Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Sword of the Necromancer is a solid offering that doesn’t necessarily do any one thing great, but it is a Rogue-Lite action RPG that does most thing very well. Just about everything I expected from an entry into the genre is here, with the titular sword adding a nice gameplay wrinkle to the mix as well.
Things start off pretty basically, as our protagonist (Tama) is found in a large empty room in front of a sunlit pedestal upon whom is a woman (Koko) that you can only assume is very important to our character. My oldest is a tremendous fan of Shadow of the Colossus, and she happened through the room when I had this screen up and immediately piped up at the similar vibe presented in more pixelated form. I had to agree.
From there, you enter a passage that introduces you to the game’s basic mechanics while leading up to Tama finding the necromancer’s sword. Ranged, melee and charged attacks make up the bulk of what you’ll be doing in combat, while relying on movement / dodging to avoid being hit or jumping across gaps in the procedurally generated floors as you work through the labyrinth. It’s the sort of top-down affair we often see in this genre, and by and large it works pretty well. Loot is found along the way that might give you new weapons ranging from bows to swords and magical tomes that possess different attack ranges, speeds and elements.
This loot mechanic is one of the core gameplay hooks to keep you coming back for more, as well as earning experience that boosts Tama’s overall stats. Like most Rogue-lite / like games, there are penalties for dying. You lose levels, you go back to the start (so you get very familiar with the bosses you’ve already beaten, as you’ll encounter them again) and you lose whatever items you were carrying on your person (the Sword of the Necromancer is always with you and is never lost, but there are three other inventory slots mapped to face buttons on the controller that will be lost to you when / if you die). You can return to the hub with Koko after beating bosses, allowing you to deposit the other items you are carrying if you like (to a point – inventory space is limited).
These inventory mechanics create a nice risk vs reward tug-of-war as you progress. When venturing into an all-new stage with a yet-to-be-experienced boss, do you risk your most valuable items by taking them with you, knowing that they give you your best chance at success – or do you stow them and learn the ropes with the understanding you are more likely to die without them but will gain knowledge and a higher likelihood of success next time? Also, with only three inventory spots, those spaces get used up pretty quickly as well, especially if you leverage the game’s primary gameplay wrinkle – the necromancy.
Once you kill a non-boss enemy, you can stand next to their corpse, hold your dark sword aloft and bring them back to life as your own minions. There’s about a couple of dozen general enemy types, and most of them bring certain benefits and disadvantages to the table. A spider may effectively slow your opponent, but doesn’t necessarily deal much damage itself. A living suit of armor may hit hard and have solid defense, but it is slow and often out of position if you are in a wide-open area fighting. Magic-users deal high damage from range but are incredibly squishy. Like items, each of these summons take up one of your three precious inventory slots. I will admit that more often than not, If found myself using the monsters as unleashing one or all when dealing with a lot of enemies at once or a challenging boss helps to create some distractions that keep enemies from swarming Tama. They can also gain experience and become more powerful – assuming they don’t die first. As a primary gimmick / gameplay hook, I found this to be an interesting one that often left me experimenting to find the perfect combination for my style of play.
The pace of gameplay is not going to be for everyone. While it sort of looks like and roughly plays similar to the top-down 2D Zelda games from years past, the entire experience is basically one long dungeon crawl without the sense of open world exploration. Combat can be a little sluggish feeling at times, especially when you are trying to open a chest or resurrect a dead enemy, and holding down that button and being completely motionless feels a half-beat too long. I’m also not a huge fan of having to restart from the beginning each time I die – but that’s a personal preference and one of those things that tends to irk me about the Rogue genre in general. There are many people who enjoy that particular gameplay loop, and they should feel right at home with this particular aspect of the game.
There is another small element of progression that sees you picking up scraps of enhancement materials that can be used to forge additional effects onto your items, like increased health or damage. For the sadists out there, you can also put weaknesses / vulnerabilities / stat decreases on your items as well if you want to make this game even more challenging. To those of you who go that route? Hats off to you… you nut jobs. The game’s challenging enough as it is, at least for me. It seldom feels unfair though. You learn enemy attack patterns and eventually know how to deal with them without hardly ever receiving damage unless you just get sloppy. Bosses have a bit of a learning curve, and could require some trial and error, however.
If the gameplay is a bit too challenging, there are a couple of ways to relieve the pressure. If you die three times in a session, there is a settings option that gets unlocked that allows you to customize a few things like negating the loss of experience or items upon death. There is also a code entry system (that sort of looks like a QR code) that allows you a limited number of unlocks during your gameplay. That can certainly tweak your initial experience if you give yourself a particularly useful item or two for the trek, and is a neat idea from the dev team as they encourage people to jump into their discord to have these codes shared from time to time.
Lastly, there’s actually a nice bit of narrative to be had here. The story of love shared by Tama and Koko is a charming one, two people of very different backgrounds that forge a bond that is slowly laid out when progressing through the game. It’s a predictably sad tale told from Tama’s perspective as she finds herself willing to do whatever it takes to resurrect Koko.