On paper, Necropolis looked like a dream come true. Merging the combat of Dark Souls with roguelike sensibilities and distinctive visual design, developed by indie darlings Harebrained Schemes (creators of the acclaimed Shadowrun Returns), and bolstered by enthusiastic previews all along the way, the game seemed destined to become a cult hit and critical success. Well, the final product is out and if it does play like a dream, it’s a markedly unpleasant one, where your movement is floaty and weightless and ever so slightly slow to respond, the narrative is inane and incoherent, and there’s a nagging feeling that you are pointlessly repeating the same actions and living through the same situations over and over again.
Tasked with descending a series of levels in order to escape the titular structure, your main concern throughout Necropolis is surviving the enemies populating each area long enough to locate the door that will take you to the next one. For a title concentrating so heavily on combat (and one whose systems are lifted practically wholesale from such an esteemed source of inspiration), it’s painful to see how little it gets right. The defensive focus of the Souls series is here, as is the crucial role of stamina management, but what Necropolis lacks is the physicality that made the moment-to-moment experience in those games so pleasurable. Attacks, instead of solidly connecting, pass through your enemies as if they’re immaterial. With no sense of weight or impact, a limited move set, and a drowsy pace, fighting soon becomes a bothersome impediment to progress, a chore rather than a challenge.
Even if satisfying combat is the result of some strange coding alchemy that can’t always be accurately dissected or replicated, there are no excuses for some of Necropolis’ other shortcomings. Most weapons handle similarly, which means trading your Hooked Blade for a Hoardman Hatchet might be rewarded with extra efficiency but otherwise fails to affect your tactics. There’s a disappointing dearth of enemy types, only partly alleviated by reaching the lower floors where a handful of new creatures appear to spice up your usual diet of bearded berserkers, skeletons, and giant spiders, and, shockingly, there are no end-level bosses. Worst of all, enemies eventually reappear after death, which comes with an assortment of undesirable side effects, including disorientation (in a game whose mazelike environments are already confusing enough) and getting stabbed in the back for an unexpected Game Over whenever a powerful minion just so happens to reappear behind you.
And the much-advertised visual aspect of Necropolis delivers mixed results, at best. Clear lines and violent angles are complemented by austere use of color and an almost German Expressionist approach to lighting: all-encompassing shadows pierced by a pair of eyes, the gleam of metal, or a torch’s flame. This works wonders for character design, creating an array of memorable enemy types that are once original and instantly recognizable. Backgrounds, however, have not been given anywhere near the same degree of meticulous attention. Identical, nondescript corridors with the same smattering of lazily designed props—a statue here, a couple of ceramic containers there—make for some of the blandest virtual scenery in recent memory.
The world of Necropolis is so indifferently slapped together, so dreary, that the effects spill over from the realm of pure aesthetics and become genuine problems elsewhere. It’s so much easier to become lost inside a labyrinth when every room looks alike. One almost wishes for more of those groan-worthy (and wholly incongruous with the general tone) attempts at humor occasionally scrawled on the walls to serve as makeshift landmarks, even as they fail at providing comedic relief. Rarely has a game screamed as desperately for a mini-map to soften the crushing tedium of wandering the same section for the umpteenth time trying to determine whether you’ve passed before while fending off a host of recently respawned minions.
Repetitiveness, predictability, boredom—if these are major issues within a single run inside the Necropolis, they’re aggravated when extended across several visits. There are unlockable books that will provide you with special abilities for future playthroughs, but their effects are minor and drowned within the general monotony. Online multiplayer helps, but it’s plagued by bugs and frame-rate problems, and even when fully functional, it only manages to inject a modest dose of excitement into the proceedings. The slow pace and protracted length of each run prove disastrous for a game with permanent death. When a game abruptly and often unfairly ends your 90-minute journey and sends you back to the start for sins as slight as momentarily neglecting to replenish your stamina or failing to immediately adapt to the risks posed by a new enemy type, it drains your will to start over.
For all of the lack of variety in Necropolis, or the woes of its combat system, perhaps that is the most severe of all its flaws. Despite our collective hopes for reconciling two admired approaches to game design, it’s a title that embodies an intrinsic conflict between the sustained long-term engagement and clockwork precision of Dark Souls and the rapid-fire bursts of calculated chaos in contemporary roguelikes. Harebrained Schemes’ ambitious, but ultimately miscalculated, attempt inevitably collapses under the weight of its own insurmountable tensions.