Cadence is off to search for her father at the eponymous crypt when she falls through the ground. Mortally wounded, Cadence is lying on the floor when the NecroDancer appears, stealing her heart and cursing it to eternally beat to his music. Crypt of the NecroDancer is a rhythm based top-down roguelike dungeon crawler, and if that alone doesn’t have you interested I don’t know what will.
For those unfamiliar, roguelike refers to a genre defined by procedurally generated levels and permanent death. Other modern examples include Spelunky and Binding of Isaac. Every NecroDancer run is different. From the enemies you will face, the layout of the maps, the gear you can pick up, etc., you will likely never see the same game twice. This variety has me hooked on this game in a way I haven’t been since Spelunky.
You will begin your adventure in Zone 1, with a slow beat (compared to later zones) and mostly weak enemies. Technically speaking the game is quite simple, you move and attack in the cardinal directions using the directional pad. If an enemy is within range of your weapon, you will attack in the direction you press instead of move. The twist here is that everything has to happen to the beat of the game’s impressive soundtrack. Mistakes are punished harshly and will result in your death quickly. If you miss a beat you will miss an opportunity to move, but the enemies will not. Knowing you need to perform actions at upwards of 140 beats per minute really adds tension, there’s a lot to take in all at once and you have little time to plan, relying on instinct that you will pick up as you keep playing. It’s often hectic, but always fun. When you die, it’s back to the lobby to start at the beginning of the zone.
You will be killed fast and repeatedly, but you can train against enemies through the lobby. Every adversary you meet moves according to its own rules. Skeletons move every other beat, Red Dragons blast fire when they line you up horizontally, and blue slimes move up and down one square. Each encounter can be viewed as a small puzzle, and you will learn to instinctively attack dragons vertically, attacking then retreating every other beat. A full playthrough of the game pieces these small puzzles together into something even greater than the sum of its parts.
Many enemies are unique to specific zones, leading me to search out different gear depending on where I am. The rapier is one of my favorite weapons, dealing double damages and moving you forward if you attack an enemy two squares away, but frequently ended my game in frustration in Zone 4 where I met the Blade Master. He parries your attack and leaps forward two squares to attack you. Using the rapier from a distance means you aren’t able to backpedal away from him without taking damage. These instances keep the game feeling fresh as you have to learn each zone’s intricacies.
Getting stuck on each zone for a time as I progressed reminding me of my early attempts at clearing the Jungle in Spelunky. Here, by the time I could clear Zone 1 relatively confidently, the Zone 2 monsters presented a difficulty spike that I found similarly challenging, but importantly it was never frustrating.
Players can obtain diamonds along the way, and spend them in the game’s lobby to open upgrades to assist future attempts to survive the dungeons. There is a limited amount of things you can spend diamonds on, making the diamonds irrelevant before too long.
Fun little touches are scattered throughout NecroDancer that add to the overall experience. The shopkeepers sing along with the soundtrack, which is entertaining in itself but also can tip you off on the general location of a shop. The bosses are all given pun names, like Deep Blues. On the surface you can see it references Blues music, but it’s also a battle in which you fight an entire side of a chess board. Pieces move according to the rules of chess. If the pawns make it to the bottom of the screen they will transform into queens. Take out the king and the battle is over. Deep Blue was a chess computer developed by IBM that famously defeated then-reigning world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.
The PlayStation versions include Danny Baranowski’s original soundtrack and all of the remixes from the PC version, plus two additional exclusive versions to choose from, a chiptunes style and an 80s synth style.
It’s still fun to go back to Spelunky for score runs, but after you learn the game there is a point where it’s more about the randomness of the levels you receive than your own skill. Every unlockable character there is merely a skin, playing exactly the same. I was worried that NecroDancer might suffer the same fate, but there is a plethora of options here to choose from. A co-op mode challenges two players to work together and defeat the NecroDancer together. Deathless allows players to show off how many times they can beat the game consecutively before dying. It’s neverending NecroDancer! All Characters mode has you beat the game with every character without dying, and every character plays differently. This is an extraordinary challenge in no small part to the character Aria, who begins with just one-half of a heart and will instantly die if the player misses a single beat. Another example is Eli, who possesses infinite bombs but cannot use any weapons. For anybody looking to burn some calories, Crypt of the NecroDancer supports dance pads and has a mode dedicated to it.
NecroDancer is cross-buy for PlayStation 4 and Vita. It is also compatible with PlayStation TV. The game translates well to the small screen, and with cross-save you can easily transfer your save file back and forth between devices. There can be some slowdown on the Vita and PSTV when many enemies are on the screen at the same time. This is more present in the later levels. While I never felt that this slowdown caused a death, it is undeniably noticeable and did pull me out of the experience.
The Final Say-So
I cannot possibly recommend Crypt of the NecroDancer any higher. This is a brilliant melding of genres executed to near perfection. The music bounces around in my head throughout the day, which only makes me want to sneak in a run or two on the Vita before I get a chance to play on the big screen again. A bit of luck may help or hurt a particular run, but every play is ultimately determined by my ability. This is a game that I believe will age beautifully and is something I will be able to come back to month after month and year after year. If you are interested in more footage, NecroDancer will be in the rotation over on our Twitch channel. It’s one of my favorite games, without qualifier, and I think you’ll love it too.
Crypt of the NecroDancer was reviewed on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and PlayStation TV, using a review code from Brace Yourself Games.