Review: Crypt of the NecroDancer

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Crypt of the NecroDancer has ruined my life. I hear its catchy tunes in my head while I eat. I tap out the rhythm of dungeons in my car. And my children keep asking me what that funky song I’m humming all the time is. I can’t stop thinking about this game, despite the fact it is deceptively hard and I may never actually get past Zone 3. So let me tell you why you should suffer the same fate.

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In classic roguelike tradition, Crypt is an adventure through randomly-generated dungeons with randomly-generated loot to find and use on randomly-generated monsters. It’s all laid out in a pleasing grid of pixel art, controlled solely with the arrow keys. Special items are used by pressing two directions at once, and attacks are as simple as pushing towards an enemy in range. Unlike other roguelikes, there’s no random element to attacks. Everything has a set number of hearts, and if you hit it (or it hits you), you take the prescribed amount of damage. Monsters have set patterns to their attacks, meaning there are really no surprises to combat.

The catch here is that everything is set to the music, and you have to move on the beat. Enemies won’t wait for your turn, either, because they’re jamming to the same rhythm. Miss a beat and you effectively lose your turn. This single addition turns this otherwise simple, predictable game into one of intense concentration and quick thinking. You need to be moving or attacking with every beat, and if you’re focusing on keeping cadence you’re not focusing on strategy. Fortunately the game is designed with this in mind, offering a robust tutorial, multiple practice modes, and even a second character unlocked from the start that can ignore the beat. There are four zones to conquer, each containing three levels and a boss. Beating the previous one unlocks the next, allowing you to skip ahead. You can also collect diamonds to purchase upgrades and new items to add to the random pool.

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There’s a terrible secret behind this welcoming facade, though. All of this is essentially an elaborate, extended tutorial for All Zones mode, which challenges you to beat all four zones in order, starting with the full item pool unlocked but no upgrades to your character. This is the proper roguelike mode for the game, and it is incredibly difficult to get through. Missed beats and damaging mistakes mount up fast enough to make beating individual zones a challenge, and starting essentially from scratch means your strategies have to be second nature. Unless the rhythm is in your blood, mastering Crypt is going to take a lot of time and a lot of practice.

Don’t let that dissuade you from trying the game, of course. There’s plenty to see and do even if you never touch All Zones mode. The many characters to unlock play like entirely different games, and you can access quite a few just by playing the individual zones. As expected from a rhythm-based game, the soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal and is sure to get permanently stuck in your head. Even if you keep getting mauled by mambo’ing skeletons, you’re sure to come back for more. I really may never get past Zone 3 but I’m having too much fun to stop now.

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