A couple of reviews ago while writing about Cathedral, I happened to mention how the Metroidvania genre has exploded in recent years with new games appearing regularly to swell the already massive number of available titles. However, there's one genre that seems to have it beat hands down: The rogue-like dungeon crawler.
Right now it seems we get a new one on an almost weekly basis, with many unfortunately feeling like almost direct clones of the best of the bunch. Sword of the Necromancer, however, employs a gimmick that (on paper at least) makes it appear different enough to stand out in a flooded marketplace.
Before I get to this gimmick though, we'll get the story out of the way first.
You play the role of Tama, a lifelong thief, rogue, and scoundrel; she has made the perilous journey to discover the location of the Legendary Tomb of the Necromancer. She isn't seeking treasure, power, or fame though. Instead, she seeks out the same thing that has brought countless adventurers here throughout history; she wants the power to revive the dead. She carries with her the body of someone dear to her and after placing it upon the altar of the throne room; she sets out to complete the level that serves as the game's tutorial. After being guided through the basics, shown a few weapon types, and fighting a few monsters, she stumbled upon the reason she's here. She finds a chamber with a powerful artifact in it: the titular Sword of the Necromancer. With the prize she seeks in hand, she heads back to the altar and focuses the vast power of the weapon upon the corpse lying upon it. And nothing happens...
Filled with despair and overcome with disappointment, Tama is at her wit's end, when suddenly a demonic voice fills the room.
It tells her that if she wants to resurrect her companion, she'll need to power up the Sword, and to do so she must travel through each level of the Tomb. Here she must beat each floor's guardian, make her way to the Necromancer himself, and take his power for her own. Only then will the Sword work, only then can she raise the corpse, and only then will she be reunited with her lost love.
Because that's what Koko, the dead character is to our heroine Tama. I don't want to spoil the story but it's quickly established that the pair have fallen for each other. Told through flashbacks, and utilizing a series of anime-styled static images and some rather good voice acting, we see the relationship develop, discover how the pair met, and uncover the history of both characters. Although it does have a bit of a budget presentation, I felt the story was rather well done, actually rather cute and quite heartwarming. It was also a nice example of LGBT representation that didn't feel forced or stereotypical, at least to me, and as a mechanic for pushing forward the game, it worked admirably as I eagerly awaited the next chunk of story after each floor.
This, predictability enough, brings me to the subject of the actual gameplay. As stated already, the action takes the form of a rogue-like dungeon crawler where you move through a series of ever-changing, randomly generated levels. These are individual rooms of varying sizes, connected with corridors and populated with enemies and collectibles. It’s hardly a new or revolutionary idea, instantly recognizable to anyone who played Enter the Gungeon, Binding of Issac, or a myriad of other titles. Your main weapon, and the only one you begin with, is the Sword you gained during the tutorial but, while exploring, you'll come across chests containing a wide variety of others. Axes, swords, bows, etc all make an appearance and there's a nice amount to find with both melee and ranged types available. You'll also discover equipment with various buffs and consumables with different effects, all of which help take down the opponents populating each room. These enemies are a pretty interesting bunch, each having a different look, attack style, and movement patterns. Giant animated armor, teleporting wizards, bow-wielding goblins, poison spitting plants, healing pink bunnies, and a gazillion more, all with a variety of elemental types, show up, and discovering new ones is doubly rewarding. You see not only do you have the joy of working out the most effective way to kill them with what you have but defeating them also rewards you. Remember the unusual gimmick I mentioned way back at the start of this review? Well, this is where it comes in. Every normal enemy, once killed, can be resurrected with your special sword turning it into an AI-controlled ally that can be summoned at any time. Beating a particularly effective or useful opponent, only to then resurrect it to fight alongside you, gives a particular feeling of joy but unfortunately, normal combat feels a bit bland otherwise.
I mean it's competent, don't get me wrong, but when compared to the edge of your seat combat of games like Gungeon, it comes off as a pale imitation. Battle feels slow and basic with even the games dodge mechanic (which is underused anyway) doing very little to bring speed and satisfaction to the fights. Most of the time it's feels very repetitive, with hit and run tactics using the basic Sword, being a successful strategy for 99% of the game. Only the boss battles rise to an interesting level but even these aren't a patch on those experienced in other games.
What slows the combat and breaks the flow even further is how inventory works and how its management is utilized. Everything you pick up, whether its weapons, equipment, consumables or the summonable creatures, must be assigned to the face buttons to be used or to activate its passive effect. Your sword is always assigned to one button (B in the case of Xbox), leaving only three slots for the loads and loads of equipment you'll find. I'm guessing this is to make each choice much more meaningful, having you carefully choose what to have assigned and where, but it just results in you mostly sticking with what you know works and kills experimentation with newly discovered items. You do have a pouch, which can store a further 4 items that you can swap out at any time, but pausing to change items on the fly constantly can quickly become annoying. This control system is hard to justify as they have buttons on the controller with no function at all and could easily have used these to make a better system. Holding the Left trigger and pressing each face button could have summoned 4 monsters, you could have had a couple of equipment slots for things with passive abilities and assigned consumables to the Dpad. This would have been a way better control system than what they went for.
One redeeming quality about equipment is this, you have a storage chest in the starting area that allows you to store items for future runs AND, if you so choose, there's also an option to keep items upon death. This does help with experimentation a little, but during a run, it's still a problem as you make the agonizing choice whether to swap something known and useful for this new item of unknown qualities. Even if you can store it in your pouch, you'll find yourself constantly pausing the game to swap in equipment depending on the situation, really breaking the flow of gameplay. I found myself doing this too often, swapping in bows for certain enemies or a healing character when needed, only to swap back 10 seconds later. With the correct mixture of enemies, I was doing this 7-8 times a screen and it quickly got tiresome.
Basically what we have is a game where the concept sounds intriguing on paper but is executed in a way that feels bland. While not bad per se, in fact it can be fun in short bursts, it never reached the addictive "just one more run" of other titles in the genre. The story is a highlight, telling a tale that was well done and that I wanted to follow up on. Gameplay however doesn't shine as brightly as I should. Combat feels too simple, weapons don't feel different enough (despite the amount) and the fact you only have 3 slots for everything restricts experimenting with new types. Raising the dead as AI partners is a fun concept, you want to try out each new enemy type to see its effectiveness. Their bad AI, and the slot restrictions again, curtail this though leaving you to rely on the tried and tested rather than see what the new can do. Ultimately a middling experience, its highlights are the story and monsters you can resurrect, everything else though feels basic and sluggish. Options to up the difficulty with permadeath and lower it with an option to keep items on death give something for newbs and the hardcore. However, both might leave with a feeling that they've seen most of it before. There's some fun to be had but others in the genre do it so much better.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 5.5/10
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