Crypt of the Necrodancer

I just finished Crypt of the Necrodancer earlier today. It’s a rhythm-based dungeon crawling roguelike where every move has to be done in time to the beat of the song. The dungeon crawling is, naturally, pretty simple, limited purely to movement in the four cardinal directions, but learning enemy patterns to hit them properly is very satisfying. A lot of realtime RPGs like this end up with a sort of “dance” you can do to optimize damage output, and Crypt of the Necrodancer puts the dance front-and-center and puts the steps of the dance in beat with the level music, then backs it up with a soundtrack that slaps. It’s a ton of fun, although unfortunately hard to describe – you just kind of have to see it, or better yet, play it.

I say “finished,” but there’s a strong argument that I gave up two-thirds of the way through, instead. Crypt of the Necrodancer has four different dungeons and eight different characters. The starting character is Cadence, with no special features, and then there’s special characters like Dove, who can’t attack enemies and thus has to race through all the levels avoiding all attacks, or Monk, who dies if he ever touches gold (he took a vow of poverty), which means every enemy he kills leaves a lethal hazard behind, or Bard, who doesn’t have to step in time with the music (the enemies move whenever he does, so you can take as much time as you need to decide where to move next – I’m pretty sure he’s an accessibility character). Some of the characters are part of the story, but non-canon, like Cadence’s bomb-happy uncle Eli, who told her not to seek out the Crypt of the Necrodancer, or her slow but powerful father Dorian, who went missing in the Crypt and needs to be rescued by Cadence (his run is sort of canon, except in that he canonically loses at some point).

But there’s also two unlockable characters who further the story: Cadence’s mother Melody and her grandmother Aria. Melody wields a special weapon, the golden lute, which damages every enemy who gets adjacent to Melody. This isn’t as invincible as it sounds, because some enemies block damage from certain directions, attack from range, or have multiple HP, and unlike Cadence, Melody can’t damage enemies with regular attacks. She has to use the lute’s damage aura exclusively. Still, the golden lute is more powerful overall than almost any of Cadence’s weapons (and it’s way better than the default dagger that Cadence starts a run with) and being restricted to it means that all weapons are removed from Melody’s item pool, which means chests and merchants are more likely to stock other things instead, like armor, spells, charms, or healing items. It took me at least a couple of tries to beat each dungeon with Cadence, and I needed a lot of practice to defeat the final dungeon and the Necrodancer, but Melody was more like a victory lap, tearing through the first three dungeons effortlessly and only requiring about an hour of practice to defeat the Necrodancer.

But dear god, Aria. Aria, Cadence’s grandmother, is a difficulty wall. For starters, her story is not about seeking out the Necrodancer at the bottom of the crypt (he’s truly, completely dead by the time Aria’s leg of the story begins), but about escaping the crypt after his demise. This means you start in the fourth, hardest dungeon and have to make your way up. Worse, due to the specific way in which Aria is undead (it’s not really clear how – Cadence’s heart was taken by the Necrodancer and beats in time with his music, and Melody was using the golden lute to keep herself alive, but Aria just kind of pops out of her coffin and clocks the Necrodancer at the end of Melody’s story, with no explanation as to how), she can only wield the basic dagger as a weapon, she takes damage if she ever misses a beat, and she has only one HP (plus a special item that revives you at full HP if you die – for Aria, this gives her one extra hit point but leaves healing items useless). Like Melody, items she can’t use are removed from her item pool, but since that includes not only all weapons, but also all armor and healing items, what you’re left with is spells, charms, and accessories.

You can argue that Cadence is the main story and once you’ve defeated the Necrodancer with her, you’ve won the game. Melody and Aria, like all the other non-Cadence characters, are side/post-game content. They even fit into common post-game content niches: Melody is an overpowered character of the sort frequently given out as a reward so you can stomp all over the game now that you’ve beaten it, and Aria is a massively more difficult character for people who want to keep going.

But they’ve got cut scenes that pick up where Cadence’s story left off, and the conclusion of both Cadence and Melody’s story is found in the opening cut scene for Melody and Aria’s stories (respectively). Like, Cadence’s story ends with her and her father standing at Melody’s grave, Dorian promising that he’s going to show Cadence why the golden lute was worth braving the Crypt of the Necrodancer. It’s not hard to figure out what happens next, but the scene where Melody actually gets revived is the start of her story, rather than the end of Cadence’s. The game goes out of its way to make Melody’s story seem not like a sequel to Cadence’s, but Act II.

I suspect these stories were assembled as they went along, though. That originally, Crypt of the Necrodancer was made with just Cadence, telling just Cadence’s story. I think it’s clear that by the time Cadence’s story was complete and playable, they had already decided to add Melody (after all, Cadence’s ending cut scene is clearly intended to set up Melody’s, to the point where it almost doesn’t work on its own), but I think the game’s original outline ended with Cadence and Dorian defeating the Necrodancer. Cadence’s story has a really good ending. Reaching the bottom of the Crypt of the Necrodancer, she is confronted by her father Dorian, who has been enslaved to the Necrodancer’s will, but she is able to break the curse. Then, she and her father fight together (you control both of them simultaneously, upping the complexity for the final boss) to take the golden lute and use it to defeat the Necrodancer. Triumphant, they return to the surface, where Dorian uses the golden lute to revive Melody, reuniting their family.

Melody and Aria’s endings are comparatively a lot more lame (I looked up Aria’s cut scenes on YouTube). Melody returns to the Crypt of the Necrodancer with the golden lute to revive him and demand answers. He says no, so Melody uses the lute to destroy him again. Melody’s playthrough has a lot of flashback cut scenes about how her mother Aria used the lute to bring back plague victims, but then the greedy villagers wanted its power for themselves, so she set out to destroy it and never returned, but the main plot of her playthrough is that she set out to find information and failed, and then Aria pops out of her sarcophagus to take over. And the entirety of Aria’s story is reaffirming that the golden lute needs to be destroyed, and then they do that.

It’s a lot of backstory and lore and what traces of character drama exist aren’t nearly as compelling as Cadence’s story had. Melody establishes that she never knew why Aria had left her and then in the very next line says she understands now and reconciles, but it wasn’t established earlier on that Melody felt abandoned by Aria. It’s vaguely implied that Dorian has some kind of impure intention for the power of the golden lute, but he only ever uses it to bring his wife back to life, which seems like a perfectly good thing to do, and Melody comes across as pretty ungrateful talking about how she could “see the greed in his eyes, behind the desperation” when he told her about his plan to retrieve the lute while she was dying of plague.

And then Aria has to die in order to destroy the golden lute, but apparently Meldoy doesn’t? For that matter, neither do Dorian or Cadence? Cadence smashes her skull on a rock in the opening cut scene and then the Necrodancer pulls her heart out of her body to restart it to the beat of his music. While she looks perfectly healthy, she is strongly implied to be some kind of undead. Melody is revived directly and explicitly by the golden lute, and she says she has to keep playing it to stay alive, so when it’s destroyed, she should re-die pretty much instantly. But apparently not, it’s only Aria who dies.

Given the difficulty wall with Aria’s story, this game is definitely going into either Complete or Regrets – there’s no way I’m beating this game with a one-hit-point-wonder who can’t even equip a reach weapon. Since Cadence’s story has a better ending than Melody’s or Aria’s anyway, I’m calling it Complete.

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