Review: Necropolis

A rogue-like dungeon crawler that inspires itself on Dark Souls, has a gorgeous art style, decent enemy variety and a readily available drop-in co-op mode that’s a blast to play. What could possibly go wrong, I thought to myself? Many things, it turns out.

Necropolis is the latest in a long, long series of games that have decided to slap the roguelike (or roguelite) tag on its side: it’s an action RPG where up to four players must traverse the Necropolis, a ten-story dungeon full of traps, enemies and high-ceiling, broad rooms. Each time you or, in multiplayer, your entire party dies, you lose all your progress and must start over, carrying only the dyes you’ve accumulated (strictly cosmetic), favor tokens and the codices you unlock with said tokens, which give you cryptic bonuses – they have flavor phrases from which you derive the codex’s function, but no numbers or specifics to improve your decision-making.

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Equipment in general, except mysterious scrolls and potions, should have more readily available information about how they work.

While being a roguelike actually makes sense for Necropolis, it suffers from the staggering issue that is a boring early-game. In other roguelikes, such as Nuclear Throne or Spelunky, this isn’t as much of an issue – clearing the first areas takes a few minutes – but in Necropolis, where running the entire gauntlet will take you a few hours, dying at the deeper levels and having to repeat the relatively dull and unsurprising early segments is a chore and quickly tired me. There aren’t shortcuts to unlock, either, so every playthrough you start you’ll have to go through the simple-but-long first levels.

In terms of combat, Necropolis is closer to the 3D Zelda games than the aforementioned Dark Souls: you can block, dash or strike your enemy – with heavy or light attacks, charged versions of either or a jump attack, and ranged attacks if you happen upon a weapon like a crossbow. Unfortunately, one of Necropolis’ repeating flaws pops up here – balancing – and in truth you’ll hardly ever have motive to use more than your light attack, and it’s generally better to strafe and dodge than actually block your enemies. The special attacks all drain your maximum endurance by too much to be used consistently, and considering a full endurance bar only grants you a few swings you’ll want to deplete it as slow as possible.

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For all the weapons and their special attacks, you’ll hardly ever do anything but light and heavy attacks. (I even had to take a screenshot from the Storepage because I used the special attacks so little that I didn’t have one)

The game’s other aspects are loot-gathering and exploring, and again the game seems to suffer a lack of balancing. Early on you’ll fight hordes of weak enemies, and look! items will drop that you can equip. They will, however, largely be the same – weak tier 0 weapons – and even later on, loot gathered from actual enemies is just a generic, slightly-improved version of what you are wielding. The chests, fortunately, hold better things: large great hammers and rune-inscribed longswords, alongside armor sets that change your appearance and buff your defences. Potion flasks and magical scrolls, which can go from poisoning you to casting a spell that stuns every nearby enemy, are found both on enemy bodies and chests.

You’ll also find various materials, on bodies and in chests, that you can use to craft items like potions, rations and chalk. Unlike other games where crafting is an unnecessary addition and burden, Necropolis does it right: streamlined and quick, pausing to craft something that’ll help you in your quest will take only a few seconds.

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It could’ve taken a page from Dark Souls’ book in weapon uniqueness and variety.

Aesthetically speaking, Necropolis is a treat. The low-poly visuals enhance the game world’s techno-magical aspect – this is a world where teleporting mages share a dungeon with golden automatons and glowing pylons – and fit its whimsical lore and interactions. The soundtrack also enhances the exploratory nature of the game, discreet but growing in both pace and volume as you delve deeper. I did have the impression that given what the game was rendering on my screen it underperformed, and indeed a common complaint with players seems to be that despite having decent computer setups they are having performance issues or having to lower settings beyond reason. The lack of a mini-map can often lead to unnecessary backtracking: while this might be a decision choice, like in Dark Souls, Necropolis lacks the environment uniqueness that allows Dark Souls players to quickly realize where they are, something that is only partially solved by the ‘adventurer’s chalk’ item.

It’s also clear the developers concerned themselves with not creating a bland, similar-looking dungeon throughout the ten levels: not only are there dozens of enemy types, with variation within each group, but the floors suffer drastic changes, going from high-tech dungeon floors that reminded me of Skyward Sword to dark swamps. This sits aside a full-blown cheek-in-tongue, not-ashamed-to-be-crass humor: every interaction has a quip or joke, and while they might seem silly I enjoyed not having to go through overtly serious and grim sequences, although I understand the prevalence of said humor isn’t something everyone will enjoy.

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Quips abound. Seriously, they’re everywhere.

Unfortunately, the merit of a roguelike lies in how much incentive it gives you to play it time and again. Look at the average hours played of Tales of Maj’Eyal or Enter the Gungeon and you’ll quickly notice that these are games to be played a lot. After a while with Necropolis, I can’t claim that, as it stands, I will be returning to the game often, and this is due to a myriad of issues. Aside from the previously mentioned loot and repetition issues, the AI is poor – they’ll target a single person and hound him without regard to who else is in the room, creating the famous MMORPG kite-train that’s really disappointing to see in an aRPG -, the weapons don’t feel different enough and by jove, the repetitiveness of the game is glaring when you play it solo.

Opposed to that is the fact that you can ignore many of the issues when playing in co-op. Dungeons are sprawling, so there’s incentive for each member to explore different areas – significantly trimming down the tedium of the early stages – and the ubiquitous friendly-fire, something both you and monsters are subject to, means you’ll have to play things safer than usual or laugh it off when you accidentally (or purposefully, depending on who you’re playing with) chop a friend of yours down. It could, however, make use of greater difficulty scaling, as co-op – with its revival option – takes out the fatality of death in single-player.

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Not only is this how it’s meant to be played, it’s probably the only way you’ll manage to play this for longer sessions.

It’s unfortunate that Necropolis does so many things slightly wrong in a game that had so many things to be great – I did have fun with it, after all. That it manages to be entertaining with friends despite its flaws is merit of otherwise solid groundwork, which deserved better, more solid structures built atop it instead of what it got. As this is from the same developers who went from a mediocre cRPG, Shadowrun Returns, to a couple of the best role-playing games I’ve ever played, I hope they take in the players’ feedback and spend a while improving the game and balancing it – as it stands, it’s as if Necropolis has several minor things, alongside a couple of major ones, tipping the scale towards the negative side. This is a game I can only strictly recommend if you’ll have friends to play with, preferably with some sort of voice-chat, as I felt the single-player had very limited longevity.

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