It's Better The Second Time Around
Necropolis
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Platform: Steam
Number of Players: 1-4
MSRP: $30
Release Date: July 2016
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher

When this game first came out, I wanted to fall in love.

At first blush, Necropolis had what I wanted: engaging and unique art direction, a new take on action RPGs and rogue-likes, co-operative play.  A sense of humor, mixed with an unrelenting sense of danger.  Alas, when it first came out in July 2016, these individual pieces hadn’t quite come together.  The combat seemed a little repetitive, the items you found didn’t add variety, and the humor obscured the game rather than made it interesting.

Within days, Harebrained Schemes showed they wouldn’t shy away from their failures.  They stated openly to their supporters and reviewers that the game had not been successful, and that they were aware of both game-breaking bugs and the feedback they were getting.  They announced an aggressive schedule of patches and content updates that they were speeding up and releasing for free, to make their labor of love something fun for everyone.

Now, four weeks later? Now I can say that this is a game I’m happy to play.

The Basics: Time To Fight, Time To Die

Necropolis is named after the dungeon you immediately descend into, a twisted, broken world which once used to be a place of solace for the great lord Abraxis.  Now, of course, it’s become a festering place of evil.  It’s also become a place where a very sociopathic pyramid loves to taunt you.

Loading screens have various taunts and references by your narrator...that loves making you angry.

During your opening moments into the dungeon, Necropolis reveals both similarities to other games which are like it, and where it chooses to deviate sharply.  There’s hidden lore everywhere, packed with obscure names and references which surely must add up to a cohesive whole, right?  Not exactly: the lore devolves quickly into entropic gallows humor. A litany of kings and leaders might end with a quip about how boring the fourth one was.  The description of a weapon might talk about a hero which once wielded it, but then mentioned off-handedly the gruesome, unavoidable death of said hero.  Necropolis is concerned with giving you a very strange dungeon, not getting you distracted with serious backgrounds.

Speaking of getting distracted, the Brazen Head - the floating pyramid which appears to be the caretaker of this decrepit place - loves to mock you.  He takes the place of the 'narrator' in games like Bastion, but his speech is garbled purposefully like adults in Charlie Brown, and he obviously wants to see you fail.  It's a fun burst of gallows humor as he anticipates your failure, but ironically, when he speaks to you harshly, you know you are advancing into the floors of the level well.

There's art and decorations everywhere, but they are just more ways to let the narrator mock you.

Of course, now that you are trying to escape this terrible place, you're going to have fight your way out...and fight a lot. The combat takes some getting used to in Necropolis: it isn't a fast-paced twitch fest like Devil May Cry, but it isn't as slow as Monster Hunter either.  You start each run with a sword and a shield, and you have both a quick attack and a strong one.  There's a small delay on your swings, making you have to choose when to commit to a brawl.  The reason for this is because this game is a game about survival, and managing your situation: you have stamina as well as health, and attacking uses it up for a short while.  You can dodge and block or go on the offensive, but over-extending yourself can have deadly consequences.

There's another fun wrinkle in the gameplay, and that's the use of strong attacks and stamina loss.  You have special attacks hit hard, and are a little overpowered, but they come at a price.  Your stamina maximum will reduce down as you use them; sure, you might be able to clear a room and feel godlike for a short while, but the next wave of foes down the next hallway might now have an advantage against you.  Of course, running around and fighting will slowly make you lose your maximum stamina too, little by little, whittling you away until you are vulnerable to the next wave of enemies.

Make no mistake: this game is designed to kill you.  Make a hasty choice, or enter the wrong room while not prepared, and you will find yourself starting over on the first elevator down.

More To Find, More To Come

Necropolis is a game that lives and dies on its procedural generation.  Sure, the basic premise is the same every time you play - survive to the fifth level, beat the boss, and escape - but getting there is always a bit different each go around.  You'll often fight waves of low level foes right out the gate, but I've also started the game having to fight glowing red dark heroes, brimming with tougher weapons.  Sometimes, the game heaps food on me early on, giving me a chance to eat and gain back max stamina and health, or sometimes I have to fight tooth and nail for health while getting showered in currency.  Monsters will come at you with various weapons, and you most often upgrade yourself by equipping yourself with the spoils of war.

Let it be known, the spoils of war can be awesome.

This might sound like a disadvantage at first, but it's a blessing, because it forces you to think through each attempt.  Getting a heavy bladed weapon might make me play more cautious, luring foes into mobs to assault me, while getting a weapon like a crossbow or a shining lightning dagger gets me to try and rush forward, to take out ranged foes fast.  I might get fortunate and get a set of scrolls or potions...but they are unidentified, and the results might be disasterous: time to find a quiet place and try anyway.  If you let yourself understand that death is more of a definite than a maybe, you suddenly feel a lot more free to try new things to try and delve deeper into the dungeon.

Something that's incredibly important to note is that Harebrained Schemes has been adding new content on a consistant basis.  This varies from new weapons, adding more attack variety from foes, adding brand new enemies, and now, just this week, a completely new character type. Part of the original complaints about Necropolis was that there wasn't enough variety to justify the procedural generation or the price tag.  Between the re-balancing, the dumping of new free content, and the promise of more to come, it's safe to say that this assessment has changed.

The Good: Exploring A Twisted World

First off, let’s talk about the most obvious: the art style of Necropolis is amazing.  It’s unique, it stands out, and it helps put the game in a place all on its own.  The rough angular features of almost everything in the game gives it a sense of severity, while also keeping a paradoxically cartoonish look because of how it’s shaded.  Hallways and corridors that might have been absolutely boring in a game trying for photorealism instead feel unique and stylized.  It’s a mixture of minimalistic art and very careful, tender attention to detail, and I love it.  Whenever I see a new feature of the game, be it an attack animation, a monster, or a location, I sincerely enjoy the experience.

A new area type, the Black Forest, has already been added to the game to help spice up the variety.

This game grows on you; I’ll admit, my first run through was not completely inspired.  I ran into a room, saw a few enemies, beat them up, and ran into the next room to be promptly killed by more of the same enemy: I had messed up with my stamina, using up too much early, and so I got mobbed on in a humiliating fashion.  I shrugged, and tried again, if only to see if I could manage my stamina better.  This time though, the first room I entered was filled not with mobs of hordemen – the basic enemy of Necropolis – but instead had golden golems with daggers made of lightning charging at me.  I screamed like a child and ran.

Ten minutes later, I was charging ahead, riveted.  I had a shiny lightning dagger from those defeated golems, and I was truly enjoying the experience of my charged attacks causing arcs of electricity to everyone around me.  I died for my hubris, naturally, but now I knew how to deal with those golems a little better, and I knew how to use a faster-style weapon.  A few playthroughs later, I ran into a monster which dropped a much slower-swinging greatsword.  Needing a more powerful weapon, I tried it out, and fell in love with how I could knock around rooms filled with hordemen quickly.  Another attempt in, I discovered the crafting system, and started experimenting with this new layer of gameplay.  Soon, I was making explosives.

Necropolis appeals to the player that loves to explore, and try new things.  It’s a game that procedurally generates situations, and so your playthrough is invariably going to change.  If you adapt a go-with-the-flow mentality, the enjoyment from this game is immensely high.  Again, this game has benefited from the consistent developer support.  The new character, the Brute, is absolutely fantastic, and feels so very different from the standard Blackguard character.  You have more health and damage, but you recover less quickly and are slower.  It brings a whole new puzzle of challenges to try out, with more rewarding moments of success just out of reach in the future.

One last, very big positive: co-op play is fantastic amounts of fun.  Eric and I played through a few times as a team in a recent Twitch stream, and now I can say I'm hooked.  Playing solo is a fun, quiet adventure, but getting a team on voice-chat is a whole new experience to be had.

The Bad: Life Isn’t Fair

Of course, Necropolis isn't all roses.  The game was, justifiably so, not well recieved when it first came out.  There wasn't a ton of balance, and some glitches in the game caused people's games to crash.  While most of these issues are now resolved, there are lingering concerns.  I'll admit that combat is now fun and satisfying, there are times where it becomes 'floaty', where your input commands don't feel like they are translating perfectly to the screen.  Taking a measured approach to combat cuts down on this, but when things get panicked, this feeling can sometimes make a death feel unfair.

There are also times where you are not going to get a break. The first room you fight is filled with golems, and you can't find any ingredients for health.  Enemies can, and will, spawn out of nowhere to make a situation seem impossible.  The game is not always fair, and sometimes, that can be very frustrating.  Since the updates, these situations have lessened, but not gone away entirely. I'll also say that occasionally, I do run into clipping issues: there's a particular sort of room which is filled with massive skeleton parts.  Fighting in that room is a nightmare, as you can become trapped on small objects easily, and feel helpless as you are disemboweled after managing a perfect hour-long run.  This is a game that challenges you to deal with spontanous madness, and sometimes, Necropolis fails to let you have a fair fight by accident.  It's forgivable, but can also be occasionally very frustrating.

A nice side-step to the frustration is co-op play: if one person dies an unlucky death, revival is still possible with some skill by your friend.

There is one complaint about the game that I will contest: many user reviews claim that Necropolis is attempting to be a poor man's Dark Souls and failing.  It could be because Necropolis is a little easier, or because there aren't as many dramatic boss fights.  The problem with this criticism is that Necropolis is pointedly trying to not be Dark Souls.  The unique art direction, the tongue-in-cheek humor, and the lack of planned out levels are all clear indicators that what Harebrained Schemes is attempting is not a knock off, but something trying to go in a different direction.  There are still problems with this game as a whole, but holding it in comparison to a very different game shouldn't be one of them.

Necropolis Is A Good Game, With Aspirations Of Greatness

This is a game that tried to blend together a ton of different elements into something new and interesting, but it got the ratios wrong in the recipe the first time around.  Harebrained Schemes have, like a dedicated chef, not given up; they’ve re-written the recipe, and now Necropolis is a delicious fusion of action RPG and rogue-like.  Is it perfect yet?  No, but now I have fun playing, and better yet, I want to keep exploring this labyrinth which Abraxis made. 

Seeing a hallway like this is both a reason to curse and celebrate.

I want to get better with my blackguard’s combat, and I want more time to fiddle with the new brute.  I want to see more of the set-pieces that are on the various floors, and damnit, I want to actually beat this game.  It's fair to say it’s a good sort of entryway into the world of challenging games, and it's also for those that don’t want to get entirely sucked into a world like the Dark Souls games try to.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it has an art style that really grabs the eye.

Necropolis is not an instant-buy classic, or perhaps this is not an instant-buy yet.  The constant support and free updates since its release have made it more and more appealing, and I think it’s safe to say that the game is now worth its $30 price point.  If you’ve been on the fence about this one, now might be a time to buy in.  Keep your eye on this game, put it on your wishlist: if they keep putting out the updates, it’s only going to keep working upwards from here.

When this game first came out, I wanted to fall in love.  Now, a month later, I have.

Want to see the game in action?  Check out our Twitch stream highlight here of Eric and me playing co-op through the game!  Like our articles?  Like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter to keep in touch as we continue to write articles, and die horribly in multiple different game worlds.