As the world’s gaming library continues to proliferate, the melding of genres remains a constant source of novel ideas. However, few likely expected a roguelike-rhythm game hybrid. Crypt of the NecroDancer not only plays intuitively, but captures the body away from the mind as one naturally moves to the beat. Don’t worry: even if you’re rhythm-inept like me, with a little bit of strategy and practice, you, too, can salsa, waltz, and swing your way down the depths of the NecroDancer’s lair.
A hallmark of roguelikes is the omission of a story. Well, technically, a story exists, but its inclusion only loosely motivates one to delve ever deeper. The introductory video shows Cadence, our protagonist, in pursuit of the NecroDancer after he steals her heart, presumably forcing her to move to the beat of the music. Taking place over the span of four stages, each with three levels and a boss, Cadence has to reach the bottom of the dungeon. The reason for her entry in the first place is hinted at through brief cutscenes between each stage. Overall, the story is short, simple, and hides just enough to pique the player’s curiosity rather than frustrate. Be forewarned: if you’re in this for a gripping narrative, you’re in the wrong place entirely.
The primary motivator, however, is the addictive gameplay that captures the player’s feet (the NecroDancer has Cadence’s heart, after all). As stated above, one cannot help but move. To. The. Beat. In fact, bobbing one’s head or tapping a toe might even enhance performance. At times, I found myself trapped in loss after loss on the first couple floors after I had established myself as a seasoned player who routinely scours the third and fourth stages, simply because I couldn’t get into the groove. In this way, mood plays into the immersion. Unlike most RPGs, one has to come to Crypt of the NecroDancer with an upbeat mindset. Gloom and doom gamers who want to slump in their seats and passively click will not find joy here. Think of CotND as Dance Dance Revolution: you wouldn’t even attempt DDR if you didn’t want to groove, would you?.
Speaking of DDR, CotND offers dance pad compatibility. I want to clarify this, as some reviewers have mistakenly attributed this feature to a core mechanic of CotND. Although the feature interests me (I haven’t explored this avenue), CotND plays wonderfully on a keyboard, as I imagine was intended. Although I can’t presume the developers’ intent, expecting a player base to seek out and buy an accessory that will hook up to the PC seems unlikely, or, at the very least, in poor business sense. Rest assured, you will be doing enough dancing under your desk without a pad.
What makes CotND truly unique is that it’s a quasi-turn-based roguelike that is equally dependent on tempo and strategy. Most games lean toward visceral skill or knowledge, but CotND demands that the player follow the beat in order to move. However, this means nothing if the player cannot adapt to enemy movements and traps. What ends up happening is that after one dies enough times and learns how to adapt, a satisfying flow ensues as one deftly dances around foes (and it does feel like dancing) while striking at the right moment. Sure, one doesn’t technically need to follow the beat at all times, but this completely negates the gold multiplier, which is critical to buy items on each floor.
Unlike nearly every other roguelike out there, CotND is not heavily dependent on items. Sure, items such as weapons and armor make the game a whole lot easier, but one can beat the game without any attire — it’s just absurdly difficult. Like, stupidly hard. In fact, CotND offers several playable characters, each with their own unique traits. One requires that the player uses a dagger at all times and can never miss a beat or the run is over. I’m not kidding. You cannot miss one beat. However, most characters are not punishing. For instance, one requires the player to use bombs exclusively, but offers an infinite supply. Another character cannot attack enemies, but scares away monsters with the touch of a rose. These allies are more than mere gimmicks: they genuinely alter one’s approach and even change the way one values certain items available at the merchant.
I’ve only scraped the surface of what CotND offers. Although the game is technically short — a seasoned player can spelunk the entirety in about 20 minutes — the number of attempts such mastery will take involves hours of gameplay, and that’s only for Cadence. Mastering each character is more than a mere distraction — it substantively changes the experience. For those with a competitive streak, CotND offers daily challenges with a pre-generated dungeon, achievements, and unlockable items. Although it’s probably on the shorter side of most roguelikes, that isn’t to say CotND offers little meat.
The visuals are pixel-perfect with an imaginative bestiary. Although CotND hosts the traditional lot of dungeon dwellers, such as slimes, skeletons, and dragons, others relate to music in some capacity, typically bosses. I never felt as if items or enemies were difficult to understand, and I enjoyed the small amenities littered throughout the dungeons. Truly, CotND feels like its own world.
As with any roguelike, controls function smoothly without getting in the way of gameplay. Of course, since CotND is a rhythm game as well, precision is important. What I can say is that I never at any point felt as if the game cheated me and that I had hit a beat when it said I did not. Any inaccuracy was on my part alone, and my frustration was targeted at myself alone. Using items requires the combination of arrow keys, such as pressing down and right at the same time, and the developers made sure that the most common types of items had the easiest combination of keys to press (for example, eating food doesn’t require one to press up and down at the same time).
Crypt of the NecroDancer, of all games, requires exceptional audio. After all, for one to continue playing, each level’s tune has to be pleasing to the ear upon the 100th iteration. In fact, I looked forward to certain levels (1-3 will always be my favorite). Each and every floor has a pleasing, upbeat rhythm that accentuates the joy of the gameplay. Actually, players can even use their own audio if they get sick of the game’s music or want to try their favorite tunes. The developers offer tips about what kinds of music to use, and I found that some of my favorite pieces simply aren’t meant for CotND, and that’s okay. I look forward to the community compiling soundtracks that work especially well with the game. Of course, one has to own the MP3s in order to take advantage of this customization. Finally, just because I have to say this, the merchant is one of the best characters in any title in 2015. I’m declaring it now.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is full of heart — perhaps because Cadence’s was stolen. Full of plain old visceral fun with a heavy slice of strategy, few gaming experiences this year are as satisfying as mastering enemy patterns and deftly outmaneuvering intimidating dragons. Music aficionados have more than enough reason to venture down the catacombs because of the soundtrack alone. If this is any indication of future Frankensteinian monsters resulting from the odd marriage of genres, I cannot wait to see what indie developers come up with next.