You’re tapping the arrow keys along with the beat, avoiding one trap and blowing up another with a bomb. A couple of skeletons shamble toward you, but you know how they move, so dispatching them with your spear is no problem. The floor lights up like a disco hall in celebration of your kill streak, and as you get closer to this floor’s shop, you can hear the shopkeeper singing along with the music. You start tapping your feet, feeling the rhythm of the song…
Then you let your guard down, taking a hit from a ghost that should have been easily avoidable. Now you’ve got a ghost on one side and a bat on another, both ready to strike. You have to keep moving with the music, so you have no time to think about what you did wrong or how to recover from it. You move the wrong way, taking another hit–your last. You kick yourself for losing all that gold and all those items, but you restart the game, hoping to do better next time.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is a turn-based adventure that tosses you into a series of randomly generated floors, usually with no more than a basic weapon with which to defend yourself. Moving one space at a time around the grid that makes up each crypt floor, you’ll bump into enemies (sometimes literally, as you attack simply by moving in an enemy’s direction), find secrets under walls, and collect items from various chests, ideally getting stronger and stronger along the way. The catch is that you have to do all this in time with the floor’s music–and if the song ends, you move deeper into the floor whether you’re ready or not.
You won’t level up by killing enemies, but the equipment you find or buy with gold can make you practically god-like. Say, for instance, that you fight your way through a few basic enemies and collect the gold they drop upon death. Among the shop’s randomized inventory on this floor is an extra heart container, allowing you to take a couple more hits before death. Paired with a suit of armor you find in a nearby chest, suddenly you can take (and then dish out) a lot more damage. This equipment is invaluable while it lasts, but it disappears if you die, forcing you to start fresh for your next attempt
In other games of this ilk, moving around on the grid would be a slow and cerebral affair in which every move is carefully considered. Here, though, each floor is also tied to a song, and you can only move from space to space in time to the beat of that song. Furthermore, the enemies don’t just move when you do; they move along with the beat. Miss a beat in the song? The monster headed toward you will not. You have to always be moving, always thinking on your feet.
Not all enemy units move the same way you do, either. Some skip over spaces or move diagonally on the grid. Imagine you’re playing a very fast-paced game of chess where you only control a single king piece and your move clock lasts about a second every turn. All the other units on the grid could have various tricks to their movement, often leaving you vulnerable.
Fortunately, you can acquire new weapons in the crypt to give yourself an edge, such as a broadsword that attacks three spaces at once or a crossbow that can shoot enemies at a distance. It would be wise to learn how all the different weapons work, as you usually won’t have a choice in what weapon you wield. You’ll just have to make use of what you find.
When you get a monster’s movement down and can maneuver around it in time with the song, combat can start to feel like a dance. “Forward, forward, back, forward, slash, dodge, slash…” It takes the concept of tapping your fingers to a beat to a whole new level, especially combined with a fantastic soundtrack featuring music you naturally want to tap along to.
The controls feel like they were built with a dance pad in mind–appropriate, since there is an easier difficulty mode where you can play the entire game with a dance pad accessory if you choose. Every action is mapped to a direction or combination of directions, giving the game a strong Dance Dance Revolution vibe. When using a keyboard, this means that you can play with one hand, but certain aspects of the controls can be awkward, especially at first. Bombs, for example, can be dropped by pressing down and left at the same time. Items, on the other hand, can be used with up and left.
Imagine you’re playing a very fast-paced game of chess where you only control a single king piece and your move clock lasts about a second every turn.
If you get those two button combinations mixed up in the heat of the moment, you’re going to have a bad time. Furthermore, if your finger slips and you only hit one of the buttons instead of two, you can very easily lose your coin multiplier–or worse. You could always assign these combos to dedicated buttons, though doing so can diminish the DDR feel of only using directional buttons.
You can expect to die quite a bit in Crypt of the NecroDancer, and while it’s easy to feel as if the game is stacking the deck against you by not giving you any useful item drops, you’ll soon get better at staying alive with practice. Losing progress when you die is a bummer, but like the best of songs, Crypt of the NecroDancer is still pretty good on repeat.
While you drop the majority of your items upon death, not quite all is lost. The game is broken up into four “zones,” and unless you’re attempting to get through them all at once, you’re allowed to start from any zone you’ve reached with your selected character. Within in the crypt, you can also find diamonds, which are the only item that will stay with you after you die. These can be used to buy a few permanent upgrades for your character (including more starting health) as well as unlock items and equipment (such as new spells, new variations of weapons, etc.) that can then show up in chests and shops the next time you play. These unlocks give a good sense of permanent progression as you play, though you can buy all the items relatively quickly. I purchased all of them long before I was finished playing through the game, making diamonds feel somewhat useless on later runs.
That’s not to say that there isn’t stuff to keep you coming back to Crypt of the NecroDancer after you’ve discovered all its items, though. There are a bunch of other characters you can unlock and play as, each with unique twists that force you to play in different ways (with one character, for example, you get free items from shops, but picking up money kills you). There are also daily challenges and Steam Workshop support for mods.
If you’re feeling a particular beat, you can also import your own music to play along with, which works well. It doesn’t change the actual content of the game, just the rhythm at which you play it. “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars, for instances, is playable but kind of slow, while the DC Talk hit “Jesus Is Just Alright” leads to more upbeat and faster exploring. Regardless of your musical tastes, Crypt of the NecroDancer takes a proven but basic recipe and improves it with a seemingly simple twist. It would have been a fine roguelike game without its musical side, but the rhythm mechanic makes it a truly special experience.