Crypt of the NecroDancer

The concept of action gameplay governed by rhythm mechanics always seemed like something that should work and was just waiting for someone to come along and iron out the specifics of its implementation. That someone turned out to be Ryan Clark, founder of Brace Yourself Games, and the mad genius behind Crypt of the NecroDancer. Clark’s solution replaces the turn-based structure of the classic roguelike with the pulse of a rhythm game, while including the more humane design of the roguelike’s modern incarnations. This combination makes Crypt of the NecroDancer a brilliant reimagining of nearly every fantasy RPG standard, from combat to status effects. But the way its metronomic pace permeates every aspect of its design is what makes the experience irresistibly addictive, exquisitely challenging, and likely one of the best games of the year.

What makes the mix of action and rhythm such a no-brainer is that most well-designed hardcore combat systems are already about getting into a groove with your surroundings, learning enemy tells and timing blocks, dodges, and attacks accordingly. It’s just that usually they’re not explicitly synced to the soundtrack, and certainly not synced so thoroughly. In Crypt of the NecroDancer, characters can only move and attack on the beat, and events that are normally timed are instead measured in beats. Moving and attacking are consolidated into one command, so much of the challenge involves not moving onto the same spot an enemy will be advancing to on the next beat. Enemy behaviour is always governed by consistent patterns based on their type and is always announced with hinting animations, so skilled fighters can predict their opponents’ next moves and literally dance circles around them.

It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint what about this system is so compelling. Part of it is that the player interaction is never allowed to stop. Consistently hitting the beat with commands builds a multiplier that improves collected combat earnings (which are vital for survival), and depending on the player’s equipment, can actually make them more powerful, so players are strongly encouraged to stick to the rhythm. As a result, the player is constantly being engaged, even in times with no danger. Novelty is also a huge factor. There’s never been a game like this before, which makes it inherently interesting to delve into, but it didn’t just introduce a new mechanic and call it a day. The game continues to build on its core gameplay, delivering fresh twists and uses for its rhythm mechanics right up until its final moments.

One of the first such uses players will discover are traps that screw with the music’s tempo – a clever obstacle that simply wouldn’t be possible in any other game. One enemy type mutes the soundtrack, forcing players to rely on visual cues and habitual rhythm to continue. Deeper levels accelerate the bpm of the soundtrack, requiring heightened reaction time for all actions. Every time you think you have the gameplay figured out, you’re thrown another curveball; the final two bosses are particularly memorable for this reason. Even divorced from the rhythm mechanics, the sheer variety of enemy types (all of which have different movement patterns and combat abilities) is impressive. Many of them have interesting tricks of their own, too, like parrying initial attacks and leaving hazardous terrain in their wake.

Unlike many roguelikes, where extreme difficulty is what eventually convinces players to stop bothering, the challenge offered by Crypt of the NecroDancer may be the thing that keeps people coming back to it. The game was specifically designed as a fair alternative to the normally chance-reliant genre, and, surprisingly, it succeeded. Crypt of the NecroDancer is possibly the most fair roguelike in existence. That probably sounds like massively faint praise, but since heartless die rolls have always been the genre’s Achilles’ heel, it’s a huge point in the game’s favour. The vast majority of my deaths happened because I did something wrong, not because a random number generator refused to give me good equipment. There’s even a reasonable difficulty curve; the campaign is divided into multilevel “zones”, removing the need to reach the final boss in a single playthrough after a long cycle of failure and rebirth.

There are still random elements, of course, but the game nullifies their potentially frustrating impact in a number of ways. For one, the number of obstacles and power-ups, as well as the broad layout of each zone floor, remain consistent with each playthrough, preventing situations where only positive or negative events are spawned. There’s also no definitive ultimate equipment – almost every item has positive and negative qualities compared to others of its type. Furthermore, the zones’ relatively small sizes mean that the player’s rare undeserved death won’t result in too much lost progress. Hidden areas and shrines are less agreeable mechanics, however. They usually involve exchanging one resource for another, but their risk/reward scale is weighted heavily toward risk. Similarly, while the unlockable characters can be interesting, most of them are merely absurd challenge modes piled onto an already difficult game.

Strangely, despite the stated design goal of fair challenge for players, Crypt of the NecroDancer seems most inspired by two of the most egregious examples of the unforgiving roguelike: Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac. The ability to explore for treasure using bombs and an upgradeable shovel, the forced advancement to deeper levels after a time limit, and the shopkeepers that become lethal enemies when attacked – that’s all pure Spelunky. Additionally, the Zelda-flavoured level design and ability to blow up shrines for related power-ups will feel oddly familiar to fans of The Binding of Isaac. The game even shares its inspirations’ oddball sense of humour. It’s not on The Binding of Isaac’s disgustingly, offensively hilarious level, but it is suitably weird for a game about combat dancing. To give an idea of the kind of silliness you’re in for, one of the bosses is an octopus with musical instruments for tentacles named Coral Riff.

Ironically, all of this makes the inclusion of a serious narrative one of the game’s strangest aspects. In it, a young woman named Cadence descends into the titular crypt in search of her missing father, only to unravel the history of her family in the process. If that sounds out of place in a game with a villain called the NecroDancer, that’s because it absolutely is. Yet I think the game is actually better for its inclusion; the unorthodox character progression provides an interesting structure, and more importantly, the story actually justifies the rhythm gameplay. No, seriously. It’s an incredibly flimsy justification, but someone actually came up with an in-universe reason why everything in the gameplay, including the very flow of time, is progressed with dance steps. And that is awesome.

As for features the game actually needed, a good soundtrack was at the top of the list, and it was absolutely delivered courtesy of Danny Baranowsky, of (fittingly) The Binding of Isaac fame. His compositions provide a consistently danceable beat underlying sometimes-epic, always-catchy riffs from a variety of electronic instruments. The occasional use of syncopated melodies at first seems at odds with the gameplay, but the possibility of that being an intentional part of the challenge makes it more forgivable. The non-musical sound design is also great, except for the highly unnecessary voice acting, which sounds like it was recorded using a headset mic. The game is also excellent visually, with flashy pixel art and the kind of expressive animations needed for gameplay based on predicting enemy actions. Since players are able to turn off most potentially distracting graphical effects (like the multicoloured floor), the worst thing that can be said about the visuals is that the cutscenes are a little bland.

The final interesting thing about Crypt of the NecroDancer is its control scheme. Because the player attacks and moves at the same time, the game is completely controlled using the arrow keys. Any additional actions (using items, spells, or bombs) are performed by pressing two arrow keys simultaneously (which won’t move the character, it’ll just perform the other action). It’s unfortunately easy to forget which combination does what, and to activate one of them accidentally, but the streamlining involved keeps the game relatively accessible despite its intense difficulty. It also allows the game to be played with a USB dance pad, in what is likely the product’s most ridiculously unnecessary feature. The runner-up for that title is the local co-op mode, which really doesn’t add anything special to the experience; it’s just the same game with a second player, which is...neat, I guess.

I can see where the co-op and dance pad features came from, at least. The entire game is essentially built out of unthinkable ideas, so once the main game is finished, might as well throw on some extras and see what sticks. The operative phrase there, however, was “once the main game is finished”; unlike other games that try to shoehorn as many half-baked mechanics as possible into their running time, Crypt of the NecroDancer never loses sight of the elements at its core that make it engaging. It’s got a delightfully original genre combination, balanced yet intense difficulty, and deep gameplay achieved through easily grasped mechanics. It also contains shopkeepers that sing along to the background music in an operatic baritone, so really, what else could you want?