Welcome to our new feature, Steam Spotlight! Every weekend we will look at a different game available on Steam, the popular digital distribution platform for Windows computers. With the indie gaming scene exploding on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, many of these titles will eventually make their way to consoles. But why wait when you can play exciting titles on your Surface Pro or PC right now?
Today's Spotlight title is Crypt of the NecroDancer from Brace Yourself Games and Klei Entertainment, makers of XBLA hit Mark of the Ninja. Take one part dungeon crawler, one part rhythm game, another part "Roguelike," mix them cleverly together and you have NecroDancer. Exploring super-tough dungeons while hopping to catchy beats is a fresh and engrossing experience.
Read on for our detailed impressions and slam dancin' video review!
Falling to the NecroDancer (plus Video review)
In the game's well-drawn and fully voiced introduction, we meet the main heroine Cadence. Her father Dorian, an adventurer, has gone missing in the Crypt of the NecroDancer. Strong-willed Cadence sets out alone to rescue him. Unfortunately, she falls into a trap and dies – briefly.
The evil NecroDancer soon appears and revives Cadence. Although she lives again, she does so with a curse. Her heart now "beats to the music." Will she be able to keep the beat, rescue her father, and defeat the one who cursed her? Well somebody's gotta!
This rogue moves to the beat
NecroDancer has many characteristics of the Roguelike genre, including:
- Randomly generated dungeon layouts, so every playthrough is different
- A large number of helpful and harmful items to discover
- Step-based combat (bump into enemies rather than pressing an attack button)
- (Optional) permadeath
What makes this game different from others is its focus on music. Every floor of every dungeon has extremely memorable music from Super Meatboy and Binding of Isaac composer Danny Baranowsky that instills the game with energy and vigor. (You can also use your own MP3s.) And on top of that, the player(s) and enemies move to the beat.
Say what? As you play, beat bars at the bottom of the screen indicate the beat of the current floor's song. By moving along to the beat, players will build up a gold multiplier so that gold dropped from enemies is worth more. Slip up and move out of step or get hit and your multiplier reverts to the default.
Meanwhile, every type of enemy in the game moves and attacks according to its own beat-based patterns. Some enemies attack every other beat, every four beats, etc. Since you usually don't have ranged shots, you'll have to learn when to attack the bad guys (or from which direction) without getting hit.
The beat thing sounds complicated, and NecroDancer certainly has a learning curve. But play for a few hours and you'll start to intuitively feel each floor's beat without having to look at the beat bars. Losing your gold multiplier when you mess up isn't a severe punishment, so you can get decently far without paying attention to the beat mechanics.
Seeking riches and upgrades
Like Rogue Legacy and similar games, NecroDancer starts out hard. You're likely to die well before reaching the fourth floor boss of the first dungeon. Although you can't continue from where you left off, things do get a little easier each run – as long as you find enough diamonds.
Each floor has a specific number of gems to find; the first dungeon's floors all contain two diamonds apiece. Sometimes they sit out in the open; other times Cadence and her family must dig through the walls to find them. (Digging through walls to create new paths and find secrets is an enjoyable mechanic, by the way.)
After dying, players return to the lobby – NecroDancer's hub world. There you can pay several vendors for new items and upgrades. You don't get to just use those items, though. Instead they get added to the pool of things that will appear in chests and at shops during each run. Better equipment to find does make the game a lot easier though, so don't stop hunting those diamonds! Any unspent gems are lost whenever you start a new run.
Every enemy our heroes kill drops coins. These can only be spent at shops during levels, not between lives. Each non-boss floor has one shop to discover, surrounded by gold brick walls. The vendor sells a random assortment of three weapons, armor, and items. As long as you've killed enough enemies and/or kept your multiplier up, you should be able to buy some of his wares.
That's how NecroDancer's difficulty becomes manageable. If you can just manage to find a decent weapon in a chest or make it to the shop with some gold at the start of your run, you should be able to equip yourself well enough to survive farther into the dungeon.
Saving others from the Crypt
Cadence has several long term goals other than simply buying every available upgrade with the diamonds she finds. First, she needs to clear all three progressively harder zones (dungeons). Eventually the developers will add a fourth zone as well. Thankfully the dungeons don't have to be completed in a single run unless you're playing Hardcore mode.
Next she needs to rescue all eight characters, including several members of her family. Clearing a new zone for the first time will unlock one person. Several others have been locked away within cages that appear in the dungeons. You'll have to find or buy a key to get them out, which sometimes proves easier said than done. One final clan member will unlock once the super-tough Hardcore mode is beaten.
Each of these characters plays a little differently. Bard (my favorite pick) doesn't have to move to the beat; Monk dies if he touches gold; Bolt moves super-fast; and more. Few characters make the game easier – they mostly add variety and challenge.
Controls and co-op
NecroDancer supports keyboards, controllers, or USB dance pads. I can't speak to how the latter affects the game, but I have tried keyboard and controller.
When playing with a keyboard, you only need the four arrow keys. NecroDancer doesn't use an attack button. Hopping into a monster attacks it, after all. But players do pick up bombs, food, items and spells that can be used at will. These are activated by pressing combinations of the arrow keys. I'm not crazy about playing most games on keyboard, but the simple four-key controls fit the game like a glove.
The game also supports local co-op play, allowing two players to hop around on the same screen together. Co-op makes things easier, in that your field of view increases and you can team up against enemies. Reaching a new floor after a partner has fallen will revive him or her too. But you don't share pick-ups, so rationing the items your team finds can be tough.
Sharing a keyboard is not the most appealing prospect, so I recommend plugging in an Xbox controller for the second player. Controllers work great for general movement, but item use gets a little tricky. The game won't just map items to every button like it should – say, X uses Item 1, Y uses Item 2, etc.
Instead, it maps the combinations of directions that activate items to each button. Pressing X might perform Up + Right, using the corresponding item, for instance. Problem is, some of those same directional combinations (diagonals) are easy to hit unintentionally when you're just trying to walk around. My co-op partner kept laying bombs and hurting herself by mistake. Eventually we realized bad item mapping for controllers is at fault. Luckily the devs tell us they will improve controller mapping soon.
Crypt under construction
Steam Early Access is a program in which developers release unfinished games to market, allowing players to enjoy them and provide feedback as development work continues. NecroDancer is an Early Access game, and thus not completely finished. The developers do update it frequently though, and they plan to complete it within the next few months.
At present, only three of the four planned dungeons are playable. Cadence and team can't actually defeat the NecroDancer and complete the story just yet. But the game still offers tons to do. Those three dungeons took me around a dozen hours to finish. Players can also keep busy with the Daily Challenge and Hardcore mode, the latter of which ignores any upgrades you've unlocked and pumps up the difficulty to maddening levels.
Action-RPGs are quite common in the modern gaming landscape. But never before has a dungeon crawler so deeply integrated music into its game design. The rhythm-based gameplay and addictive Roguelike mechanics combine to make a totally distinct adventure. If you like a good challenge, then step into the Crypt and get hopping!
- Crypt of the NecroDancer – Windows, Mac, and Linux – $14.99 ($24.99 with MP3 soundtrack) – Steam Link