Imagine a work of art that miraculously came to life and for some unknown reason decided to go visit From Software, its creator taking game development courses from the industry's favourite sadist, Hidetaka Miyazaki. With a few new tricks up his sleeve, our artist went home to his workshop where, after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, he coded Necropolis. At least, that's the story we like to tell ourselves. The big question though: does it end up being a masterpiece?
The first thing that greeted us when we started Necropolis was a bass heavy and garbled voice. In a weird language the voice spat out some words that were quite confusing. It mentioned something about some books, dropped a name, and muttered something about our goal. The impulse to shrug and click it all away crept up on us quickly. Suddenly we were thrown into a grey greenish room, sword in one hand, shield in the other. Besides a simple control scheme that's presented in its entirety right at the start, developer Harebrained Schemes has chosen to entirely skip the part where they hold the player's hand. There and then it felt liberating not having to suffer through a long and boring tutorial, however, after a solitary hour spent playing we felt that the studio had perhaps gone a bit too far in terms of lack of guidance.
After receiving a bunch of mini missions from the aforementioned voice, our journey began for real. The adventure took us from one grey greenish hall to another. Our highly iterative odyssey took us into yet another grey greenish hall, which in turn led to another. These grey greenish halls and hallways are infested with some terrifying monsters that show up randomly and are eager to stamp us a one way ticket to the depths of Hades. Lucky we had that sword and shield, then.
Among other things the combat reminds us of the Dark Souls series. The mechanics are naturally not even close to being as polished and well designed as they are in From Software's torture sims, but one could easily see that Harebrained Schemes has ogled the well known Souls formula once of twice for inspiration. The swinging and parrying feels slow as syrup and demands some consideration before the deed is done, or else it's easy to drain the blue stamina bar and then suddenly your just standing there with your pants down, that one way ticket firmly in hand.
And when we say "one way ticket" we really mean it. Because if you die in Necropolis, you're really dead. This roguelite will have you starting over again and again á la old school gaming. As if that wasn't enough there aren't any checkpoints, there's no chapter from which you can start again (a trick to soften the difficulty that we've been seeing increasingly in the roguelike realm of late), and certainly no item you can use to revive yourself. If you die, you start from scratch. Add the merciless difficulty on top of that and you'll find a game that will push you to the limit. In short, if you don't like frustratingly hard games, Necropolis is not going to be your cup of tea.
When you die everything resets to its starting position. You lose the items you've collected, you lose your weapons, your recipes ... everything. Well, almost everything. The "lite" part of it being roguelite means that there are actually two progression elements that stay with you into the next attempt. One thing is skill points, which you get by completing missions, and the second thing is codexes (which you get by spending your skill points). You can't have more than one activated at any one time, and what they do varies widely. One of them can, for instance, reduce your stamina gauge when you parry, while another can halve your fall damage.
At least, that's what we think they do. We're not actually exactly sure. Sound confusing? That's because it is. It's here that the lack of guidance is particularly evident. Each of these codexes aren't actually explained. The only thing you get is the title and a short description. The problem is that the title and description is a joke. Not a "joke" in a negative sense, but a genuine attempt at humour. Sure, these jokes suggest roughly what a particular codex does, but keeping true to the origins of the genre, it's kept purposefully vague. This is the same across all items. Every weapon you pick up gives an indication of how good it is, however, there are no statistics showing how much damage is being dealt, what special abilities it has, or even if they're heavy or light. We found this uncertainty extremely annoying, even if understand the origins of the design.
After dying a few hundred times and having to restart the game as many times again, we began to feel quite full. The reason for this encroaching boredom was the procedurally generated level design. Each time you die and restart it generates a whole new world with brand new rooms and halls. The problem is that it quickly becomes unbearably dull. They're all reworked iterations of the exact same thing. Everything feels so incredibly flat, lifeless and... identical. Moreover, it's extremely easy to get lost in the game world. Although you can pick up crayons that you can use to mark a cross on the ground, showing that you have gone past a particular place, it didn't help all that much. Last, but certainly not least, it feels like all the rooms and the myriad of corridors rely too heavily on the same colour palette. It constantly feels like we're in a lifeless labyrinth designed by a colourblind Picasso.
Necropolis is a much more enjoyable game if you have the privilege of playing with a friend, because co-op is a thing here. If you play with a buddy or two the whole dying-and-starting-again thing is somewhat negated. The fact that your friend can revive you ensures that the chances of you not dying are much higher. Necropolis is designed to be played with friends; playing alone can be frustratingly difficult and sometimes a little boring. However, playing with your friends will reduce the difficulty significantly, to a much more moderate level. Furthermore, it should be noted that friendly fire is on, so when you swing your sword, there's a chance that you'll slice your friend to death.
As well as the cooperative mode, we really liked both the music and the audio design. On several occasions the music gave us the creeps, and the noises made by all the monsters amplified that tenfold. As soon as you go into a new hall a new type of music starts playing and far off in the distance, in some corner somewhere, you can hear the enemy breathing. It delightfully scary.
At the time of writing this, Necropolis costs about £22.99 on Steam. This feels a little expensive for what you get. Sure, it's impressive to see the game generate 3D worlds as if on a conveyor belt, and both the music and the sound design is good, but the level design is awful, it gets boring after a while, and the difficulty was hugely frustrating when played solo. Picasso might have painted a permadeath portrait of Dark Souls, but it's no classic.