The Beat of Crypt of the NecroDancer

Crypt of the NecroDancer is a game set to music, and is about living the beat.

(Except for Bard mode, which I shan’t speak of again.)

It’s set on a grid, and every movement on that grid has to happen on (or close to) the beat. The character physically can’t leave the square otherwise, and the player is penalized for trying: they lose their loot multiplier, and the floor loses its rad disco lights. The challenge is to think and act with the rhythm until you don’t miss a beat even when navigating a room full of Thriller-dancing skeletons; until keeping time is a natural as breathing.

This is a pretty fantastic mechanic on it’s own, but Brace Yourself Games wanted more replayability (and maybe to make the game harder), so Crypt of the NecroDancer is a roguelike. It uses the same roguelike structure as Eldritch and The Binding of Isaac – a few levels, each with their own aesthetic and enemies, each made of a few randomly-generated sub-levels. This structure does wonders for the game simply by placing the emphasis less on memorizing the levels and more on mastering the mechanics (i.e. mastering the beat) – though it does introduce a problem common to roguelikes.

The thing is, randomly-generated levels usually aren’t inherently interesting the way custom-made levels are. This isn’t a problem when they’re full of enemies and treasure, but once all that is dealt with they’re typically boring to traverse. Eldritch tried (and failed) to address this problem by tying monster respawning to player looting, the idea being that there would always be monsters to contend with. Crypt of the NecroDancer went with another, ingenious solution.

The gameplay is already tightly tied to the music: the actions are tied to the beat, the plot centers around mystical instruments and musicians, and the three main characters are named Cadence, Melody and Aria for pity’s sake. So why not go even further? In Crypt of the NecroDancer, the level doesn’t even *exist* when the music isn’t playing. It starts with the first note, and if you haven’t finished it by the time the last note plays, a trapdoor literally opens up beneath you and dumps you into the next level.

This one mechanic does so much. Obviously, it allows Brace Yourself Games to fix the boring-levels problem; by tweaking song length along with level size and enemy density, they ensure that the player is never struck traversing an empty space for more than ten seconds. The mechanic also keeps the player from listening to the level’s song on loop for ten minutes, so they don’t get sick of it as quickly. Most wonderfully, though, tying the level to the length of the song – combined with tying actions to the beat – means the player has a limited number of action. Combat, level traversal and looting all become one huge survival challenge where no step, no attack, no moment of hesitation is without consequence. The player cannot even dawdle in a level’s item shop: every beat spent reading item descriptions is another beat the player can’t use to fight enemies or find the exit. And they need to find the exit – falling through the trapdoor means falling into a roomful of Thriller-dancing skeletons more often than not.

But the best part is this: the game doesn’t tell the player how far along the song has gotten. Even after the player has found the exit, they have to make an uninformed decision of whether to explore further, knowing that they might not have beats to make it back. This means it’s incredibly beneficial for the player to be able to place themselves in the song just by listening to a few bars … which incentivizes them to learn it by heart.

Crypt of the NecroDancer is by Brace Yourself Games. You can find it on Steam.