When considering two and a half decades of first-person gaming history, it's a real shame that more games haven't ventured outside of the expected arsenal. Hundreds of games have kickass shotguns that can blow enemies to bits. Fewer games focus on melee weapons, and fewer still on the tools of the common adventurer. One game that changes things up frequently is BioShock, a series that lets you wreck house by summoning crows and elemental blasts. This unique fun stretches into City of Brass, a first-person roguelike adventure from the crew of ex-Irrational devs at Uppercut Games.
You play as an interloping treasure hunter, armed with a whip in one hand and a scimitar in the other. Your goal? Reach the heart of an Arabian city littered with skeleton monsters and deadly traps. Along the way, you'll navigate procedurally generated hallways littered with gold treasures and the ancient equivalent of explosive barrels. Both these objects are grabbable from afar using your whip, alongside the ability to push and pull enemies around. These whip actions drive players forward, forming the core of this game's satisfying combat loop.
After you open any random door, City of Brass encourages you to survey the scene and weigh your options. Should you drag that archer into a spike pit to take them out of the picture? Should you hop across a set of columns to grab treasures and make a hasty retreat? Are you able to stun enemies with enchanted lashes before going in for the quick melee kill? Why not grab the lantern laying next to you and hurl it into a group of enemies, setting them ablaze? All these strategies have their place, and you'll need to think on the fly to survive thirteen floors and accomplish your goal.
This focus on strategy comes from a deliberate pacing and a high difficulty. On the default settings, City of Brass is a punishing experience that makes every step count. You can only take a few hits, and there isn't ever a guarantee that you'll find a genie that can heal you. Where most FPS roguelikes value mastery of complex combat mechanics, City of Brass gives you simple interactions and challenges you to carefully use them. No single enemy is ever going to overwhelm you, but combat might cause you to stumble into a rotating blade or activate a poison dart. Everything needs to be deliberate, and it can be satisfying to emerge from a room unscathed.
Of course, this all depends on whether the game gives you rooms and hallways where this is possible. Since everything is randomized, it's possible to find yourself in unwinnable situations at any point during your run. You can always get out if you have the health to survive bum-rushing a wall of foes who've cornered you. Still, it's unfortunate when your well-laid plans are put to rest by a roll of the dice.
Another obstacle in this vein is the time limit, which punishes players who dawdle by sending unstoppable creatures against them. In theory, this works fine, just as it has in Spelunky and other roguelikes. In practice, the worlds of City of Brass are much larger than your typical 2D cave. The way enemies and traps are laid out encourage meticulous dungeon crawling and taking your time. With this arbitrary grace period in place, I often left levels feeling unprepared for the dangers that awaited me.
Plus, whether you're running from the time limit or a nasty ogre, you'll need to slow down occasionally to take care of traps. I was eventually able to handle every enemy in the game with confidence, but the traps will take damage from me without fail. It's down to their placement, which is just subtle enough to trip you up even if you know it's coming. Thankfully, you can whip traps to activate them early, ensuring safe passage if you're prepared. Still, it's heartbreaking to barely beat a boss and head towards the exit only to have a door slam down on your spine and erase your progress.
Thankfully, City of Brass realizes that its difficulty can't be set in stone. Many Early Access players expressed difficulty concerns, so Uppercut Games patched in Blessings and Burdens. Similar to Halo's skulls, this is an adjustable difficulty system that lets you play however you please. With the press of a button, you can turn off the timer and explore to your heart's content. You can drastically limit the number of enemies that spawn in and give yourself a generous health pool. You can even reduce the prices of items in the shop. Once you play through a few runs, you'll begin to unlock the other half of this system, which lets you crank up the difficulty instead of toning it down. These perks don't affect achievements or overall progress, so they're a great way to make the game accessible to all.
Speaking of the shop, no roguelike worth its salt would be complete without an item pool that changes up how you play. City of Brass has just that, although not with the variety you might like. New blades and whips are the most exciting upgrades since they have a direct effect on combat. Stronger blades will take longer to swing, and elemental whips can take out enemies quickly from a distance. Armor buffs are harder to notice, but they do help your survivability on more difficult runs. The rest of the items are usually straight buffs that let you jump higher or automatically attract gold to you.
Most of these items are acquirable via purchase from genie shopkeepers that pop up from time to time. There are around eight different genies, each with a unique focus. Some will even let you invest in future runs by donating some cash or items to your future self. All of these shopkeepers (as well as a pair of genie enemies that pop up later) are upgradable for free using wishes. You get three to start, and you can use them as you see fit, but you never get more. This adds another layer of strategy to the proceedings, as it can be tough to choose between acquiring full heals or turning off an enemy spawning nightmare.
City of Brass' item system is fine for what it is, but I couldn't help but feel somewhat shortchanged by the time I reached the end boss. In my eight hours of playtime, I had seen the vast majority of the game's perks and weapons. I know this because the game tracks unlockables via an in-game journal, and the list is tiny by roguelike standards. Even in your first runs, you're bound to see repeat objects come up if you hit every store. You'll also see the same bosses over and over since there's only one for each set of three levels on your journey. This isn't a roguelike that players will be able to cycle through endlessly, and the experience cries out for future expansions.
City of Brass Review | Final Thoughts
For as long as it lasts, City of Brass' gameplay never disappoints. The movement in this game is a fascinating mix of careful walking and utilizing your whip to fly across rooms. You can slide around corners or into hidden chambers. You can climb up just about any surface. All these actions are swift and chain together with your attacks wonderfully. Having such precise control of your character really makes you feel immersed in the world around you. The music and graphics are impressive in their own right, but the gameplay is really what shines. These developers know their first-person traversal, and it shows.
City of Brass is an excellent next step for first-person in the world of roguelikes. Its whip mechanics and strategic decisions bring it more in line with the heavy hitters in the space. The only thing holding it back from true greatness is a lack of variety in both items and boss encounters. This can be killer to any game hoping to have players run through randomized runs and severely limits its appeals to the genre faithful. However, if you don't need to play for 100 hours to feel satisfied, this Arabian Night is a story well worth telling.
City of Brass was reviewed on PC via Steam with additional testing done on Xbox One. Copies were provided by the developer. The game is also available on PlayStation 4.
- Immersive Movement
- Strategic Gameplay Decisions
- Diverse Whip Actions
- Assessable Difficulty Options
- Shallow Item Pool
- Limited Replay Value
- Procedurally Generated Deathtraps