Independent games are a frequent sight in this age of gaming. As we’ve seen, they’ve quickly become just as highlighted in media as the triple-A titles, and we’re no strangers to enjoying these titles. Back in 2014, I bought a little game called Crypt of the NecroDancer, as it entered its Alpha stages. It had a bit going for it; a few weapons and sub-types, some armors and items, three zones with three levels each, and only one playable character. For the first time, though, I watched something incredible happen.
I watched NecroDancer evolve into a very unique, tightly-structured game with loads of content and an insurmountable amount of replayability.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is difficult to explain. It’s a top-down dungeon-crawling Rogue-lite where you can only move to the beat of the music that’s playing. At the start, you play as Cadence, who is searching for her father, trapped in the aptly-named Crypt of the NecroDancer. While digging, the ground opens beneath her and she falls from a great height, landing on a rock. While unconscious, the NecroDancer finds her and casts a curse on her heart, making it only beat to the music.
Gameplay is simple; you can move in the four cardinal directions, up, down, left, and right, and using spells and items is as easy as pressing the indicated combination. However, there’s a heart at the bottom of the screen; your heart, of course. This indicates the beat of the music, and the only way to move in this game is by moving to the beat. Simple enough, right?
Enemies also move to the beat of the music, but they follow specific patterns. For instance, Green Slimes stay still, but Blue Slimes will alternate moving up and down every 2nd beat. Every enemy has patterns and once you figure out how to defeat each one, it becomes easier.
The levels are randomly generated; meaning that no one level is the same as the last. Each level follows similar intricacies; small rooms that are blocked off, usually containing loot, gimmicks that are specific to those zones, and loads of grooving enemies to pound down with your own rhythm. Each level also has similarly themed tunes, but more on that later.
While dancing around the dungeons, you’ll come across things like diamonds and variously colored chests. The diamonds are kept for after you die or if you clear a zone. These diamonds can be used to unlock new gear and upgrades; things like weapons and armor, or more heart containers. This gear can be obtained from their respective chests after purchasing them, and can drastically change your gameplay approach once they roll your way.
Every zone has three levels and a boss room. The bosses, in particular, are randomly chosen to be your boss for that zone. It can be anything from a chess board (with properly moving pieces, I might add), to a boss based on the Conga where you have to stop moving when the music does (Conga line included). Before you hit those bosses, you have three randomly chosen mini-bosses that you have to defeat in order to go to the next level; enemies like dragons, minotaurs, and giant bats will await you on every floor.
Enemies drop Gold, which you can use in multiple ways. Firstly, you can buy useful gear and items from a Merchant, who happily sings away to the level’s music, giving you a hint of where he is. You can also use Gold at various shrines and portal rooms. Portal rooms are found under already-cracked walls; simply break them and you can access them. These rooms contain shrines or random shop tiles (the tile icons resemble the gear you can potentially get) that require Gold to use.
Cadence isn’t the only victim of the NecroDancer’s curse; not in the slightest. Along with Cadence, you have nine other characters to play as, each with different play-styles that you must adapt to. For instance, Dove is a pacifist; you don’t deal any damage to enemies, but the floor is always open. Or Monk, where touching money kills you. Each one is unique and adds so much variety to a game like this.
There are also Lobby merchants you can save in various dungeons, which grant access to things like “boss practice” or “weapon practice.” You start off with saving the first three characters, which allow you to purchase gear with your diamonds.
In the Lobby, you can access other things, including “All Zones Mode,” which makes you go through every zone in a row without interruption. As you beat a zone, you unlock the next in line, and you can tackle these individually. There are also Daily Challenges and leaderboards, and a level editor, for those who want to create their own zones.
As for the controls, well…you can use literally any controller you want. I’m serious, Guitar Hero controllers, Rock Band drum sets, that slippery USB DDR pad that has been collecting dust in your closet for 10 years, anything. There’s even a Dance Pad Mode you can play that makes it slightly easier, if you choose to play with a DDR pad. Personally, I used an Xbox 360 controller, and it worked like a charm; a beautiful, delay-free charm.
I did find that the difficulty ramped up rather quickly, though. It’s nothing you can’t handle, but I found that my successes, at least in Zone 3, depended purely on my luck through loot than actual skill. That’s not to say that everything else the game does is beautifully done. This is a game that combines two unlikely genres and makes it blend wonderfully.
The graphics feature well-designed pixel-art, at least if you were to look at it from that freeze-frame. In real-time, however, the game is outright pleasant to look at. Consistent, well-animated, and vibrant. Each unique enemy has a special animation that, although only a few frames long, gives the enemy a special personality. In the darkness of the dungeon floor, their eyes glow, and the hints of a mimic is obviously their movement to the beat as you approach them.
Items are easily discernible from one another, you can tell what a trap is at first glance, and everything in-between blends so well. One thing I personally would have wanted is just a little more detail in the graphics. Sure, they’re fine as it is; in fact, as it stands right now, it could hold very well on its own. However, just a little extra would have made this sprite-work all the more special.
Oh, my god, such beautiful music. The music is composed by the one and only Danny Baranowsky (of Super Meat Boy popularity). However, when the game left Early Access, it added not one, but two more composers. Baranowsky, of course, still composes the main soundtrack, but now you can choose between a Metal remix (known as Aria’s Ascent by FamilyJules7x), or an EDM remix (known as the Melody Mixes, by A_Rival) of the entire soundtrack. These two versions can be freely switched with Baranowsky’s original on any of the characters through the “Change Soundtrack” menu. If you choose to keep the soundtracks default, Cadence uses the original soundtrack, Aria uses the metal soundtrack, and Melody uses the EDM soundtrack.
The sound effects themselves are basic and well-designed for their use, but in a rhythm game, the music deserves the spotlight as much as the gameplay. Oh, and I forgot to mention: You can create a custom playlist, using your own music. So if you want to listen to Zones 3 and 4 with the OST, but you really want to rock Live and Learn from Sonic Adventure 2 for Level 1-3, you can do just that; there’s no restriction, and it’s awesome. I can safely say that Crypt of the NecroDancer’s OST is my soundtrack of the year.