Deep Cuts in the Crypt of the Necrodancer

Speaking of the roguelike plus something else formulation, here’s a roguelike plus a rhythm game. Yes, please. How hadn’t that happened sooner?

I have a serious weakness for rhythm games—ask me about my love for Nintendo’s Rhythm Heaven series sometime, when you have four-or-so hours to spare—so I jumped at the chance to take Crypt of the Necrodancer for a spin.

Here’s the setup: You descend into a dungeon, and then you slay monsters, collect loot, buy weapons and armor and spells and healing items from shopkeepers, dig through walls, slay more monsters, descend deeper and deeper and deeper. The hook is that you do all of this simply by moving in the four cardinal directions to the beat of a backing track—ether one of the game’s own propulsive, danceable faux-chiptunes, or tracks you’ve imported from your own music collection.

The longer you go without dropping the beat—diegetically, the pulse of the protagonist’s heart—the more coins you’ll gain from slain foes, and thus the faster you become an unstoppable dungeon-crushing dance god. Collecting diamonds and rescuing NPCs, meanwhile, will unearth upgrades that stick around when you die and retry. Which you will, needless to say.

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Different and differing tempos can of course radically change the pace of play. But regardless of that, interesting rhythms are built into the floorplans, the weapons, the monsters. Especially the monsters. There are ghosts who won’t take corporeal form until you turn to look at them (which feels a bit like back-phrasing), or the dragons who lumber along in half-time (which makes attacking it feel almost like a hemiola).

Exploring to the music is addictive, but quite apart from that, it’s impressive in itself that the game packs so many mechanics into such simple controls. You’re just using the up/down/left/right buttons (individually for most actions, in combination for a few others), and thus the whole game is played one-handed. This leaves one’s other hand free to tap the table rhythmically, or else to give one’s beard a contemplative stroke whilst planning one’s next move.

Also, as a bonus, it joins Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten on the very short list of games with well-designed and not-particularly-sexualized female protagonists. That’s neat, and worth mentioning.

Crypt of the Necrodancer is a work in progress, and still rough around the edges. But it gives me that same feeling I got when I first played Rogue Legacy: If the full experience makes good on the promise of the first few sections, then we’ll have something awfully special on our hands.

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