At its best, procedural generation allows players to relish the unknown. It captures the magic of mystery with seemingly limitless environments that house dangerous monstrosities and obstacles. At its worst, procedural generation emphasizes a lack of imagination and attempts to mask design flaws. This dichotomy speaks to the core of Necropolis, a dungeon crawler in which the dungeon changes with each new run. Every death introduces a randomly generated dungeon, and the prospect of new challenges on a near-constant basis sounds enticing — in theory. Unfortunately the combination of roguelike mechanics and procedural generation in Necropolis serves as a bullet point in a summary more so than as an effective spin on the typical dungeon crawl.
Obviously games that tout randomness as a key element can only push the philosophy so far. Even brilliant roguelike or roguelite experiences such as Spelunky or FTL feature noticeable similarities across hundreds of playthroughs. Thus, those games focus on the illusion of infinite possibilities as a way to circumvent the reality of procedural design and its reliance on specific layouts and combinations. The illusion quickly falters in Necropolis as players explore the multi-level dungeon. The titular deathtrap changes on a floor-to-floor basis with each new attempt, but those changes often feel negligible. Enemies and exits move around, but the overall structure of each floor looks alarmingly similar after only a few runs.
It’s a problem inherent to the genre, but the environmental design in Necropolis appears particularly uninspired. The first few floors regularly feature giant rooms with nothing of note in them. The maze-like swamps offer little beyond a few bone structures, patches of grass, and the occasional mushroom cluster. Even the vibrant glow of torches in the dark and dreary dungeon offers little respite. Despite the promise of randomness, the necropolis itself never deviates from a central design flaw: blandness.
In fact, blandness extends to all roguelike elements in Necropolis. Nearly every variable in the game fails to enhance the overall experience, from the random assortment of potions and magic scrolls to the crafting materials scattered about the dungeon. Potions and scrolls can only be identified with a specific skill, so most players will likely relegate them to last resort options (let’s just say that it’s best to avoid using a potion that paralyzes the protagonist in the heat of battle). The molasses-slow animations add a layer of frustration, especially for players who want to use magic while multiple enemies surround them. As for the crafting system, it satisfies the bare minimum requirements: pick up drops from enemies, craft a few different items on a list, rinse and repeat. There’s little incentive to craft anything beyond healing items, which results in an abundance of meat for each journey into the dungeon.
Necropolis adds a level of permanence to the roguelike design in the form of codexes, special skills and buffs unlocked through the use of tokens. Horrible and painful deaths in Necropolis still prove fruitful in the form of tokens — the better the performance, the more tokens earned. Sadly, the codex system fails to offer comfort in the face of randomness. Although codexes offer benefits such as increased stamina or potion identification, cryptic descriptions fail to properly reveal that information. Thus, players use tokens blindly in the hopes of selecting suitable codexes. The system also lacks any strategy, as only one codex can be equipped at a time. Once again it feels like Necropolis focuses on the bare minimum in its mechanics, almost as if procedural generation acts as a diversion from questionable design decisions.
The combat certainly supports that theory, as it proves to be one of the game’s biggest weaknesses. Necropolis clearly takes inspiration from the Souls series with its near-identical control scheme, but the comparison stops at that surface-level similarity. Fighting one mob of enemies on the first floor feels exactly like fighting another mob of enemies on the fifth floor. The numbers and difficulty may change, but the strategy remains the same: lure out enemies one at a time, shield bash them to the ground, get a few attacks in, and repeat the cycle. The game doesn’t encourage players to adapt or experiment, even with different weapons. No matter the weapon, enemy type, or environment, combat feels slow, sluggish, and tedious. Now add in the fact that much of Necropolis revolves around combat and you have an experience that feels rote after just a few hours of playtime.
Despite the issues with the combat, it’s simply a microcosm of the experience as a whole. Necropolis feels like a vapid descent into dungeons unknown, and the adherence to procedural generation and roguelike design only succeeds on paper. The framework for a much better game exists, and developer Harebrained Schemes promises to improve the experience in the coming weeks and months. But as it stands now, Necropolis fails to make the case for its own brand of dungeon crawling. Why explore a random dungeon when monotony waits around every corner?