Played on Windows via Steam (Also on OS X & Linux)
Thump, thump, thump.
One of gaming’s biggest successes is when a game travels beyond the walls of code, mechanics, and engine, and manage to entrench themselves into the minds and hearts of their players. Whenever the game ceases to simply be an idle entertainment, and becomes something beyond the trappings of controllers and keyboards.
Brace Yourself Games’ Crypt of the Necrodancer accomplishes exactly that by worming its way into the player’s very pulse, making their heart beat to the tempo of slimes, skeletons, bats, and the disco-tiled floor of the dungeon. Part roguelike dungeon-crawler, part rhythm game, players take control of Cadence, a young woman who seeks her lost father but accidentally finds her way into the dungeon of the Necrodancer instead. The mysterious Necrodancer replaces her heart with the beat of the dungeon, and she must adventure through hoards of minions and monsters alike to recover her heart, and possibly find her father along the way.
The Necrodancer’s crypt is a haunting landscape of dangerous creatures and bouncing music, separated into floors and zones. Each floor is procedurally generated, and all have a new song to accompany new challenges. At all times, the enigmatic and enthralling beats of the Necrodancer are pulsing throughout the dungeon. Everything moves to the tempo of the background music, including the fuses on bombs, the enemies, and time players have left on each floor. As players successfully defeat enemies and move in tempo, a score multiplayer builds to give players more gold for every successful kill.
One of the game’s biggest successes is in the soundtrack, a beautiful arrangement of speeds, songs, and styles that determine nearly every aspect of the mission. Coupled with a genuinely gorgeous pixel aesthetic and easily accessible premise, Crypt of the Necrodancer is a game that is immediately successful in marrying roguelike dungeons and rhythmic dance tunes, and does so with surprising ease. Though it seems like a combination that should never work, having an omnipresent pulsating tempo to set the speed of the in-game goings-on provide a level of urgency that sometimes flummoxes even the most well-learned players into making simple mistakes. Every fraction of unnecessary damage or drop of the multiplier is another moment of lost potential, and there’s no time to struggle over the little failures with the next beat still incoming, bringing with it a cataclysm of goblins, elementals, golems, and dragons with it.
Where many roguelike games encourage players to become increasingly slower, more thoughtful, and more pensive as they become familiar with the systems, Crypt of the Necrodancer has players thinking every move for fractions of a second before forcing them to commit. Joined with the pulsing heart at the bottom of the screen, every moment of play is a little bit breathless, every coming beat representing the potential for another failure. Somehow, the game escapes being as depressing as it sounds. The bright visuals, hypnotic floor tiles, and jubilant soundtrack are anything but dreary; even the in-dungeon shopkeeper belts out amazing harmonies when players are near the shop. The entire game feels uplifting, even while its monsters are enacting your demise with each beat of the bass drum.
Thump, thump, thump.
The crypt is made up of four distinct zones, each with their own soundtracks, floors, and boss areas. As players succeed in reaching the ends of their current zone, the next will unlock from the lobby menu and players can skip to the new zone with every fresh respawn. Success within runs will net players gold and items to make their coming trials and tribulations less scary, but will all be lost upon player death. What isn’t lost, however, are diamonds, a semi-rare, semi-hidden currency that can be used through shopkeepers in the lobby to be used toward permanent unlocks and upgrades that will appear in the dungeon or upgrade the player character for all future runs.
As the zones progress in depth, the challenges seem to multiply exponentially. Not only do the songs seem to gain something of a maliciously gleeful edge to the tempo with each subsequent floor, but the enemy patterns begin to gain teeth as well. Enemies that were previously only attacking via movement gain area of effect abilities, or will leave trails of danger in their wake. Every new mechanic challenges players with more varied and destructive hazards, and very rarely are any of the new aspects designed to give the players much respite. As a result, new zones feel orders of magnitude more difficult than their lower-numbered counterparts, and player upgrades become a significant boon rather than being a handy bonus against occasional player-error or input snafu.
The ramping challenge and sense of frustration that comes with a good run coming apart from one simple mistake is utterly heartbreaking, and sometimes that means finding Cadence back in the lobby without enough diamonds to spend, and a sense that any run can be wasted at a moment’s notice, simply because of an ill-timed bat or the sudden appearance of a ghost musically harrowing down on the player.
Thump, thump, thump.
Like the beckoning call of a siren song, though, it’s hard to stay away. It’s incredibly easy to take a deep breath, put a finger back to the pulse, and dive right back in. The soundtrack is so vibrant and alive, it almost can’t help but draw out one more run. The visuals are so dynamic, it feels worth pressing into the hardest challenges with renewed vigor in search of at least one new floor. Even the wasteful failures are still enjoyable in the moment of play, mistakes and all. And it’s that bouncy, enthralling feeling that endures over the regret of one or two botched runs.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is the sort of game that picks up the player’s heart, and never lets go. Even in frustration, even in sadness, even in loss, it’s still settles enduringly in the soul and begs for at least one more play. Just one more. Like the driving pulse of the tempo, the beating of the NecroDancer commands that the tempo surges, the monster roar, and maybe this next run will do it. Just one more run.
Thump, thump, thump.