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Wot I Think: Necropolis

Dead on arrival

Shadowrun developers Harebrained Schemes have appeared with a very different game, Necropolis [official site], a third-person action roguelite. Which was an odd choice, all things considered. Here's wot I think:

Playing Necropolis is like trying to wade through soup. Not some refreshing broth, but a lake of winter vegetable. Movement is sludgy, weapon attacks are glacial, the whole thing just soupy soupy soup.

A third-person action roguelite, your goal is to descend and explore through dungeons of enemies, gathering drops to craft and purchase, seeing how far you can get before you drown in the soupy mire. And at every stage the game seems designed to annoy with its snail pace. Enemies drop weapons, but the pop-up to tell you if it's worth swapping for what's currently in your hands takes a weird two seconds to appear. In a game that's trying to lob frantic action at you, this is inexplicable, and really boringly annoying. Even after the fights are over, you're still having to run up to each drop and stand still, wait for the pop-up, and then run to the next when it's inevitably of no use. Repeat, wait, repeat, wait, repeat, wait...

The game borrows heavily from Dark Souls (and is about as much like it as someone who borrows a book is like a library), with stamina extremely limited. This means you can't just jump and sprint and waggle your sword around like a loon: each action makes you temporarily very tired, and if you exhaust it you're useless in a fight. So you have to develop tactics around this, ways of using this tiny (but quickly recharging) pool efficiently in more voluminous confrontations, aware that bigger hits permanently deplete it until you eat or drink. Which makes the achingly phlegmatic attacks all the more frustrating. Even the so-called "quick attack" is a lumbering effort, against multiple enemies who seem to somehow be immune to soup.

Clicking on a shopkeeper character to buy items is slow. Using a lift to descend a level is slow. Closing a chest is slow. And no, I'm not in some big hurry to move on, I'm being attacked by skellingtons and weird old men. And in the game.

But in the end, it's not its lethargy that is Necropolis's undoing - it's its vacuity. It's so empty, so bereft of purpose. It seems to exist only for the sake of there being yet another roguelite hack-and-slash, rather than because inspiration or imagination had birthed its creation. Large, gloomy levels have what could have been a striking polygonal aesthetic, but end up just being procedurally generated rooms of grey triangles for the first two levels and then switch colours later on. Enemies just seem to run toward you waving weapons, until one of you is dead. There's no zing, no pep, no life.

The soupy controls are made worse by a weird angle to the movement, meaning things like circle strafing are peculiarly wrong, your character turning too much as you try. This clumsiness makes deaths feel far more due to the game's failures than your own, which is an absolutely fundamental issue in a genre that's framed around repeated deaths and the desire to try again. This is certainly not helped by the absolutely brainless decision to not let players change the controls.

Now, if you're going to make the controls unchangeable (and you never, ever should, because there is absolutely no good reason for this ever to be the case), and only possible to view in the Options rather than edit, then I dunno, perhaps just maybe don't set sprint to V. Has anyone in the history of video games ever chosen to put sprint on V? You'd have to have an extra finger between index (D) and thumb (Space) for this to even be considered an option! Completely farcical.

Where the game does try to inject its sliver of personality is via the narrator, Abraxis (who talks via subtitles - actual narration is a sort of atonal grunting sound). With such hilarity, Abraxis isn't taking this whole thing seriously at all! He can't even be bothered to finish sentences coherently, and blah blah blah. And it's a device that maybe could have worked with a fantastic voice actor and some real zingers, but instead it just seems to underline the lackadaisical tone that permeates the entire game.

Unlocked bonuses are entirely unexplained, some completely inexplicable even after you've added them to your collection. Enemy attack patterns are boring, and comparisons with Dark Souls are ridiculously unearned. It uses numbers rather than skills to defeat you, or, in oh-so hilarious moments, randomly drops something heavy on your from above that you didn't know was coming. My sides. Or indeed my behind, where you'll be attacked from so damned often.

It remains rather odd why it happened. It's a clumsy, dull, shallow, lacklustre trudge through cold soup. And fails at the most important aspect of any game in the genre: making me want to have another go.

Necropolis is out now on Windows and MacOSX via Steam, Humble and GOG for £23/$30/€28.

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