Necropolis review impressions

July 18, 2016 by Steven Strom

It's, well, it's a little dead.

“Necropolis” conjures images of eldritch, arcane, and other confusing words for creepy things on a massive scale. At least it does for me. I haven’t Googled it yet, but just the name -- Necropolis -- carries a certain weight behind it. You go into something called a Necropolis, and you don’t come back. At least not the same as when you started.

Ironically, that’s exactly what you do in the game Necropolis, developed by Harebrained Schemes. Why? Well, because it’s a roguelike. That is, a game where death strips anything and everything from your person and causes you to restart from square one. More or less.

Necropolis is also very much inspired by the Dark Souls franchise. To the point where each new game plops you in front of a mural showing which actions are mapped to which buttons on your controller. Nearly all of them overlap with Dark Souls’ own control scheme: light attacks go on the right bumper, dodges on the circle or B button, switching between items and weapons on the D-pad, etc.

Not that I’m complaining, or at least I wasn’t at first. Roguelikes and the Souls are already well-entangled. Both use dying time and again as central mechanics, and both punish you with worse than just lost progress. In either case the joy is in perfecting your execution over time, though they have different ways of going about it.

Controls aside, Necropolis leans heavily on the roguelike half of the whole. Which, I’ll admit, is my weaker area of expertise between the two. The titular tomb is split into floors. All of which are semi-randomly generated each time you roll a character.

You’d think that would make for scads of variety from zone to zone, but you’d be wrong. The flat, gray, low-poly halls and walls of the Necropolis are damn near identical to one another.

It hurts your poor, tired eyes after an hour spent staring at them, as well as your ability to navigate. Like the Souls games, and decidedly unlike many a modern roguelike, Necropolis has no maps. That makes getting around a game of its own -- one where the goal is to distinguish one low-texture wall from another. Occasionally a swamp or bridge in the open air gives you cause to wake up a bit, but it doesn’t last.

I’ve been at this Video Game thing for some time. Of course I know “procedurally generated” levels aren’t going to be entirely unique every time. The problem goes deeper than that. Literally.

Nearly every floor down in a given run looks just the same as the one before, meaning there’s little visible sense of progression. In a game that relies on getting farther and farther with each attempt, it’s tough to gauge your progress. For me at least, this had a demoralizing effect -- I don’t feel the drive to give the ol’ Necropolis “one more run.” My last three already bled together into a mushy mash of tall halls and wide walkways.

Speaking of which, don’t look to those Dark Souls combat comparisons for a glimmer of hope.

Putting the “necro” in Necropolis is… sloppy. Your sword, hammer, and/or spear strikes glide through zombie and giant spider flesh like paper airplanes. There’s no little or no friction. Besides not feeling very good, this makes it easy to over-commit. Necropolis loves to throw a half-dozen enemies or more your way at once. That’s a problem when you swing too many times into a crowd, lose track of your stamina, and take a blow from that third or fourth foe you weren’t watching.

When that’s not enough, the Necropolis will simply spawn in opponents behind you. I don’t mean in the Dark Souls sense, where dark corners and unwatched rafters hide rogues lying in wait. I mean that the game actually generates monsters out of thin air just to kick (or stab) your rear into gear. Super.

When that happens, it’s back to Necropolis’ more roguelike elements. There’s a goodly number of potions and foods -- fresh and otherwise -- to discover in the dungeons. If you run out of lamb shanks you can always craft your own. I mean almost literally always, since the deluge of enemies drop far more crafting materials than you’ll need. So long as you can survive the initial onslaught each time, it’s easy to slop your way through combat, then compensate with a fresh-cooked lamb shank.

In fact, survival isn’t much of an issue at all. Besides the occasional sneak attack it’s quite easy to dodge incoming blows.

I’ve made special mention of the game’s wide open hallways, because they have an equally broad impact on combat. When you’ve drawn a load of enemy ire, you can use the breathing room afforded to you by the Necropolis to walk backwards and chop -- like a Medieval Serious Sam. This has the added benefit of causing enemies to wail on each other.

That’s right! Friendly fire, such as it is, remains on at all times. Including when it’s actually friendly. That is, when you play with up to three friends. You can imagine how fun it is to get beat up by your own allies by mistake when it’s already tough to measure the impact of your swings.

Actually, it’s not often a problem, since the possibility of team-killing encouraged my cohorts and I to let just one player deal with monsters at a time. Somewhat defeating the purpose of multiplayer.

There’s another, equally agitating reason to play alone, one that permeates the solo experience. There just isn’t that much stuff in Necropolis.

Armor, weapons, items, potions, spells: they’re pretty rare. Sure, you can craft the bare essentials for healing and restoration, but the good stuff -- the glowing, splodey, electrified stuff -- trickles at a teardrop’s pace.

You get about one-to-two worthwhile items per stage (assuming you have the inventory space), and usually only at the end. Worse, it’s hard to tell when those goodies are any better than what you’re already carrying -- there are no actual statistics on gear to tell you what cracks skulls. And you’re rarely rewarded for exploring (when you are, more often than not, you’ll just find a bit of money).

The game would rather crack jokes. What little story there is is a slim slip of humor around an already slight game. Harebrained Schemes must not have been clear on where to hide the gags, so they put them in place of useful information. Item descriptions are instead one-liners that don’t impart much wisdom, nor -- once you’ve heard them repeated for the 49th time -- mirth.

I’m trying very, very hard to find something I like about Necropolis. It’s got a look to it, I’ll say that. Ignore the repetitive environments, and you’ll notice some really slick low-detail character design. I dig it, but not enough to make up for the rest of the game. Even when it doesn’t take much time or effort to see most of the way through.

Necropolis misses the mark on nearly all of its inspired combinations. It can’t craft, cut, or joke its way out of being too little game for the trouble, but I’m not convinced another developer -- given more time, money, or interest -- couldn’t. There’s definitely something to Necropolis that another game could (and should) perfect one day. It’s just a shame such a good name was put to waste on this one.