Roguelikes have blown up in recent years, but Crypt of the Necrodancer stands out thanks to its compelling mix of rhythm gameplay, dungeon crawling, and hardcore challenge. At last Necrodancer has arrived on Xbox One, and it was worth the wait.
Falling to the NecroDancer
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, instilling her with bonuses when she moves in time with the music. As Cadence defeats the boss at the end of each level, further cinematics reveal her backstory and what happened to her father.
Interestingly, the story doesn't end after completing all four zones with Cadence. Instead, beating the game for the first time just unlocks some of Cadence's relatives as playable characters. The rest of the story plays out between chapters when playing with these new heroes. This advances the story without making any one character's playthrough go on for too long.
The musical Roguelike
NecroDancer is a Roguelike, a challenging genre with several unique traits:
- Randomly generated dungeon layouts, making every playthrough unique
- Plenty of helpful and harmful items to discover
- Step-based combat (bump into enemies rather than pressing an attack button)
- Permadeath – no continues
The focus on music and rhythm sets NecroDancer apart from other Roguelikes such as Quest of Dungeons. To start with, the primary soundtrack comes from Danny B, composer for Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy, and other memorable games.
Each of the four main levels, their sub-floors, bosses, and even the shopkeeper feature Danny B's energetic and distinctive tuneage. What's more, the game offers alternate remixed soundtracks from other talented composers, including A-Rival, FamilyJules7X, Virt, and Girlfriend Records. Plus, a brand-new soundtrack from Chipzel debuts first on Xbox One. None of the remixes top the original soundtrack for me, but they still sound great and mix things up nicely.
Questing to the beat
These soundtracks actually influence the gameplay in the form of NecroDancer's rhythm component. All of the enemies in the NecroDancer's dungeon move to the beat of the music. 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 it.
Meanwhile, Cadence and most of the other playable characters reap rewards by moving to the beat as well. Killing enemies without a beat increases the combo count and coin multiplier, helping you earn money much faster.
Buying strong equipment (in addition to what you find in chests) really improves your chance of survival, so you'll want to try to maintain your combo when possible. Some equipment gives bonuses based on the combo multiplier, and one coveted pair of boots prevents the multiplier from dropping when you miss a beat.
The rhythm element certainly creates a learning curve, but it's not actually essential to constantly match the beat with most characters. Learning how the enemies move is more important, and that comes with practice. You also have the option of playing as the Bard from the outset. He doesn't need to match the beat to maintain his combo, and enemies simply move when he moves rather than with the music.
I recommend starting out with Bard to get a feel for the game, and then stepping up to Cadence from there. Every character has unique starting equipment and mechanics that make them easier or harder to play. Cadence's uncle Eli can only attack with bombs, and the poor Monk dies if he picks up gold. Some of them are too hard to play for their own good, but only Achievement hunters really need to beat the game with everyone.
Items and upgrades
Like Rogue Legacy and other Roguelikes, NecroDancer is quite challenging at the outset. You're likely to die well before reaching the fourth floor boss of the first zone. Although you can't continue from where you left off, things do get a little easier each run – provided you find enough diamonds.
Each floor has two or more diamonds to find, with later zones offering more diamonds per floor. Sometimes they sit out in the open; other times our heroes must dig through the walls to find them. Digging often leads to secret chambers and items, so it's a good habit anyway.
After dying, you'll return to the lobby – NecroDancer's hub world. There you can spend diamonds on items and upgrades. You don't get to just use those items, though. They simply get added to the pool of things that will appear in chests and at shops during each run. Finding better equipment makes the game a lot easier though, so keep on collecting diamonds until you've unlocked everything. Unspent gems are lost upon starting 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. If you've killed enough enemies and/or kept your multiplier up, you should be able to buy some of his wares.
Modes and multiplayer
During the initial phase of the game, your goal is simply to beat each of the four main zones independently. Once you reach Zone 2, you can start there at will with that character. Thus you'll eventually clear all four zones, using diamonds to unlock plenty of equipment along the way.
In All Zones mode, you've got to make it through all four zones on a single life. Die and your next run starts at Zone 1. The key to success here is picking up good equipment in the first few floors of that first zone – especially a weapon or item with healing properties. It can take a few (or many) tries to find that strong equipment before the difficulty ramps up, but stick with it and you'll succeed in the end.
NecroDancer also supports local co-op play, allowing two players to hop around on the same screen together. Co-op makes things easier, in that players can team up against enemies. Reaching a new floor after a partner has fallen will revive him or her too. You share gold but not bombs or equipment, so rationing the items your team finds adds to the challenge. One strong player can carry the other though, so don't hesitate to bring along a friend or significant other.
Finally, the Daily Challenge mode tasks you with completing all four zones in one run. The catch is that if you fail, you have to wait until the next day to try again. It's easy to mess up early in a run, making that restriction more annoying than beneficial.
The Xbox One version of Crypt of the NecroDancer contains 37 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. Every character has an All Zones Mode Achievement, adding up to a great many playthroughs in total. A couple of characters are extremely difficult to play, making their Achievements nearly impossible for mere mortals.
On the plus side, a few Achievements can be easily earned by inputting specific codes for All Zones (Seeded) Mode, a variation that sends you to specific levels instead of random ones. But I wouldn't count on earning every single Achievement in this one – only the most dedicated players will get there.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is one of the best (and at times, one of the hardest) Roguelikes around. The excellent pixel art, multitude of great soundtracks, unique gameplay, and wealth of characters, modes, and items to unlock make for an extremely robust package. The standard price of $14.99 is quite a deal for the countless hours of content found within these musical dungeons.
The only thing holding NecroDancer back from being a perfect game is the difficulty of playing as some characters. But don't let the difficulty dissuade you – rhythm role-playing games simply don't get any better than this.
- Lots of great soundtracks
- A totally unique combination of rhythm and role-playing
- Loads of characters and items to unlock
- A few characters like Aria are too challenging to play as.
- The Daily Challenge mode could be a lot better.
- Upon completing a run, the replay feature shows an old run instead of the one you just completed. This appears to be a bug.
Xbox One review copy provided by the developer.