Crypt of the NecroDancer

Brace Yourself Games
PC, Mac, Linux
April 23, 2015

(Note: WWAC reviewed Crypt of the NecroDancer with a review copy and a Crypt of the NecroDancer dance pad from Brace Yourself Games.)

Dance like nobody’s watching. The only time I’m happily dancing is when no one is in the room or if it’s so dark that no one is likely to notice me. I can only be in the zone when my anxiety is at bay. Despite this, I love music. I sing in my car when no one is around; I bob my head to the beat and tap the rhythm on the steering wheel. Dancing is expressive, but I can’t always find the rhythm.

I first came across Crypt of the NecroDancer at IndieCade East, a small festival in New York City for independent games. The game seems so simple at first; only the four arrow keys are needed to move around, pick up items, dig through walls, and attack. You can pick up items by stepping on the space they’re on, and attacks occur when you step into an enemy, but be careful because the enemies can attack, too! The goal is to move from each level of a zone to the next, fighting dancing zombies, bats, and more along the way to a boss in each zone. Each beat is a new step you can take in the quest to descend further.

To my complete lack of surprise, my fingers were clumsy in finding the beat on my first try. As soon as a few monsters were near me, I would panic and take steps too quickly. As punishment, my multiplier would disappear, meaning I would find fewer coins when defeating foes to then spend on better gear and weapons. Crypt of the NecroDancer flows so well when everything’s going right — weaving through enemies to energetic music pumping through my headphones. I felt like I could start dancing for real in front of the computer. The floor of the dungeon flashes colors to show just how cool everything is when you find your rhythm and evade death. But Crypt of the NecroDancer is also very chaotic, and it’s just one missed beat away from the neutral floor again.

One of the small but awesome things about Crypt of the NecroDancer is finding a female character named Cadence as the default character. The story in the game is about Cadence’s quest to find her father, who went missing in the Crypt of the NecroDancer. As Cadence was digging, she fell into the crypt where the NecroDancer curses her heart to beat to music. Now Cadence must free herself from the curse and find her father. The game’s story is minimal, and short cutscenes will play upon completing each zone, of which there are four. After defeating the NecroDancer as Cadence, additional story becomes available from the perspective of Cadence’s mother, Melody, and Melody’s mother, Aria.

Other than the three generations of Cadence’s family, there are unlockable characters who each have different styles of play. The Monk character will die upon picking up any gold. Dove cannot fight, but she has a strong shovel to help her get to the stairs. Eli, Cadence’s uncle, cannot equip weapons, but he has an infinite number of bombs he can kick at enemies. Other characters include Bolt, who moves at double speed along with enemies, Dorian, who is Cadence’s father, and Coda, who is an incredibly difficult character with the skills and weaknesses of Bolt, Aria, and Monk. Additionally, one character besides Cadence is available to play from the beginning of the game: Bard can move freely without keeping to a beat, and enemies move directly after he does. So, if sticking to the beat stresses you out, Bard can be used as a slower, more tactical style of play.

Crypt of the NecroDancer is easy to start playing, but it’s also incredibly difficult. Brace Yourself Games describes it as a “rhythm roguelike,” a game that mixes elements from rhythm games with a subgenre of role-playing games that can have turn-based moves, algorithmically generated levels, and permanent death. Roguelikes are usually punishing games that help you learn how to play with each failure. Crypt of the NecroDancer fits that bill, but I find it more accessible than most games in that subgenre. For one, the music, composed by Danny Baranowsky, is a wonderful motivator for giving it another try. The control scheme for NecroDancer being just four keys also makes the game easier for people who may not be well acquainted with games that have a lot of buttons to keep track of. While there are multiple combinations of arrow keys used for casting magic and using items, it’s still intuitive enough to hand to anyone who’s even been a casual Dance Dance Revolution player.

Speaking of DDR, Crypt of the NecroDancer also has a dance pad mode, which is easier than the standard zone modes. I tried out the dance pad mode at PAX East, and I tried out the game some more on some foam DDR pads and custom Crypt of the NecroDancer hard pads. I’ve used the hard pad that has a USB for Windows and Mac computers. With the dance pads, I find myself stumbling at times in tense situations — it’s hard to be a flawless dancing queen when a fire-breathing dragon is after you! I prefer playing the game on a computer keyboard, but the dance pad just feels so right when you hit the rhythm of Baranowsky’s music. The custom hard pads are expensive, but mine has always registered my steps accurately, and it doesn’t slip around.

There’s a lot hiding in Crypt of the NecroDancer. Subtle movement patterns of enemies will come to light once you’ve played it enough times, and you can trade diamonds you find in the game for upgrades and unlocking stronger gear, making the game a bit easier while you simultaneously improve from playing it again and again. The little touches — from the singing shopkeeper to being able to turn off the flashing floor for people who have photosensitive epilepsy — show Brace Yourself Games put in a lot of work and thought into this game.