Hardcore roguelike traditionalists may find a lot to like in Necropolis, which goes heavy on atmosphere with its spooky, retro-flavored environs and even heavier on tense combat with the threat of permadeath looming overhead. But there isn’t much beneath the surface. While Necropolis compels you to explore the underworld for a few hours, shallow design and frustration eventually make you eager to find that exit back to the surface.
Everything here emphasizes simplicity. Instead of creating a character, you get male and female rogues with slightly different looks and colors (and eerie glowing eyes beneath cowls) and the option of heading into the dungeon alone or with up to three buddies. Instead of diving into the usual fantasy-flavored epic saga, you presented with a straightforward objective: “here’s the Necropolis built by the Archmage Abraxis–try to get out of it alive.” The Necropolis is packed with procedural yet generic dungeon levels populated by a sparse roster of enemies that drop a limited amount of loot.
Necropolis’ visuals evoke the early days of 3D back in the mid-90s. The emphasis is on the big polygons and sharp edges that dominated gaming 20 years ago, when imagination was still required to bring settings like this to life. Some of this actually tips over the edge into the surreal and even a little spooky, with numerous odd touches. The audio is an eerie collection of piano plinks, horror-movie orchestral and techno surges like something out of a midnight fright film. Sound also includes distinctive, unsettling monster screams, plus the rumblings of a bizarre dungeon narrator called the Brazen Head, who comments on your life-and-death struggles like a game-show host.
Some of this old-school approach works. The graphics and sound are especially effective, giving the game a shot of nostalgia that seems appropriate for such an ancient genre. Dungeon chambers and corridors feature gloomy shadows, neon light effects, and even a few sci-fi touches–such as the pyramid robots that patrol the corridors, collecting loot and blowing up in your face. The look evokes Dungeons & Dragons by way of Tron. Even the flimsy storyline kind of works, thanks to the sarcastic Brazen Head. You always get the sense that nobody is taking the proceedings all that seriously, which works well in an arcade roguelike that’s more about clocking high scores than role-playing.
But at times, the game is unrelentingly traditional, slavishly sticking to old-school difficulty. Necropolis is extreme and unforgiving–permadeath is the default setting, not an option. Die here, and you go all the way back to the entrance and start over. The one saving grace is that you can get into a groove after the first couple of hours and come to grips with both the combat system and the way that crafting allows you to load up on health-replenishing food and potions that buff your combat skills. The game is always brutal, but at least it gives you a fighting chance to survive for a while as long as you’re smart and don’t rush heedlessly into combat.
Disappointingly, new weapons, armor, potions, arcane codexes, and the like are offered up with no identification at all. Even when you get to know the game’s limited stock of goodies and gear or use a scroll to identify this stuff, you still get nothing to tell you what they actually do beyond vague one-line descriptions. One type of sword, for instance, is described as “better to wield in combat than a rabbit”. A codex called “Berzerking: Get That Party Started” is summed up with “Is hit. Is other hit. Soon, all hit. Much good.” Nothing comes with labeled stats, either, aside from a single digit denoting the level of the item in question. That means trial-and-error experimentation is almost always required when you want to discover if an item is something you want to use, or leave with the corpse of the bad guy who handed it off with his dying groan.
Battles are always intense, due to the specter of permadeath hanging over the entire game. Monster mobs increase with every level as you venture farther down into the dungeon. Enemy types may not be that varied, but the game provides plenty of skeletons, spectral thugs, robotic knights, and giant spiders to deal with, and they respawn freely enough that you always have to watch your back. Combat mechanics afford the easy and free-flowing ability to attack, dodge, and block. You can also chain combos together and hold a button to charge attacks. When you have a bit of breathing room, you can pull off satisfying whirling dervish-style sword assaults and Thor-like slams into the ground.
But battles can also spin out of control. Because of the way you push forward with every sword thrust, it’s all too easy to accidently go through or sidestep an enemy and end up behind them–which rewards your foe with a free shot or three before you can reposition. This can be bad news in heavy mob scenes, where a single mistake like this can get you killed very quickly. The camera also gets in the way. Move close to walls, and both your character and the enemies are instantly obscured, making you a sitting duck. All of these issues seem noticeably harder to manage with the default keyboard-and-mouse controls. Be sure to plug in a gamepad if you have one, since it makes combat a little easier to handle and the camera easier to manage with the help of the right stick.
Necropolis feels like a missed opportunity. Even though the game offers intense combat and an appealingly bizarre setting, there are just too many problems and limitations for it to hold your interest for very long. While the challenge inherent in the core roguelike formula adeptly applied here is enough all on its own to draw you in for multiple runs, you’ll eventually tap out due to the weight of the grueling difficulty and repetition.