The two disparate styles of game that have come together to form Crypt Of The NecroDancer, billed as a rhythm-based roguelike, have at least one thing in common: inaccessibility. Roguelikes feature randomized mazes full of monsters and traps, occasional helpful collectibles, and the promise of quick, permanent death that forces you to restart from the beginning each time you bite the dust. They reward skill but punish errors assiduously, making them satisfying for the dedicated but impenetrable for the uninitiated. Rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero can be similarly inscrutable challenges without the player getting familiar with their music or atypical controllers. Worse, you might be like me and have no sense of rhythm.
As the product of these two genres, Crypt Of The NecroDancer sounds like it would be a hard game to broach. It manages, however, to lovingly meld the two styles while avoiding that pitfall. By combining two frequently intimidating styles, Crypt Of The NecroDancer is able to transcend the limitations of both.
In Crypt Of the NecroDancer, you play as Cadence, the daughter of a missing treasure hunter. She digs her way into the aforementioned crypt and meets the NecroDancer, who steals her heart and sends her into his labyrinth. All of this is told during the game’s introduction through sparse, playfully dramatic narration by Cadence herself, a touch that places the game’s tone somewhere between comedy and horror. While you’re navigating the labyrinth, Cadence’s heart appears on the bottom of the screen, beating in time to the background music. It helps to keep time and is a constant visual reminder that in NecroDancer, sound is king. Listen to the music, and you might make it out alive.
NecroDancer takes the general structure of a classic roguelike and sets the whole thing to the music, turning its pixelated dungeons into grimy dance floors. Every action, from inventory management to moving to attacking, should be done to the beat. The enemies also move on the beat in telegraphed dance-based patterns that give you the information needed to waltz in and out of danger. When those skeletons put their hands in the air like they just don’t care, they’re about to attack. Watch out for the golem; when he stops shimmying, things are about to go down.
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This is as demanding as it sounds, but NecroDancer implements ideas from each of its parent genres in ways that respond to and ease the other’s least accessible qualities. To the rhythm game, NecroDancer offers structure and direction. Instead of relying on rote memorization and a perfectionist need to always stay on tempo, à la Dance Dance Revolution, keeping time is just a means of interacting with the dungeon and engaging in combat. Your moves are reactive and contextual: using items, opening chests, fighting baddies. And while the game punishes you for failing to keep tempo, it will never kill you outright. Staying on beat gives a higher coin multiplier, which helps provide funds for useful power ups, and lights up the floor in crypt-appropriate strobe lights. Pausing or missing a couple of notes will only ever make the party slow down, not kill it completely.
And to the roguelike, the rhythm side provides a welcome simplicity. All the controls are designed to be playable on a dance pad—which you can use to play if you’ve got a PC-compatible one—and so every action is a matter of pressing the arrow keys or their equivalent. If you’re next to an enemy, you can press the arrow in their direction to attack, and items are used by pressing two keys at once. The constant rhythm provides a simple, singular hook that drives the whole game. In moments where I felt overwhelmed by the enemies on-screen and the dark labyrinth before me, I could simply focus on the music—moving and attacking when the game told me to. It almost feels like a trick, a distraction to ease you past the high difficulty and temporarily forget your short path toward death.
A fantastic soundtrack fuels the interplay between music and adventuring. The score was provided by Danny Baranowsky, who also composed for Super Meat Boy, The Binding Of Isaac, and Canabalt, among others. His work in NecroDancer is melodic and full of an energy that encourages quick, kinetic play. There’s also an alternative metal version of the soundtrack, and the game lets you swap out any of its tracks for songs from your own library, which finally let me fulfill my dream of clubbing ogres to death while listening to The National. This feature can also be used to alter the difficulty of some stages a bit, as the game tracks the tempo of whatever song you use and adjusts the speed of the levels accordingly.
No amount of song switching can keep Crypt Of The NecroDancer from being a challenge, though. It requires careful, attentive play and won’t hesitate to punish you for not giving it what it wants. It remains a loving relative to its ultra-hard brethren like Spelunky and The Binding Of Isaac, even as it departs from them in form. But unlike its kin, NecroDancer’s style and songs encouraged me to try again every time I failed. The music is so catchy, and it feels so good to follow—why not? That’s the ultimate result of NecroDancer’s genre experimentation: an invitation. An invitation to strap on your dancin’ shoes, let the beat seep into the hole where your heart used to be, and follow the siren sound deeper and deeper into the dark.
Crypt Of The NecroDancer
Developer: Brace Yourself Games
Publisher: Brace Yourself Games
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC