Crypt of the Necrodancer (PC) Review

The Short


Pros

– Clever roguelike that manages to actually make tired concepts fresh again

– Four stages, tons of unlockables, and a plethora of enemies

– Oh my gosh the music in this game is so good. Cause DannyB wrote it, so no big surprise there.

– IF YOU WALK BY THE SHOPKEEPER HE SINGS ALONG TO THE SONG. THIS IS LITERALLY THE GREATEST INNOVATION GAMING HAS SEEN IN THE PAST DECADE.

– Pixel graphics are charming

– “Digging” through dungeon walls adds a nice mix-up to an already mixed-up concept

– Bosses are challenging and tons of fun

– Absurdly addicting

– You can play with a DDR pad. My mad teenage DDR skills finally have a purpose again.

Cons

Still in early access, so some stuff (extra characters, etc.) are lacking

– Only four stages can be cleared in a short amount of time if you’re skilled

– In that same vein, eventually you’ll run out of stuff to buy in only 8-10 hours

– Isn’t on the Vita. This game screams to be a portable game. Editor’s Note: It will be soon! HOORAY!

Welcome to Just Dance: Dungeons

Editor’s Note: Crypt of the Necrodancer is no longer in Early Access. But this review was written when it was (shortly after release). Considering the bulk of the intro is a joke hinging on it being in Early Access, I have kept it in its original state. Enjoy? 

The Long


I’m gonna say a few words, and I want you to take notice of your reaction. Ready?

Indie. Roguelike. Pixel art. Early access. PC only.

If you let out a sad, tired, dejected sigh, I really don’t blame you. While indie games were obsessed with zombies and shooting with two sticks just a few years back, the success of games like The Binding of Isaac have caused a shift into these permadeath, run-based roguelikes with “retro pixel art, man! Just like when we were kids!” There’s so many I can’t even start to name them off (Risk of Rain, Rogue Legacy, Hammerwatch, Dungeons of Dredmore, to just spout the first few that come to my mind), and they’ve quickly begun to run out of ideas. While I agree Rogue was a classic and all (also an X-Man…or X-Woman, whatever), do we really need to keep mimicking it? Most gregarious in my mind are the ones that just straight up are the grid based, turn based thing without really mixing it up a lot. I’ll cut Dungeons of Dredmore some slack because I secretly like (and am awful) at it, but the style is identical to what has been made a hundred times before. Why doesn’t somebody like actually do something creative with this? Like…add funky disco beats? And dancing skeletons? And a genuine mix-up to the entire way we play these grid based, turn-dependent style of game?

Oh hey, Crypt of the Necrodancer, how you doin? You…you what? You’re everything I ever wanted in a roguelike? You’re a rhythm game disguised as a roguelike with actually good pixel art? Wait, DannyB did the music? Are you for real? You aren’t for real, right? You’re just another disappointment (like Risk of Rain…). This can’t actually be…

Oh. Oh my.

It’s time to get jiggy with it.

There’s a story in Crypt of the Necrodancer, probably because somebody told the designers they had to have one. It doesn’t really matter, but if you were curious: the main character (whose name I can’t remember nor be bothered to look up. REAL GARME JARNALRARMS HERE GUYS) is a raider of tombs, someone who enters uncharted territory, a treasure hunter not a thief or she’ll rip your lungs out kind of lady. When digging into the aptly named Crypt of the Necrodancer, the Necrodancer shows up and steals her heart! Luckily, however, he infuses it with some hot hot dubstep beats rather than just straight up eating it or something, so now she has to move with the beat or else her blood stops circulating and she dies a horrible death. I may have made the blood part up; I don’t know what happens to you biologically when your heart is magically removed by a Necrodancer. I’d guess death, but this game would say otherwise.

And here’s where the game gets tricky, so buckle up because I got some splainin’ to do.

Even the hub world is not safe from the funky fresh beats.

At its core, Crypt of the Necrodancer could be described as an old-school rogue game – read: one that is grid based and reliant on “turns,” where everything takes its action turn at the same time – hybridized with the new wave of “roguelikes” – games reliant on quick “runs” of areas, where playing more unlocks more options in dungeons but not necessarily character power ups. Everything is on a grid, and everything takes its turn at the same time. It’s very important to note here that a core element of these types of games is the fact that, if you stand still, time essentially freezes. Enemies in these games only move or act when you move or act. This means when you enter a room you have lots of time to assess the threat, figure out on the grid who will move what if you move where, and judge your attacks and movements accordingly.

It kind of super bores me, but some people like it. So whatever, it’s a free country. The Crypt of the Necrodancer guys, however, apparently thought this was boring too and injected it with 100 ml of dubstep drop awesomeness. 

These mushrooms, however, literally killed disco. I hate them.

Rather than have turns be in the player’s control (since nobody moves until you decide they do), all movement is done to the beat of the music. Meaning if you stand still, everything around you will still move on the beat as they attempt to hunt you down and brutally murder you. The beat is represented by a helpful heart on the bottom, with lines hitting it indicating the tempo, but most songs are easy enough to pick up the beat. That being said, though, there’s a boss (Donkey Kongo, or something) who has pauses and stops in his song, leaving my OCD internal metronome seething with wrath. It’s great.

The point being, not only are enemies confined to this rhythmic beat motion machine, but so are you. You are only allowed to move on (or near) the beat. If you attempt to do anything off beat, the action will cancel, and you’ll have to wait for the next beat to move again. On the flip side, moving to the beat over a prolonged segment will rake up a gold multiplier for money drops, rewarding you for paying attention during the piano lessons your mom forced you to go to as a child (thanks, mom! Now I’m godly at video games because of all that money you spent!).

Plus, if you combo then the tiles change color and it becomes a KILLER DANCE PARTY.

This may sound like a little thing, but I kid you not when I say I think this is the best thing to happen to this genre maybe since its inception. By keeping the core things that hooked people (the permadeath, item progression, tile-based actions, etc.) but forcing you to act not only on a timer, but to the beat is absurdly clever. It’s one of those “why the hell didn’t anybody thing of this before?” things that baffles and astounds me.

The actual game is fairly standard, minus a few tweaks. The game has been adjusted to keep this perpetual movement idea in mind. Enemies often project both their attacks and movement, allowing skilled players to dispatch just about any enemy without taking damage (though they have to think quickly to stay on the beat). Most enemies go down in 1-2 hits, with the exception of minibosses, which means encounters are brief, violent, and satisfying. It also means you enter PANIC MODE when something starts hitting you and you didn’t expect it, causing you try to move off the beat and making things worse. I love it.

Gold is plentiful, and you can use it in a shop that appears once per level. There are also chests scattered around the dungeon (you can buy upgrades that drop more of them at more regular intervals) for you to find. They’re well hidden, mostly because of another sort-of-new mechanic: the ability to dig through walls. Most minor walls in this game can be dug through with a shovel, while harder ones require finding or buying an upgrade. The item assortment is your usual modern roguelike type: objects that let you see through walls, torches that give you a bigger vision radius, and a plethora of weapons that dramatically change how you attack. You wouldn’t believe how helpful a little extra range can be in this game.

Red dragons can also burn in hell. Why do they hate music so much?

There’s a minor progression system outside of the actual runs. Diamonds are a secondary form of currency, and unlike gold aren’t used in the dungeons. Instead they’re spent in the hub world to add more available options as you traverse the levels (different weapon types, items, etc.). Be sure to spend them, though, as they’ll disappear if you try to do another run.

There’s a decent amount of content here for an early access game, including four worlds (each with three levels and a boss), the ability to unlock both bosses and enemies to practice on (though you can’t pick the weapon you fight them with, which kind of sucks), and two characters that I couldn’t unlock because I suck at the game. There’s a promise of more to come: more characters, items, etc., which is great, but even as it stands I think this game has enough content to validate it’s $15 asking price. What the game really needs is more floors and a ton more items to purchase; you can easily acquire the necessary diamonds to buy everything in just a few hours. Unlike Binding of Isaac, where I’m still finding and unlocking new stuff.

Point being: the gameplay is phenomenal. I am totally and absolutely sick of this genre, and this game brought me back in. It’s hard to say if it’s more music game or dungeon crawler, but I couldn’t care less. It’s one of my favorite genres mixed with one I used to love and grew tired of, resulting in me being a happy camper over here. Oh, and if you think this sounds easy because the game starts out with slower beats, think again. Stuff gets crazy fast, and when you toss one of the excellent bosses into the mix (the Chessboard boss is my favorite), you’re in for a world of hurt.

For a game so reliant on its soundtrack, it’s no surprise the soundtrack is amazing.

The game utilizes the common “pixel art” aesthetic which, if I’m being honest, I’m a bit weary of. That being said, I feel its got the more “hybrid” approach that’s been emerging these days (read: it looks like Rogue Legacy). Overall, the style works, so no complaints.

Ok now the music, on the other hand, is freaking the best thing ever. Yes, that’s hyperbolic, but that’s what you get when you grab DannyB to do your stuff. For those unaware, he wrote the absolutely excellent soundtracks for both Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, (and infinite runner Canabalt) but I might go so far as to say this is his best work. Danny always has an excellent way of fusing old, retro sounds with a more modern aesthetic, so his stuff isn’t totally throwback city (like, say Shovel Knight) but doesn’t feel weirdly modern while trying to still be old (Scott Pilgrim vs The World). The guy’s got serious chops, and his music is so good its been in my stupid phone’s playlist since I bought the game.

But the best part? If you happen to be dancing around the shopkeeper during certain sections of the song, he sings along. Not only sings along, but harmonizes! It actually makes the game better, because sometimes you’ll be wandering around and…what’s that? Off in the distance? Is that…the sound of a melodious baritone singing along? The shopkeeper must be near! According to the reddit AMA, this was Danny’s idea, and it honestly is one of my favorite parts about the game.

Lastly, you can put in your own music! The game’s software will attempt to find a beat (and it’s been pretty reliable), so if you hate yourself you can toss in some Dragonforce and play the game on Super Sonic Speed Gotta Go Fast mode. Don’t do that. It’s painful.

Things get crazy when you enter the World of Ice and Fire, Jahn Snauuooo.

I’ll admit I went into Crypt of the Necrodancer with perhaps middling expectations. I’d heard a little about it and knew DannyB did the music, but that was about it. What I didn’t expect was to get completely and entirely addicted over a several week period. Like…it was unhealthy. I didn’t do important hobby things (like update this blog…) during that time. It was that bad.

But it could be worse, because they should totally put this out on the Vita. Like, seriously guys, this is a perfect Vita game. I’d buy it again. I’d buy it twice. I’d take it everywhere and lose my job and drop out of school. Actually, maybe this isn’t the best idea.

Point being: Crypt of the Necrodancer is insanely clever. It mixes up a tired genre in just the right ways, while still making a very solid game underneath it all. It’s fun and hypnotizing and the soundtrack is amazing and I’m so good at staying on beat I am literally Scrooge McDuck cause I got so much gold, holy crap.

It’s the first game to ever make me break my Early Access Rule (The rule is: “Don’t buy Early Access”), and I don’t regret it one bit. I can’t wait for more content to show up.

Until then, I’ll keep tapping my toes and dodging dancing skeletons and funky monkeys.

Five out of five stars. 

And here’s a kickin’ tune for the road.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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