As the video game subgenre known for resetting people’s progress when their characters die, roguelikes place an emphasis on additional factors, such as a rigorous challenge and randomly generated environments. Necropolis, a new action role-playing game courtesy of Harebrained Schemes, enforces all three of those tenets to some success. Upon entering the game’s titular dungeon, the developers abandon intruders to their fates; players must traverse the Necropolis while fending off skeletal denizens and seeking a lost amulet. But with permadeath in effect, six hours per playthrough begs the question: Will the enemies or monotony take your head first?
You can blame the repetition on a few streamlined features. Imagine Dark Souls with only two stats (stamina and health), no weapon and armor upgrades, and less than a handful of typical RPG locations. This accessible approach from Necropolis puts a strain on its appeal. Because endurance remains fixed, for example, the only attribute players increase is their vitality. That alleviates the pressure of opting where to invest your money/skill points next, yet it negates the gameplay flexibility inherent to other role-playing titles.
On that note, Necropolis eschews character classes. Rather, the random gear you accrue will determine your playstyle. The game’s labyrinth includes an eclectic blend of axes, swords, and shields, along with some clubs and a staff or two. The developers arrange those weapons into tiers, which dictate their damage output and stamina costs. Agile daggers allow you to shred a golem before it strikes twice; just don’t expect an attack to stagger the brute. Greatswords sap your energy in a couple swings, though they knock multiple baddies on their asses.
On my initial run, I lucked out. Of the mechanical urchins that populate the Necropolis, a spider dropped a tier-two hatchet on floor one. That axe toted me through encounters until I reached levels five and six (there are ten stories in all), but the karma works both ways. As I descended deeper into the Necropolis, relief washed over me when a hidden chest coughed up a sturdier armor set. The maze’s inhabitants quickly outpace players in terms of strength and health, so I knew my survival chances had just doubled.
Necropolis is not difficult by most standards. Again, it’s the monotony taking hold that causes people to become complacent. A strategy that toppled the game’s tutorial fodder is the same routine I repurposed for all future enemies ‒ cower behind a shield until my opponents exhaust themselves, strafe around their backs, mash out a combo, retreat, repeat. Although Necropolis strives for nuance in its fights (every weapon grants several types of attacks), the light attacks suffice in any skirmish.
Charge attacks have some actual value, but they chip a chunk off your max stamina. To refill it, champions must eat. Necropolis implements an otherwise handy crafting system for meals and potions that I seldom tired of using. Should I concoct an iron ration to replenish my health and stamina? Do I waste precious ingredients on a tonic that gradually restores life points instead? Chugging elixirs in the vein of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim causes curious tasters to vomit, too; you should consider the ideal moment to ingest them.
Several potions even spice up the combat. One of the mixtures prevents characters from being swept off their feet, another turns its drinker invisible, a third revives you once (don’t save it!). A vendor trades you the necessary recipes to combine more, but my bags were overflowing with liquors from general exploration. Sorting through my limited inventory space and agonizing over what medicines I should hold onto kept me enthralled when the altercations couldn’t.
There is no punch, no impact to the conflicts. Most brawls devolve into players trading arbitrary blows with a crowd of creatures, with swords passing through both parties like a fair breeze. I respect the enemy variety, though. Bone spiders, clockwork sentinels, crimson phantoms, and insectoids that resemble Jeff Goldblum from the end of The Fly make for an inventive monster cast that dreams of impaling you on their blades or pincers.
Fortunately, it’s not that easy. Strange though it may seem, I thank the controls for helping me complete Necropolis. The developers slow the action to a manageable pace that suits a mouse and keyword. I would never say that of the Dark Souls series.
Dark Souls can’t make the next claim, either: If cornered, you may bait monsters into attacking each other ‒ an underutilized tactic I welcome with every RPG. The undead don’t care for their automated brethren, and both sides frequently slaughtered one another before I had set foot in the room. All I needed to do was reap the rewards.
In most battles, however, the developers neglect the intelligent portion of artificial intelligence. Enemies often snag themselves on the geometry, so they only pose a threat when the game generates them from thin air around you. That stunt happens in most roguelikes, but does that soothe the sting of a knife unexpectedly embedding itself in your character’s back? Almost 72 hours after finishing Necropolis, its length mystifies me. Harebrained permits players to quit and resume their quests later, but if you drop dead on the last floor, it’s back to the start.
I’m not sure I’d have the perseverance to continue in the wake of an upset like that. The best roguelikes seldom surpass an hour for a reason. If you croak in pursuit of the credits, you lose time equivalent to a lunch break. More importantly, you also acquire knowledge of the enemy’s patterns and assorted items with each following attempt. So what lessons can be learned from death in Necropolis? Beg for a dozen skeletons not to erupt from the ground when opening a chest? Pray that its contents contain not-garbage loot?
Although several roguelikes exceed an hour, the decent ones that do (Rogue Legacy, Darkest Dungeon, etc.) provide persistent progression. Necropolis contains unlockables that carry over between playthroughs as well, and they prove worthless. Adventurers gain “tokens of favor” for completing tasks, like consuming arcane fruit or slaying specific sets of foes. You earn one per challenge, which lets you buy “codexes.”
Codexes equate to passive buffs, and I could not tell you what a single one does. Harebrained tries to inject some humor into its shallow universe, except the jokes come at the cost of player knowledge ‒ insight someone could use to survive. “The ‘I Never Thought I’d Finish’ Guide to Recipes” reads, “Malozapan has done many things. This book is most of them.” Does that text benefit readers? Equipping the codex did not bestow me crafting recipes or restock them at the shops.
Well, what about “You Can’t Hit What Isn’t There”? The description says, “Don’t think of it as dodging. Think of it as not agreeing to be hit.” While somewhat clever, how does that upgrade serve me? Will it increase my generous invincibility frames, allowing me to slip through attacks more often? I wish I knew.
I wish I could say more about the story, too, were it not plagued by pointless jokes. The Brazen Head (a talking pyramid) acts as the all-seeing antagonist, chiming in with redundant dialogue I fought to ignore. “How long have I slumbered?” it asked as I renewed my journey. “Decades? Centuries? Millennia? Oh, about five hours.” That was the last of many groans.
The “comedy” also extends to rest of the game’s lore. With graffiti chiseled into the Necropolis’ walls, Harebrained talks of Abraxis and how he staged an escape from Irem during a ferocious pillow fight, or how he wanted to deliver peace, understanding, and hot new music to Zothique.
I’m sure such nonsense is insignificant to readers, meant for a gag and nothing more, and yet Necropolis attempts to build a world that’s funny and formal. In doing so, it mistakes random thoughts for genuine jesting. Am I supposed to accept the numerous wall scribbles in earnest? What remains relevant to my narrative crusade?
Dark Souls III is not above moments of levity, for instance. Although players happen upon an absentminded knight wearing an onion-shaped helmet and cuirass, the Easter eggs and name drops do not impair the atmosphere or tone. The world is still super fucked, and fans must set it right through trial and error, death after death.
Necropolis is at its best with other adventurers. Four players may take on Necropolis together, dropping in and out of co-op anytime. The enemies up their numbers where appropriate, and friendly fire remains on, adding a cunning layer to the anarchy that single-player engagements lack. You have a narrow window to revive teammates if they fall, however, and conquering the game’s labyrinth alongside colleagues helped mitigate the tedium.
That said, multiplayer contains issues of its own. When somebody dies, that person respawns, albeit with tier-one gear. On floors eight and nine, bringing starting equipment to a fight is the equivalent of assaulting a tank with a wooden bat. Necropolis forsakes matchmaking, too, but I imagine its omission is to prevent griefing from complete strangers.
Harebrained prefers to keeps things simple, which furthers Necropolis in one area: the visuals. Harebrained Schemes renders the maze in polygonal chunks akin to a late PSX game. But the team polishes away the grit until an interactive CG cartoon emerges. Towering pillars cut an imposing figure in grandiose halls, sewers send players on a winding expedition, and swamps house the bones of behemoths ten times your size. The procedural generation guarantees first and second playthroughs are a graphical treat. After finishing a run, endgame adversaries also appear sooner, and secret passages reveal themselves.
I recommend playing Necropolis in hour-long chunks. As great as it looks in motion, feelings of familiarity soon take over. Harebrained spared no expense in coating the dungeon in a somber gray. While the color palette is easy on the eyes during extended play, the barren stonework means there’s little awe to a third, fourth, even fifth tour. Nothing about the settings screams excitement. However gorgeous, we’re still talking prisons, sewers, and hallways after mundane hallways. The swamp’s purple hues offset the bleak architecture, yet I struggle to call a mucky biome original.
Again, we return to that word: “monotony.” It’s the nitpicks that trip Necropolis up. I adore the low-poly visuals, but they forgo any diversity beyond a bog and red hellscape at the end. The combat seems simple enough for all players to handle, given the lack of stats, yet it lacks the feedback of the genre’s icons. While I’m interested in learning about the Necropolis, I can’t tell what the developers want us to take serious and what they intend to be a joke.
Necropolis marks an admirable first attempt for Harebrained Schemes at breaking outside the team’s comfort zone. But like the labyrinth’s famished occupants, there is too little meat on this action RPG’s bones to sustain its lasting appeal.
This review is based on the PC version, which we were provided.
The stylish visuals and streamlined combat that define Necropolis slowly succumb to repetition, laying waste to this roguelike’s longevity.