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My fingers hurt as I type this, but the pain is worth it.
I’ve finally beaten Crypt of the NecroDancer — for the first time, at least. It wasn’t easy, mostly because I think the rhythm-action/roguelike hybrid hates me. That’s the impression I got, anyway, as it kicked my butt repeatedly this week.
Luckily, the hate only runs one way, and I managed to smile and laugh through most of the pain, as I died again and again from a combination of overwhelming odds and tiny errors. And after 20-odd hours of trying and retrying, learning enemy patterns, and fiddling with custom soundtracks, I’ve emerged semi-victorious.
It’s been one of my gaming highlights of the year.
What you’ll like
It’s a great, original idea
Crypt of the NecroDancer offers something fresh. Its combination of roguelike adventure and rhythm-action is something I’ve not seen before, and it works great.
Sure, it borrows ideas from a ton of role-playing and action games, but NecroDancer flips everything on its head with a playing mechanism that’s more Dance Dance Revolution than The Legend of Zelda.
When things go well, it feels amazing
You use the four arrow keys — or a dance mat if you’ve got one — to control everything. Training three fingers to unleash attacks, cast spells, and evade enemies is tough going at first, but things do start to click and you’ll soon wonder why you can’t control every game with just one hand.
I found Crypt of the NecroDancer really hard at first, and I got seriously frustrated with bumbling into enemies and dying within seconds. But when things started going right — often after the game was uncharacteristically generous with its pick-ups — it felt great. Clearing a room full of monsters with a few rhythmic taps of the arrow keys is an immensely satisfying feeling.
So many options
Crypt of the NecroDancer packs a whole lot of content into what initially looks like a tiny package. Despite having just four basic zones and a selection of minibosses and bosses that you’ll see again and again, it delivers different ways to play that’ll keep you coming back for more.
So far, I’ve unlocked seven out of 10 characters, all of which force you to play NecroDancer differently. The pacifist Dove turns Crypt into a giant maze game as you avoid enemies and head straight to the exits. Monk, on the other hand, has taken a vow of poverty and dies if he touches gold. Given that nearly every enemy drops gold, this makes you rethink everything you’ve previously learned as you pick your way through the golden minefield created by fallen foes.
On top of the four main zones — whose gameplay and cut-scenes essentially form the story — Crypt of the NecroDancer gives you training modes, a daily challenge, a local co-op option, and an easy-to-use level editor. Oh, and the modding community is already messing around with it, too. When games so often hold back content to sell separately, it’s great to see NecroDancer being so generous — although maybe that generosity is just so it can spend more time killing you.
Crypt of the NecroDancer’s soundtrack is great. But if you get tired of it, you can always play along to your own tunes.
From the custom soundtrack menu, you can select an MP3 file for each level and each boss, and Crypt identifies the beat to gamify it. It a cool way of keeping things fresh, and it’s also a cunning way of manipulating the gameplay.
Picking a slower, longer song for tricky levels definitely gives you an edge. I played the entire last zone — minus the boss battles — to Laura Mvula’s “Can’t Live With the World.” It slowed the game down perfectly to a pace my ageing reflexes could cope with, although it still required absolute concentration and a whole lot of attempts for me to finally find success.
What you won’t like
It’s really damn tough
I’m all for hard games, but Crypt of the NecroDancer sometimes felt like it was actually trying to kill me. It took me over an hour and a half to beat the first of the game’s four main zones. When you consider each run lasted between about twenty seconds and ten minutes, that’s a whole lot of attempts. And that was the easy level.
Sure, you can memorize the patterns of each enemy, but one mistake often means that you’re dead. And when you’re trying to keep your movements and attacks in time with a tune, with hordes of monsters closing in on you, it’s tough to keep the beat and even tougher to stay alive.
I kept going back for more, but I’m sure not everyone will have the same level of patience.
I ran out of stuff to buy
Like most roguelike games, Crypt of the NecroDancer is built around collecting gear. You’ll find spears, whips, armor, spells, flying boots, and more in its randomly generated levels.
It has a few permanent unlocks, though, and that means diminishing returns as you tackle its four zones again and again. After the first few hours, I didn’t bother about collecting diamonds — the only currency you can bring back to the game lobby — as I’d bought pretty much everything I wanted.
That just left me to hope I’d come across the items I needed as I played, with my failure or success often defined by a lucky pick-up or two.
At one point I had 24 diamonds in hand and nothing I wanted to spend them on, so I just dived back in the game and lost them.
I’ve been in a bit of a gaming funk recently, but Crypt of the NecroDancer has reminded me how creative, original, and fun video games can be. I’ve switched it off at 2 a.m. more than once this week, forcing myself to break from a dangerously addictive “one more go” loop as I tried in vain to beat the damn thing.
It’s an eminently replayable experience that offers up a whole range of different ways to play, some of which will force you to completely rewire your brain.
I know we’re only in April, but Crypt of the NecroDancer is already on my shortlist for game of the year.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is out now for PC, Mac, and Linux. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a download code for this review.
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