Let the music play!
Once in a blue moon, an indie game comes along that's so effortlessly ingenious that you wonder how no one thought of it before. Crypt of the Necrodancer, a rhythm-based roguelike dungeon crawler, is one such game, combining retro-style graphics with precisely timed movement. I've been eyeing this indie title ever since Brace Yourself Games had a booth at PAX two years ago, replete with a metal dance pad, so I leaped at the chance to purchase the Steam Early Access build when it was available in July 2014. And despite my concern that its novelty would wear off over the course of almost a year, the final version is finally ready for release and the result is but a few heartbeats away from perfection.
It's difficult to describe Crypt of the Necrodancer in a way that is as seamless as the game itself, which blends two genres together that seem as unrelated as possible. Essentially, your task is to guide the protagonist Cadence (or your character of choice) through a series of grid-based dungeons, slaying enemies and collecting gold… all to the beat of the soundtrack. Every beat, shown by bars that converge on the pulsing heart at the bottom of the screen, allows Cadence to perform a single action whether that's moving one square, chipping away at walls like a Minecraft digger, or attacking a foe that's in range of her designated weapon. Miss a beat and you'll leave yourself open to attack and lose a coin multiplier streak. But make it through three floors and you'll face the boss, which once defeated, will lead you to the next zone.
Apart from trying to survive with a limited number of health, with heart-recovering food being quite scarce, the main challenge comes from enemy patterns. In a similar fashion to the Souls series, you will likely be thrown for a loop when encountering new threats and trying to decipher their vulnerabilities. Since Cadence only begins with a lowly dagger, you'll need to be up close and personal at the start and you can expect to die numerous times attempting to poke at skeletons, slimes, and dragons with the proper counter-patterns.
As you progress from floor to floor, zone to zone, enemy difficulty and variety become more challenging, especially the final fourth zone which has parrying soldiers, sorcerers that cause confusion status (flipping your directional movement), and a scattering of bosses from prior zones. A little luck helps as well, as levels are generated randomly; yes, there will be times when you'll open a door to a raging horde that will maim you within a few steps. On the flip side, reaching the shopkeeper early on (and bombing the walls for extra gold) can give you a broadsword or spear, extra food, a higher-quality shovel, or spells to help you out. At any rate, with time and perseverance—a lot of perseverance—you'll conquer the eponymous Necrodancer and save Clarence and her lost father from their fate.
The difficulty curve, however, could have been more even. It's not exactly surprising given that there are only four zones, but because of the randomness of the level generation and enemy placement, it can sometimes feel as though you're fighting against the roll of the dice. Spending diamonds found throughout the levels will give your character more health and a higher coin multiplayer, though the last zone is so demanding that you might unlock all of the additional items, weapons, and equipment before completing the game. Indeed, I wish there were permanent upgrades that would improve the character's starting gear so that you don't have to start out with a dagger and no armor at all.
That said, a likely reason for the sharp difficulty is to get as much mileage as possible out of the four zones. Replayability is thankfully not a problem here, with a full roster of unlockable characters that come with their own restraints, the aforementioned diamonds, local co-op, new game plus, and dance pad support (I whipped out my DDR pad from my high-school days). Since enemies move in a set pattern, the better majority of your deaths will be your fault, so it's worth playing another round to see if you can learn from your mistakes.
All of the soundtrack selections are fantastic and fit the retro styling perfectly, and as an awesome supplement, you can even use custom music for each stage with the program automatically calculating the appropriate beats per minute. In fact, for the second zone which is full of mushrooms, I chose to replace the soundtrack with “Beware the Forest Mushrooms” from Super Mario RPG for my own amusement. (Shovel Knight's soundtrack is a cool crossover too.)
Crypt of the Necrodancer joins Hand of Fate as one of the best indie titles this year whose innovation speaks load and clear, giving credence to the better side of Steam Early Access and to well-tuned, well-crafted design. Although the content feels curt and the difficulty is somewhat dependent on the luck of the draw, the game's high replayability and bit-tastic presentation will scratch that itch to play just another round. So be careful… you might just dance the night away.