Necropolis: Brutal Edition is the updated version of the initial release of Necropolis, which is Harebrained Schemes' follow-up to their excellent series of Shadowrun games that many of us know and love. Unlike those turn-based RPG's, Necropolis is a third-person hack'n'slash rogue-lite with permadeath and a sense of humor fit for old-school LucasArts' point-and-clicks.
With Samurai Jack-like graphics that avoid the use of black lines, HBS' unique entry in the procedurally-generated loot genre also has strategic fighting that relies on stamina management over button mashing.
The story in Necropolis: Brutal Edition is never really fleshed out, and what is there is constantly changing with every play-through (okay, with every death). I suggest here, however, that this is a good thing, and gives the game a chance to let its excellent humor shine through.
The basic gist of the story is that you're a fighter tasked with helping a floating gold pyramid cleanse the monster-filled Necropolis for, uh . . . reasons.
Like Tower of Guns, starting up a new game will give you a new story intro each time, presented through red lettering on a black screen. Each one, like most of the written material in the game, starts with an epic-sounding bit of lore and is followed by a funny quip that changes the mood immediately and effectively. There are self-referential jokes about the game and gaming, your deaths, and other surprising subjects. I never got bored of them, and I've yet to run out of new ones that make me cackle.
Example: when approaching a door leading to a quest, the Brazen Head (the floating gold pyramid that tells you what to do) generally says something like: "These tasks, you shall do for me!" Once, though, he said this:
"Hey, go in there. I wanna see what happens to you."
I laughed, and a minute later was cut down by a walking shark.
Most hack'n'slash games follow one of two routes when developing their combat: either they are fast and smooth as settled water–think Tecmo's Musou games–or they are slow and deliberate–think Demon's Souls or the timing-based combat of The Cursed Crusade. Necropolis: Brutal Edition's combat falls into the second category, which may be a surprise to those who've only watched footage or looked at screenshots of the game.
The good news is that the combat works, and it works well. The bad news is that you're going to feel slow as a one-footed duck until you get used to it. Your attacks, dodges, and sprints consume your stamina bar, and you'll find that bar to be fairly small. This adds an element of strategy that is welcome, though it means you'll be confused as to why your character stops swinging mid-rampage when you've stupidly rushed into a mass of foes (just like I did).
Mastering the stamina bar is essential to success in Necropolis: Brutal Edition, and while it's tough to master, it's doubly satisfying when you pull off the right number of attacks, then leap away to safety with your last bit of steam before an enemy cuts you down. There's a shield to block, too, though I found myself rarely using it, as dodging away to recoup stamina seemed more effective.
Another major thing to be aware of is the hunger effect. Eating food replenishes health, as do some potions, but not eating (as well as using the charge attacks described below) will shorten your available stamina. This means you'll need to refresh yourself with items in order to again utilize the whole bar. You'll see this hampered stamina effect through a section of the stamina bar growing dark, as well as through a printed Gauntlet throwback message that says "You need food badly."
The controls are strangely reversed on the gamepad from most hack'n'slash titles; instead of the face buttons triggering attacks or blocking, the shoulder buttons are used for that (L1/L2 for blocking/shield bash, and R1/R2 for light attack and heavy attack). The face buttons are then relegated to item usage, interactions, and dodge-roll, and targeting is done by clicking the right joystick button (R3). Playing too many hack'n'slashes prior to N:BE means that I constantly swung instead of targeted, jumped instead of swung, and used items instead of brought up the menu. As for the light and heavy attacks, you can hold either down and charge it up for a big combo attack a la Zelda: A Link to the Past, though it's important to remember this lessens your usable stamina.
That said, I eventually got used to the button layout, and it's perfectly solid, though muscle-memory still causes an occasional slip-up. Your character–there are two choices, a massive slow Brute and a weaker faster Blackguard, both optionally male or female–is responsive, and deaths are your own fault. The enemies, many of which scream like harpies, act uniquely from each other–some leap in and out of attack range, and others charge wildly into your sword. Their designs are varied enough, as well, and you'll find new ones just when you get used to the old.
The level design is good, and I didn't find myself caught on any corners, or mistakenly trapped in some of the tighter spaces. There are large randomized elements, which you'll see details on in the Rogue-Lite Elements section below.
You can have two weapons and two shields (one of each equipped at a time,) and swapping between them is as easy as a D-Pad press. You can exchange them for items at your feet by holding Triangle, and you'll want to try ever special weapon you find, as they have different effects when you attack (and especially during your charged attacks.) Different weapons will also deal different damage to different types of enemies, so having two distinctly differing weapons is smart.
Any hack'n'slash or rogue-lite game isn't much without a comprehensive loot system, and the one present in Necropolis: Brutal Edition is both large enough to be good, and a bit smaller than competitors. I've definitely been spoiled by crazy loot randomizers, like those in NeuroVoider (check my review here), but Harebrained Schemes decided to go with functionality over quantity, and it works. You aren't going to come up with a weapon so absurdly useless as to be pointless in N:BE, as you'll sometimes get in Borderlands, though this also means that you'll find those special pieces of equipment less often (in an effort to extend a number of unique playthroughs, I imagine).
Another benefit of having designed equipment rather than randomly generated stuff is the descriptions. Each item has a "Tier", the higher the better, and a description, which gives a short but entertaining paragraph on it. This info will also let you know if the item is "Mundane," meaning a dime a dozen and not worth keeping. You start with Tier 0 goods and can equip armor (a helm,) weapons, and shields. There is no comparison tool showing you different damages or effects of equipment, so it's a trial and error system. You'll usually find higher Tier loot only from trunks, or from the tiny scavenger creatures that show up after battles.
Your consumable item inventory is limited, and your food rots (unless you craft "Iron" food), and you'll vomit away the benefits of eating if you wait too long to consume a piece of food. There's also a crafting system, and you'll pick up crafting goods (like bone, or scraps of flesh) to make consumable items and potions; keep in mind, though, that you'll have to purchase the recipe for these, first.
In addition to items and equipment, loot will (mostly) consist of gems, which allow you to purchase goods from the hub's vendor, as well as from the potion turkey (exactly what it sounds like) that will pop out of certain loot trunks. This is a good way to get potions, consumables, and recipes, as you'll end up with a surplus of gems not long in.
Completing quest objectives, which the Brazen Head gives you at the onset of a level, also grants you tokens. These can be used to purchase relics from the hub vendor that will grant passive benefits (less food needed, etc.) What's more, these are not lost on death and can be swapped freely at the vendor (as you can only have one equipped at a time).
Necropolis: Brutal Edition isn't a true Rogue-like, as it isn't at all a clone of the classic Unix-based game Rogue, but takes the randomization elements and permadeath concept from it. Permadeath is real in N:BE–die, and back to the start, you go–but you do get perks that carry into all future playthroughs. These are the codexes that you unlock (as described above), as well as new pigments. These pigments are cosmetic changes to the colors of your character's garbs, and can only be set at the beginning of a new playthrough. While they're not useful gameplay-wise, there are a ton to unlock, and helps give the incentive to go one more time.
The draw of a good Rogue-like or Rogue-lite is it's re-playability, as the randomized factors change the game on every new time start. N:BE has randomized levels, though each is comprised of set pre-designed areas. This is a good way to prevent bad level design, and it works great. The downside is, you'll get familiar with certain places when those pre-designed bits show up again and again. The chests, items received, and enemies are also randomized, however, so I didn't have a problem with the repeated sections.
The only downside Necropolis: Brutal Edition suffers from as a rogue-lite, is the fact that it takes a little too long to get back into the action after you die. Rather than kicking you back to the character select screen, and then dropping you at the entrance of the hub world (which it currently does), I'd love to see an option upon death that lets you go right back to the hub of a newly generated level with the same base character (sort of a "try again" option). This would allow you to skip the character select and tutorial screen altogether. Harebrained Schemes has been great at taking suggestions and continually improving Necropolis, so perhaps that's going to come around someday.
graphics and sound
The art design and animation is beautiful, sort of like Journey as set in The Forgotten Realms. The colors are muted overall, but that makes the splashes of color (such as the ice from freezing attacks, or the glowing crystal cracks in the ground) stand out all the more. The use of sharp angles in place of smooth curves was smart, as it keeps the look minimalistic, yet meticulous (take a look at your character's cape folds, in particular!)
The sound is fine, but perhaps a bit underutilized. The enemies' screams are generally similar or the same, and the swells of occasional battle music aren't out of place, but neither do they dazzle. They do their job but don't stand out to the level that the art direction attains.
Overall, I really enjoy Necropolis: Brutal Edition. The learning curve regarding the controls, and the slightly too-long time between dying and starting over concerned me in the beginning, but the writing and skill-based combat easily overcomes these troubles. All this allows me to confidently say to you, with the deepest kindness:
"Go die in the Necropolis."
|+ Amazing Art Direction and Design||– Takes too long to get back into battle after dying|
|+ Good humor, good writing||– Controls are odd until you get used to them|
|+ Nice semi-randomized level design|