Sunday, October 16, 2016

Necropolis Review (XONE)

Necropolis is a permadeath roguelike that plays like Dark Souls, two things that sound awesome together.  And it is awesome for a while but the longer you play it, the less you’ll like it.  It is a game you’ll want to love, and will love, for the first couple of hours, but the more you play it the more the flaws shine through and the mild annoyances you thought you could learn to put up with initially eventually become giant festering rage inducing boils that sour the experience.  To Necropolis’ credit, however, it can get its hooks into you despite its flaws, so you’ll keep coming back for more punishment.  It is also a much better co-op game than solo experience.  Let’s just say we have a complicated relationship with Necropolis.  See our full review for details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Bandai Namco
  • Developer: Harebrained Schemes
  • ESRB Rating: “T” For Teen
  • Genre: Third-Person-Action
  • Pros: Fun combat; sense of humor; nice presentation; addictive; co-op
  • Cons: Input delay; frustrating; little feeling of player skill growth
  • MSRP: $30

Necropolis is a third-person action game where you, as one of two playable classes, have to descend through a labyrinthine series of levels to find a thing, or something, and escape, I guess.  The story is equal parts intentionally mysterious but also largely inconsequential so you won’t bother trying to figure it out, but the game does have a sense of humor that I really enjoyed.  Accompanying you through the necropolis is a sort of disembodied voice that rewards you for completing tasks, mocks you for dying, and sort of prods you along.  There are also numerous things written on the walls and during loading screens with a super sarcastic and half committed tone (sort of like the first sentence of this paragraph) that really tickled me. 

As for the gameplay, Necropolis is a roguelike game where you explore procedurally generated levels to find loot and better equipment, but when you die it is permanent.  When you die, you start over from the beginning with a new character, new dungeon layout, and no loot.  The first couple of levels are made up of the same gray corridors, but once you get a little further there will be forests, swamps, snowy mountains, and more to explore and new enemy types pop up all the time.

Combat in Necropolis will be immediately familiar to Dark Souls fans as it uses an almost identical control scheme.  You have a shield in your left hand, controlled by the left bumper and left trigger, and a sword or other weapon in your right hand, controlled by the right bumper and right trigger.  The triggers perform heavy attacks, the bumpers block or do light attacks.  It’s all Dark Souls, man!  Enemy encounters follow the same pattern as Dark Souls as well where you’ll block with your shield and wait for openings in enemy attacks before attacking yourself.  Also similar to Dark Souls, a single enemy is no problem, but a horde of monsters all coming at you at once is almost certain doom.

You also have a wide range of items to use such as magic scrolls and potions that will have different effects on you as well as enemies.  The game has an interesting stamina system where you can only run or swing your sword so many times before you have to rest, but your maximum stamina also depletes if you use charged up power attacks too often.  To get your stamina back to normal, as well as regain health, you have to eat food or drink a potion.  It’s a good system that is pretty smartly designed and does make Necropolis just different enough from Dark Souls to stand out.

Unfortunately, your love affair with Necropolis is short lived as a number of annoyances start to crop up.  Because it is a permadeath roguelike, that is also Dark Souls-difficult, you will die a lot and it gets more and more and more frustrating the longer you play since starting over on the first floor again and again isn’t any fun.  One little mistake at any point in any enemy encounter can send you back to the beginning.  That great sword you found?  Gone.  All of that progress?  Gone.  The pile of potions and spells?  Gone.  Do it all over again. 

But you don’t necessarily “do it all over again” because the dungeon is procedurally generated.  You’ll never see that dungeon layout or enemy layout or those items ever again.  Dark Souls’ frustrating design works because you learn the level layouts and how to deal with set enemy encounters, but if everything changed every time you play then you never have an opportunity to learn anything.  Dark Souls’ design is also not all that frustrating because you do keep your acquired weapons and stuff even when you die, so your powerful equipment plus your knowledge allows you to easily get back to where you were and make progress.  Necropolis makes you start at level zero plus learn a new level every time, which is frustrating.

I think also part of what makes difficult games like Dark Souls or Hyper Light Drifter fun in spite of whatever frustrations they cause is that there is a sense of player skill growth.  You aren’t just getting better equipment, but you’re also becoming a better player who is equipped with a skill set that allows you to overcome new challenges even if it is the first time you’ve seen them.  You don’t really ever feel that way in Necropolis.  Sure, you’ll learn what to expect in the first few levels and can breeze through them, but even when you think you have the right strategy and your skills are sound, something new will pop up and screw you over and you’ll lose 2-3 hours of progress and you’ll throw your controller down in a rage.    

I also found the controls to occasionally be unresponsive for seemingly no reason.  I’d be in the right position and try to swing my weapon or use an item and the game just wouldn’t respond, which usually led to a death and some of the most frustrating moments I had with the game.  Even when I thought I was prepared and in position, the game wouldn’t do what I wanted it to and I’d die.  Item use in particular is weirdly unreasonably sluggish.  The lack of precision and responsiveness in the controls make Necropolis more difficult than it should be.

With all of that said, however, I keep coming back.  I want to see what’s next and what new traps and enemies and levels await me deeper in the dungeon.  The combat, when it works, can be just as satisfying as Dark Souls and the enemy designs get crazier and cooler looking the deeper you go.  Then I die and get frustrated and quit in a rage.  But a couple of hours later I’m right back in it trying again.  That is perhaps the best thing I can say about Necropolis – it is addictive and keeps you playing in spite of its flaws.

Another plus about Necropolis is that it isn’t a just single-player only game.  You can play it in single-player, but it also has up to 4-player co-op via Xbox Live that makes the game a rather different experience.  With multiple players combat encounters are easier to manage and your shared knowledge and experiences make moving forward easier.  There is so-called “friendly fire” in that players can hurt each other accidentally, but with careful positioning it isn’t a huge problem.  Even better, players can revive each other if one of you dies, which makes making progress ever so slightly easier.  The problem with co-op, of course, is that playing with randoms you don’t know kinda sucks, and unless you have a lot of friends who are also willing to plunk down $30 for the game you’re out of luck.  Playing co-op does absolutely make Necropolis a better experience, though, so consider that first if you want to give it a try.

The presentation in the game is quite nice overall with a distinct art style that looks good.  The environments are typically made up of simple geometry with solid colors instead of detailed texture maps, but they look nice.  The lighting effects are fantastic, too, which really sets everything off.  The character designs are more detailed and look great overall.  I also like the sound as well.  The combat sound effects are well done and the ambient sounds and subtle soundtrack give the dungeon a great creepy atmosphere.

Depending on what you’re looking for, Necropolis is either a solid and fun experience or one of the most frustrating games you’ll ever play.  The combination of Dark Souls combat with roguelike elements sounds like a perfect match, but the execution here leaves a lot to be desired.  That’s the case if you’re playing solo, anyway.  Trying to get through Necropolis by yourself is a total grind that ends up being too frustrating for its own good.  Playing it co-op with friends on Xbox Live, on the other hand, makes it a surprisingly fun experience, but the $30 price tag is probably (definitely) asking too much unless you have a group of dedicated friends who want to make multiple runs through the game.  If you know you’ll play co-op, buy Necropolis.  If you’ll only play solo, skip it. 
Disclosure:  A review code was provided by the publisher.