danny Baranowsky’s superb OST, but without meaning any disrespect to the chaps who worked on them, they both kind of suffer from the need to conform precisely to the constant beat. If you really want you can even feed your own music into the game, but unless your track has a strong, distinct beat with absolutely no change of pace throughout the entire song, you’ll probably just find yourself staring at the bottom of the screen through the whole level, trying to make sense of the batty timing the algorithm spat out.
Finally, there’s the plot, which surprisingly enough actually extends beyond the intro cinematic. Necrodancer seems acutely aware that the potential for storytelling on the randomly-generated dance floor isn’t great - unless some kind of digitized rock-opera dance breaks out, which on reflection I would probably love to bits - and consequentially it opts to communicate by ramming short animated cutscenes down your throat at the end of every zone. I can’t fault Necrodancer for its pacing here, winding down appropriately after a probably stressful boss fight, but it’s going to take more than a handful of forgettable cutscenes to make me care about the plight of the tiny sprites that hop around on-screen. Disappointingly, despite the cutscenes being largely of the ‘here, have a back-story dump’ variety, only Cadence, her mother and her grandmother get any at all, which seems like kind of a missed opportunity with Uncle Shovel-Hands sitting right there. Maybe Necrodancer needs to embrace the same strategy as the games it visually resembles and just supplement itself with a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon.
In any case, Necrodancer is like any other roguelike in that the greatest stories are the ones its emergent gameplay generates, to be told excitedly the next morning to a disinterested fellow fan. Who gives a damn about what happened to Cadence’s missing dad? Let me tell you in excruciating detail about the train-wreck in slow-motion that was this morning’s daily run.
But let’s face it: the story doesn’t hurt anybody, and neither do the vast majority of things I’ve whined about here. Crypt of the NecroDancer is a rare example of a game that carefully marries a refreshing central mechanic - one that’s the very epitome of ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ - with the kind of intelligent, textbook design that I wish I could show to everybody else jumping on the roguelike bandwagon. It gives rhythm-action games a future beyond rapid colour-matching minigames, it gives roguelikes a future beyond slapping randomly-generated levels on a half-baked video game, and frankly I’ve never seen anything like it. Great stuff, guys.
Still deliberating over that dance pad though.