The idea’s been done a million times — scuttling around a dusty dungeon, slashing skeletons and stabbing goblins. It’s a tired trope, which is why it’s amazing Crypt of the Necrodancer has managed to make it something fresh and beautiful by adding in a healthy dose of Dance Dance Revolution. The game delivers a simple premise — fight your way through the dungeon while staying on beat — and executes it excellently.
The game is a roguelike: It randomly generates levels of increasing difficulty, and dying means having to start from the beginning. A successful run normally takes under an hour, but the number of tries to get to that point more than equals a normal game’s length.
Crypt of the Necrodancer puts spelunking to a rhythm. Every hop around the dungeon’s grid needs to be on beat with the song, or else your combo (which often affects gold, damage and even health) is back to the baseline. Initially, this just sounds like a cute gimmick. However, the effect it has on the game is massive, because there’s no chance to sit and deliberate your move. In most roguelikes, enemies only move when you do. In this, enemies move every beat, so every hesitation means sitting idly.
Because there’s so little time to plan things out, the game doesn’t drown you in numbers and statistics. Every individual weapon, ring and magic spell is simple. Even the controls are streamlined: The entire game is playable with just the arrow keys (or a dance pad!). However, when you have to juggle a lot of individually simple ideas in order to avoid a harp-headed minotaur, you’re forced to think on your (still dancing) feet. Crypt of the Necrodancer’s challenges are some of the best exercises in improvisation, strategy and rhythm that gaming has to offer.
Another issue many roguelikes bump into is the lack of progress associated with permanent character death. Having to restart from the beginning is a thrilling challenge to some, but it only brings frustration for others. Crypt of the Necrodancer neatly compromises by including a progression system separate from the traditional hardcore mode. Checkpoints are provided after each boss cleared, and diamonds collected mid-run can be spent in between attempts for permanent improvements. It’s a good fit for beginners and casual players that doesn’t feel watered-down.
For a game so focused on music, it’s only appropriate that its soundtrack is face-meltingly awesome. Danny Baranowsky, known for his work on Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, has composed a masterpiece that explores chiptune, drum and bass, and hard rock with unmatched expertise. As each level matches the pace of its music, the escalating intensity of Baranowsky’s beats has a direct link to its difficulty. It’s an absolute treat for the ears.
The art style isn’t as remarkable as the soundtrack, but it puts a memorable twist on pixel art. Slimes jump and jiggle to the beat as skeletons sway their hips. More important enemies have some extra musical theming rolled into their design, such as Coral Riff, a combination of an octopus and a jazz band. It’s colorful, lighthearted and very recognizable — you’ll never confuse a goblin for a ghast, which is decidedly important for the game’s quick pace.
Every aspect of the game has a healthy amount of variety behind it. Countless weapon types, weapon materials, rings, spells, armors, boots — each category with familiar mainstays and creative twists. The bosses are especially creative, such as King Conga, who lays the beatdown on anyone who disrupts his zombie conga line. Unlockable characters force drastically different playstyles: the monk gets a free item each shop, but picking up gold means instant death.
Available on all systems for Steam, it makes the most out of the Steam Workshop, allowing for user-made graphics, sounds, and levels, not to mention custom music support. It might be Early Access — a game still under development — but it’s a worthy game as it stands now. Any additions are just frosting on the cake.
When it all comes together at once, it really is something special. Calculating how best to strike, dodge and explode swarms of enemies on a 4/4 beat takes a lot, but it’s so satisfying that it more than makes up for all the time spent dying to slimes. Crypt of the Necrodancer proves the renaissance of retro games rides on, and its continued development can only mean great things for the future.