Impressions: Crypt of the Necrodancer

By Alec Meer on July 30th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Crypt of the Necrodancer blends roguelikes with rhythm action, neatly makes that wild concept work, and is out on Early Access today. I’ve been dipping my twitching toes in and out of it for the last couple of weeks.

I’ve long been aware of my own challenging relationship with rhythm – although I did take a certain pride in people moving away from my frenzied, unpredictable whirling in clubs – but struggling to cope with even Crypt of the Necrodancer’s sound latency calibration tool was a blow. I stared at the blinking icons and listened to the test tone I couldn’t seem to predict, gripped by professional terror. Somehow I’d decided it was a great idea to write about a game based on rhythm. Now, excuses rushes through my brain. “I damaged both my index fingers while making a sandwich.” “My middle ear blew because my baby screamed too loud.” “It turns out I’m allergic to the word ‘crypt.”

None were needed. That calibration test was no harbinger of doom after all. I lost myself to the rhythm, to the broadswords and to disco skellingtons. Sometimes I even managed to move in time with the beat.

In a big way, Crypt of the Necrodancer’s elevator pitch says all that need be said about it. It’s a rhythm-action roguelike. You dance through a dungeon, you dance into combat, you even dance into shops to exchange gold for weapons and armour from a singing shopkeeper. The challenge Necrodancer always had was to live up to that pitch. Thank Moroder, it really does.

To move up, you tap up in time with the beat. To attack a Green Blob, you tap in its direction in time with the beat. To buy a golden dagger, you tap towards it in time with the beat. You tap. In time. With the… Beat. It feels good. It sounds good. Everything bounces, and the floor lights up in alternating coloured chequers like a movie-eye view of a 70s NYC club.

My redemption came not so much from growing familiar with the songs (though you can add custom MP3s instead) or simply clicking into the groove after early stumbles, but from finding that getting better at the game is as much a matter of learning the game’s rules, creatures and abilities as it is moving fingers or feet to the beat.

Stuff like knowing that, if you don’t stab it first, you’ll end up with a monkey on your back and will need to clobber it four times before you can fight anything else. Stuff like knowing that a broadsword will attack diagonally. Stuff like oh God no don’t touch that whatever you do. Stuff like “do not panic if a massive green dragon appears, because actually all you need to do is hold your nerve for a few seconds.”

Dance dance dungeoneering or no (and, indeed, evident Zelda visual cues or no), Necrodancer’s true inspiration is Spelunky. Derek Yu’s precision dungeon-runner is very much the game designer’s game in terms of its raft of clear but unyielding rules, rewarding those who practice patience and observation. Necrodancer might be a little bit more of a party animal (it’s certainly made with having an audience in mind – this is chasing the Twitch crowd, though it’s not visibly compromised itself to do so) but I haven’t seen anything in it so far that doesn’t have a bloody good reason to be there.

Every enemy behaves slightly differently, every one-shot spell requires experience with it if it’s to have any kind of effect, and even most pieces of scenery require knowledge or appropriate tools. This isn’t Big Barry’s Wheels Of Steel – this is a DJ who’s actively studied how to fill a dancefloor. Even to the point, as I experienced, that the most self-conscious two-left-feeters can’t help but throw a shape or six.

I would say that it’s less naturally, or at least less stealthily, doing what it does than Spelunky did. It’s a little too easy to imagine someone saying “we have to include x and y, or look like z, because that’s what the kids expect” but I wouldn’t say that it tumbles into outright cynicism. Daft, deft little touches like the aforementioned sonorously yodelling shopkeepers or floor switches that temporarily double the tempo weave into a game that genuinely seems to be enjoying itself.

It has some great, great music too. I’d expected to be immediately plugging in my own tunes, but the official soundtrack fits so well –both in terms of pressing my buttons and making me press the game’s buttons correctly – that it would be a shame to. There’s a great deal of commercial science in Nerodancer’s bouncing bones, but it’s tempered by clear joyfulness.

As for plugging in other music, it is my sad duty to report that attempting to repeat the Great Kate Bush / Audiosurf War Of 2007 is not going to be successful. This requires DISCO. Or something with a big, brash beat, at least. If Audiosurf was a game to enhance music-listening, Necrodancer is about using music to enhance game-playing. Use it with the songs that make you dance, and I am quite sure you’ll play it better as a result.

Crypt of the Necrodancer is out on Early Access now, and to be honest I suspect it could have gotten away with being a full release (albeit with content patches to follow). It’s in good, sturdy shape, it’s slick and it lives up to its sky-high concept. I like it a lot. I like it enough that I’m going to do a self-shaming follow-up piece about playing it with a dance mat very soon.

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24 Comments »

  1. SuddenSight says:

    The strict adherence to the beat really gets to me more than any other rhythm game I’ve played. I am now typing to the beat.

  2. Hodge says:

    I’m going to do a self-shaming follow-up piece about playing it with a dance mat very soon.

    I look forward to watching the videos.

  3. thristhart says:

    I am playing this with a dance mat. It is so very fun and so very very exhausting. Something about the decision-making involved in the process makes it tire me much faster than DDR does, in a good way.

  4. Reapy says:

    Really cool concept, saw this set up at PAX East with a DDR pad too which is a cool idea. I’ve always likened really great actionish games as having their own heartbeat that you have to learn to slip into and move with. The great ones let you manipulate that beat with half steps and ill timing around that beat when playing other people, so I was always waiting for some sort of musical shooter that would read your MP3 collection and you’d play to rhythm of that. I never thought of trying to slip a rouge-like/rpg into the format and this is really awesome.

    I haven’t played it yet, but I imagine it would be really cool to have some items/monsters/special attacks that would respond to half steps and 1/8th beats and things like that, cause if anything DDR and rockband has tought me about rhythm games is that it is really fun to accelerate and slow down around the core beat at particular times.

    The best would be that the game could accelerate as the pace of the music and intensity increases, so as you hit the end of a song and they have more mixed beats in there, the APM demand and intensity of the in game battle increases with it, would lead to a really nice feel I would think.

  5. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Alec, are we talking Elaine Benes bad dancing? If so, can’t wait for the videos.

    The game looks amazing, and I’m glad to hear that good rhythm isn’t required, as I too can’t hear the beat.

  6. golem09 says:

    Been playing this in alpha since may, and it’s my GOTY 2014 so far. And considering that everything else has been delayed til 2015, it just might stay that way.

    I’m a big fan of rythm based games and so far I have not played any game that uses your own mp3s so well. It’s pure MAGIC.Finding out enemy move patterns is a lot of fun, as is trying out the weapons.
    And of course trying out your own songs. My absolute favourites so far:

    Jamiroquai – All songs
    Jamiroquai – Little L, Dynamite
    Justice – D.A.N.C.E
    Estelle – American Boy
    Daft Punk – One More Time
    Phoenix – Everything is Everything, Long Distance Call
    Movits – Äppelknyckarjazz
    Blondie – Call Me

    Also, I think the most perfect input method for this are the 4 center buttons of a good arcade fight stick.

    Everybody should play this.

    • Wedge says:

      I was just using someone’s fight stick that had LED’s rigged to light up when you hit a button. Would be amazing for this game. But I figure my cherry mx blue microswitch arcade stick buttons would do nicely as well.

    • grom.5 says:

      I didn’t play it, but for the music, I think I can recommend some

      The whole OST of Electronic Super Joy
      The whole OST of Hotline Miami (except some which make you want to kill random peoples)
      The whole OST of Shatter

      and one that I discovered with the Sunday Paper : Chromeo.

      I am pretty sure it will be a blast. And if not, it’s still good music to discover.

  7. MkMax says:

    Ive been wanting to play this since i saw it a few months ago during one of those indie fund raisers at Twitch.tv, it took longer than i expected

    … but that early access … i can not support it… ill have to keep waiting

    • Jalan says:

      Same, I have no interest in paying for it while it’s in Early Access. I desperately want Danny B. to put his music up for sale on his own site though, since Steam treats it like DLC that requires the base game.

    • Sourman says:

      I’m in the same boat. Everything I read and see on twitch about this game makes me want it, but the whole early acess thing doesn’t sit right with me… I’m so conflicted right now.

      Want to start a support group?

    • SuddenSight says:

      If you can bring yourself to accept the earlier access, this is a good game to jump for. There are still some obvious place holder animations, and some planned features haven’t been implemented yet, but the core game is there and it is fun and high quality.

      However, if you really can’t stand the idea of earlier access the game itself will probably be along soonish anyway, and with all the extra polish one would expect of a real game release.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      Why, exactly? It seems kind of dumb to refuse to play a game that you know you’ll like and you know is in playable condition out of some muddy intellectual stand against pre-ordering.

      • MkMax says:

        its not this game in particular, i do not support the concept of charging the highest price for an unfinished game which might or not be playable/finished without any schedule, any assurance that it will be finished one day, that it wont be abandoned and that it wont be suddenly turned into a different game

        i see where “gaming” is going and i do not like it, i will not support it with my money, too many things are going early access, too few are leaving it, early access games are regularly showing up in bundles and 75% off sales already, im putting my foot down now when we can still stop it

      • Nevard says:

        I don’t think Early Access is ultimately good for either consumers or developers, while there are a couple of success stories they don’t really make up most of the picture. It’s a dangerous trend and I don’t want to support it with my money.

  8. DragonDai says:

    I have been following this game for what seems like forever. And I have to say, the soundtrack alone is enough to make me want to play. The game looks amazing, exciting, and downright fun, but dat soundtrack…oh dat soundtrack.

  9. LTK says:

    I’ve had a hankering for a new dungeon crawler for a while so I really want to get this game sooner rather than later, Early Access or no.

  10. electron105 says:

    Thank Moroder, it really does.

    I like you :)

  11. FluffYeti says:

    I’ve had the alpha for some time now, and the only real glitchiness has come with custom music. With every patch, the music needs to be reset to default and custom tracks rechosen, or weirdness of the drops-you-through-all-the-floors-to-your-doom variety happens. Otherwise, it’s an extremely polished game.

    Also, there is a perverse joy in pushing a console game mix track–”Around the World vs. Bust a Move” from the DJ Hero soundtrack–into a PC game as a custom track. It’s been my favorite song to play in every rhythm game thus far.

  12. Perjoss says:

    Quite looking forward to trying this out with some tunes from Anamanaguchi, once I’m bored of the ingame music of course!

  13. Nevard says:

    I really don’t want to buy this game in early access for fear of burning out before it is content complete, but I am sorely tempted :(

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