The words ‘rhythm action game’ might initially conjure up thoughts of PaRappa the Rapper, Elite Beat Agents or more recently the Guitar Hero franchise. However whereas those games simply involve matching your button presses to the instructions scrolling across or up the screen, in Crypt of the NecroDancer the rhythm aspect involves moving to the beat of the music through a roguelike dungeon-crawler. This might be starting to sound quite taxing but in reality it’s brilliantly simple.
A brief introductory cinematic sets the scene as heroine Cadence ventures into a crypt to find her missing father, only to have her heart literally stolen by the villainous NecroDancer. This initiates your quest to progress through four zones (each consisting of four levels) to take back your heart and rescue your father. Each 2D level is procedurally generated and looks like a typical dungeon complete with monsters and treasure, all presented as bright and blocky sprites.
However the star of the show, and key to how the game is played, is the brilliant synth-soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky. The tracks range from dance and disco to pop and funk but the thing they all in common is a strong beat, and all enemies only move in time to this beat. Your own movement also needs to the beat as well as each successful move increases your coin multiplier, while missing a beat reduces the multiplier to zero (and could see you killed by an enemy). A beating heart at the bottom of the screen also helpfully gives a visual cue to when you should be moving, but it soon becomes intuitive and you’ll be able to succeed just by listening.
Controls are fairly basic with just four directional buttons (on keyboard or gamepad) to navigate across the grid-based levels. Even attacking enemies is done by attempting to move into the space they occupy, although there some further complication are introduced by having to press combinations of directions in order to use items or spells. This doesn’t work quite as well, but it is possible to re-map these special moves which improves the experience somewhat.
Gameplay then becomes a sort of dance as you move through the crypt at a steady pace, dodging around the enemies who all have their own movement patterns which similarly rely on the beat of the music. The aim of each level is to collect as much treasure as possible and get to the exit before the music track ends, at which point you’ll be able to spend some of your treasure on equipment and upgrades. If you die you’ll have to restart from the lobby area with your treasure gone, apart from any collected diamonds which can be spent on permanent upgrades and unlocks so even if you die regularly you’ll start to make some progress.
And death will happen – quite a lot in fact. Although the action starts off quite forgiving later levels become more challenging and the music tracks have progressively faster tempos. At later areas I often found myself at the stage where I didn’t feel I would ever be good enough to triumph, but it rarely became frustrating. Gameplay never feels unfair and dying is never too much of an inconvenience as you can launch yourself back in again straight away.
It helps that everything about the game feels so polished and well-thought out, right down to the singing shopkeeper whose catchy warbling is always in time to the music. It’s also possible to import your own MP3s if you ever fancy a change from the soundtrack (although that’s unlikely) and brilliantly there’s an option to play the game with a dance mat as your controller – I never managed to try this mode out but I can imagine it would be exhausting (but fun).
Longevity is also guaranteed with a large amount of unlockable features and an ever-expanding roster of selectable characters. The main lobby area also has numerous options that allow you to jump straight into different zones, undergo daily challenges, compete for high scores and practice against enemies and boss characters. And although the game is clearly focused on the music and control scheme the story is more than just window-dressing as you discover more about Cadence and the history of her family.
Rather than just being a gimmick, the beat-based gameplay works fantastically and has essentially created a new sub-genre of game. I fully expect to see the format imitated by more games in the future but I doubt many will ever be as entertaining and enjoyable as Crypt of the NecroDancer.
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