I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the full release of NECROPOLIS. I’d played the demo twice, once at GenCon2015 and once at PAX Prime, and both times it was exciting, tense and incredibly fun. The full release promised cooperative play on top of everything else, and there is very little else in video games that gets me as excited as partaking in a bit of jolly cooperation. NECROPOLIS‘ release hit a few delays, but that still didn’t temper my excitement, if anything, I was confident that the end product would be even better for having more time to cook.
The first time I fired up the game, I immediately headed into the options to see what tweaks and changes I could make to the game. Oddly, there was no option to rebind keys, nor, in my case, to change the Xbox 360 controller layout. That seemed like a very odd choice for a PC game to take, but I shrugged it off and excitedly headed into the game. After quickly exhausting my character customization options (more on this in a bit) I loaded into the game and quickly noticed a picture of the Xbox 360 controller, with the control scheme layout, on the wall. Not only does the game not allow you to rebind keys, but the in-game narrator taunts you about it. Not allowing key rebinds, nor alternate controller schemes, hasn’t simply been overlooked in NECROPOLIS, but Harebrained Schemes knowingly went as far as to make a joke about it in the game.
Thankfully, for me at least, the controller is set to my preferred layout, so I continued down into the NECROPOLIS to begin my journey to my eventual demise. I only made it down to the second level on my first character, but even during that short run a sinking feeling began to creep in that would only grow stronger as I played more and more of the game. During those first two levels, I couldn’t help but feel like the game wasn’t as alive as it should be. The pacing seemed far different than I remembered, and there was so much empty space. I did meet my glorious death, and, while all items, crafting recipes (crafting is functional, but not exciting) and gear are lost upon death, I accrued a few Tokens. These collectibles are the game’s primary form of progression, and so I was excited to try again to see exactly what I could spend my new currency on.
Tokens are persistent from run to run and can be spent in a few ways. Character customization can be expanded with Tokens, but all that is available at this point are different color schemes. For the price of two Tokens, you earn nothing more than a palette swap. While cosmetic customization is not that important, this aspect of the game is underwhelming. Tokens can also be spent at the beginning of each level starting at level 2. For a single Token, players can open a golden chest. The chest contains randomized gear, either a weapon or a set of armor. There is no way to know exactly what you will get, or even if it will be useful to you. On top of that, since all collected gear is lost from run to run, golden chest purchases become very risky. It is frustrating to spend hard earned Tokens to open a chest, only to have a weapon that is worthless to you pop out. As often as you get a fun, useful and neat item, you will find yourself frustrated and annoyed. The biggest problem is that these chests are the most consistent way to find armor, which can have a huge impact on your survivability, but they are so inconsistent that they feel like a waste more often than not.
The final way that Tokens can be spent is on Codices. Each Codex grants some form of bonus to the player once they equip it, and players can swap which Codex they are using at various points during a run. The grind to unlock each Codex (some cost as much at seventeen Tokens) initially appears to be the basis for the NECROPOLIS‘ progression, but this too falls flat as soon as you realize that you can only ever equip one Codex at a time. On top of that, it’s hard to tell exactly what each Codex will do for you, and, once you’ve found one that works with your preferred play style, there isn’t really any motivation to unlock the others other than ‘just because’ or to simply chase Achievements. It’s something to do, but there is no real incentive, and so your sense of progression quickly stagnates, and the game begins to feel like a grind.
NECROPOLIS’ levels are procedurally generated, which alleviates some of the grind in theory. However, thanks to the chosen art style and an overall emptiness, the gray, minimalist world quickly begins to feel very samey, especially since the enemy selection isn’t as broad and varied as it first appears. Those enemies do drop their weapons, so there is often a quite a bit of loot on the ground, but usually the enemies simply drop generic versions of whatever weapon they wield. Once you’ve found the weapon type that works best for you, it’s often unnecessary to even bother with any other drops until a higher tier version of your preferred weapon finally hits the ground. Weapons can be purchased, if you are fortunate enough to find a weapon vendor, or if the end-of-level vendor has one that you want, but they are often prohibitively expensive.
Cooperative play does improve NECROPOLIS, but only insofar as cooperative play improves just about every game ever. It’s easy to invite friends, and the ability to resurrect each other can turn a disastrous fight into a mere setback. Players can hit each other while playing cooperatively, so duels between players can be easily played out for players who enjoy a bit of PvP. Chests don’t house any more items, and the golden chests at the beginning of each level can only be opened once, so players need to coordinate who gets what. It is nice to have the option to craft and share various potions and bombs among your group of friends.
My first ‘successful’ run of NECROPOLIS came while playing cooperatively. Up until the end, it was the most fun that I’d had, which just about restored my faith in the game. We activated the portal into the final area containing the boss, only to have two of us glitch past the entire area, including the boss. We’d spent three hours on the run and, just like that, we were denied the satisfaction of actually triumphing over the NECROPOLIS. The game had placed us past the final area, with a quick elevator ride and a fade to black as our only reward for the time spent. To find fun in NECROPOLIS, you have to enjoy the grind, and we had been denied even that.
Harebrained Schemes has readily admitted to the game’s faults, and promises to address them over the coming months with patches and tweaks, but the game has a long way to go to be more than average at this point. The lore is nonsense, the inability to re-bind keys is a huge mistake, and the lack of proper pacing and progression leave the game feeling stagnant and frustrating as often as fun and satisfying. The movement and flow of combat feel great, and there is a lot of potential in NECROPOLIS, but none of it has been realized here.
NECROPOLIS was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by Harebrained Schemes.
Necropolis has solid combat and tight controls, but the lack of proper pacing and the disappointing progression system mean you should probably wait until the game gets the promised tweaks before picking it up.