They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. If so, Necropolis is not so much a love-letter to the Dark Souls series, but more of a full on love-affair — an impassioned, unabashed roll in the third-person, action-RPG hay. On paper, that is far from a bad thing, but in practice, Necropolis lacks the astute finesse that the genre’s best has to offer.
Despite these hiccups, US-based developer Harebrained Schemes’ does have its heart in the right place. Necropolis is, in essence, what happens when you try to weld the Souls formula to a roguelike template — a cool concept, for sure — though one that sadly comes up a little bit short in some key areas.
For a start, its narrative tone is excruciatingly off-putting as its humour often falls flat and feels utterly at odds with the rest of the experience. What makes matters worse is that that flippant sense of humour bleeds its way into how valuable information is delivered to the player. Get used to needlessly obfuscated descriptions of items that are more of a riddle than, you know, a description. Sounds a lot like another game we know doesn’t it?
I can see what Harebrained Schemes was trying to do — a valiant attempt at emulating From Software’s signature narrative, system and user-interface mystification, however, its cheeky, cryptic humour isn’t so funny when you’re busy scratching your head for half the game unsure what any of the story or item descriptions mean. Its flippant humour comes across as jarringly incongruous and undermines the tone of the game, which is by no means a total dealbreaker, but it is a shame the game didn’t make me care more about the world the developer had created.
The narrative setup goes something like this; Abraxis, an evil Archmage, has constructed a huge, complex dungeon called the Necropolis, which shifts and changes with the power of magic. At the bottom of the titular labyrinth lurks Abraxis, undead and immortal, with his stash of the most astonishing collection of magical artefacts and treasure the world has ever known. It is your job to descend into the labyrinth and battle your way through ten randomly generated dungeons in your bid to lay claim to the illustrious magical artefacts and treasure on offer.
I know both roguelikes and the Souls series are usually light on conventional story, and Necropolis takes this and runs with it. Even after spending a dozen hours with the game, I feel that narratively, there’s not a great deal here to get too excited about. The cryptic story functions more as a serviceable, humorous backdrop, and nothing more.
Luckily, the game’s real-time combat is quite enjoyable, particularly on your first run. Controls are lifted straight out of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s action-RPG series, with an emphasis on nimble light attacks and slower, more measured heavy attacks. Shields can be equipped and provide a decent amount of protection from the enemy’s unyielding offensive. Players have the option to “charge up” their attacks and unleash a powerful charged strike that really comes in handy against packs of enemies. These charged attacks whittle down your stamina bar, which can be recharged by consuming food rations and certain special potions.
Unfortunately, enemy AI is rudimentary and most encounters boil down to kiting groups of enemies while you take hasty pot shots with your light attack. There’s a fairly robust roster of enemies, though they can easily be dealt with using the same repetitive tactics. It doesn’t help that enemies often get stuck in the environment’s geometry, which is amusing at first, but begins to give off the impression of unpolished design by the second or third run. Combat lacks the sweet challenge and reward that players have come to expect from the genre.
Crafting helps to add a little variety into the mix and it works well. The fiendish beasties you defeat drop ingredients that can be used to craft food rations, chalk (which is kind of useless) and a variety of bombs. Be careful with the bombs as friendly fire is a very real threat, as I discovered halfway through a run. This leads me into another gripe I have with the game; a run feels a little too long for a roguelike with permadeath. You’re looking at about five hours to make your way to the bottom of the labyrinth. It’s just a shame that death often comes from a lapse of patience, rather than from a skill-based blunder. Delving into the dungeons of the Necropolis often feels like a battle of attrition, rather than a challenging, satisfying adventure.
It’s nice to see a varied assortment of weaponry can be discovered on your journey, as enemies drop their arms once defeated. A simple tier system is employed to give players a basic overview of the power of the weapons you pick up. Tiers range from zero to four, and this gives players a quick overview of a weapon’s strength. Sadly, they all feel very similar, and there are many which are just slight re-skins of the last with only marginally better damage being a discernible factor. I found Serl’s Crossbow to be a highlight as it helped to change up the rhythm of combat substantially.
Codexes can be unlocked at Scriptoriums and can be equipped one at a time. These codexes give you access to a raft of handy passive perks, such as faster stamina regeneration, fall damage reduction and slow health regeneration, to name but a few. Fortunately, you don’t lose these when you die and this gives players a little freedom to customize their character how they see fit.
There’s also a drop-in co-op multiplayer mode that sees you take on the ten dungeons with up to three companions. Enemy numbers are multiplied accordingly so it doesn’t necessarily make the game any easier, though it is a rather novel feature for those seeking to take on the labyrinth of Necropolis with some company in tow.
Elsewhere, I found the art-style to be endearingly well crafted. Its minimalist, eye-catching, low-polygon aesthetic looks great and it’s probably one of the game’s major saving graces. Enemies look suitably garish, with most wailing and screaming as they close in on you. Though environments are often recycled, there are some clever uses of lighting and some lovely diversity to the colour palette which helps to bring the world of Necropolis to life.
Sadly, there are currently some performance issues on Xbox One, with minor dips in framerate when the action gets busy. These issues aren’t anything to be too worried about, but it’s simply another annoyance to add to the list.
Ultimately, Necropolis is a decent stab at creating a Souls roguelike. The first few runs are a fun distraction, and the enjoyment is amplified if you bring a few friends along for the ride. However, it just doesn’t have the long-lasting appeal, the je ne sais qui, that all-important “just one more go” feeling that the combination of genres it tries so hard to emulate is best known for. On paper, it’s a done deal. In execution though, it’s merely the cold shadow of a much warmer bonfire.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.