This Early Access game is not complete and may or may not change further. If you are not excited to play this game in its current state, then you should wait to see if the game progresses further in development.
Dungeon crawlers are often great fun, but few bring anything new to the table. Diablo, Dungeon Siege, Torchlight, etc. are all fantastic to play but do very little to push beyond the formula created with the original Gauntlet back in 1985. There may be more RPG mechanics and story, but the premise is still the same: you kill things until you reach the end of the dungeon. Magicka tried something different with its spell system and silly co-op shenanigans, but it didn’t quite work, instead its unnecessarily complexity and hardcore difficulty alienated many. And so, Emberheart Games’ Courier of the Crypts enters the dank depths with its Early Access release on Steam.
The titular courier awakes from a nightmare (in which he’s sacrificed on an altar, by the way, for reasons that will be made clearer as you progress) and is tasked with delivering a letter to the guardian of the nearby crypt. This can only go well, right? Shortly after arriving he’s given a special torch and, through an unfortunate ‘accident’, finds himself trapped in an underground labyrinth. Its 2D visuals do a wonderful job, the pixel art dungeons looking dank and uninviting, but its colourful Courier with his messy blonde mane helps to keep things charming. Very reminiscent of the excellent Hammerwatch.
There are two things that separate Courier of the Crypts from your average dungeon crawler: the torch and, especially different in this particular genre, much less focus on combat. Fighting is possible, by throwing stones found dotted around the levels, along with explosive oil urns, but they’re limited. This adds a layer of strategy to monster encounters, deciding whether to attack and use up precious ammo or skirt around threats. These threats sometimes respond to the light from your torch, with spiders only attacking in the dark (although arachnophobes will be pleased to hear that spiders can be replaced with scarab beetles, with a handy filter in the options menu) allowing you to move around them.
Another layer of strategy comes from the decaying of the torch’s light. Its meter slowly drains over time, but it can be doused to save fuel at the expense of becoming a beacon for nearby enemies – not forgetting the pitch darkness, though that may have been obvious. Not that the torch flame offers much visibility anyway, its light radius is far too small to be of any use in the darkest areas, leading you right into the path of enemies and although spiders won’t actively chase you, they will attack if you get too close. Monsters aren’t the only threat in the darkness either, with spike traps and arrow launchers aiming to end your attempts to escape the crypts. An additional threat looms over you indefinitely, waiting for your flame to burn out completely. In longer levels it really does keep you on your toes as you search for items or checkpoints to refill your light meter.
Some levels break up the dungeon crawling with puzzles, usually involving stepping on stones in order to light them in a specific pattern. This is hardly new but it does make for some interesting moments, especially when you’re tasked with negotiating a labyrinthine library that shuffles its shelves around behind you, as you search for clues. This kind of design is where Courier of the Crypts shines, but it relies a little too heavily on avoiding monsters instead of clever level design. That’s not to say that its level design is poor, quite the opposite, as its levels are sometimes vast, encompassing many floors and backtracking to open those locked doors you passed earlier. Each stage offers relics to discover and hard-to-find secret sections for monetary bonuses, all with the aim of increasing your score for the level. Though it seems that is only for show at the moment, perhaps with the eventual aim to bring in Steam Leaderboard support in the future.
The bonus gold isn’t just for show however, with the opening of a crypt shop. Of course, our hero is too honest to steal from an unmanned shop (assuming you don’t count the skeleton of the shop’s previous owner, sitting lifeless in the corner) so he will only take items he can afford and leave the money on the counter. These items decrease the rate at which your light meter drains, increase your life by one heart or allow you to throw items further, all of which are helpful in your quest to not meet a grisly end.
And meet a grisly end you will, for Courier of the Crypts is not an easy game. Starting with just three hearts of health, three hits means death and it’s just unavoidable sometimes. Be it due to misjudging a trap’s timing as you hurriedly scamper for the exit; finding yourself cornered by a ravenous monster; or simply running out of light and meeting the game’s biggest threat so far; death will inevitably greet you at some point during your adventure.
Due to its Early Access status, the game isn’t complete and so only offers a portion of its levels at present. This means that you only get a glimpse of the story full story, but it’s an intriguing one as it develops. It’s also a tricky one to gauge, with its mix of dark subject matter including sacrifice, ghosts and demons, mixing with a subtle humour that conjures memories of Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper.
With around ten full levels available at present, Courier of the Crypts offers around two hours’ gameplay, not including replaying levels for completionists aiming to find all the secrets and relics within each level. If that doesn’t seem like much right now, there’s a large update planned for March that is due to include new areas and levels, new weapons and a selection of devious-sounding monsters to challenge the way you play. All of these things point to a bright future for Emberheart Games’ debut title.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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