Every one of Necropolis’s randomly generated games begins the same: with an epic epigraph, often cribbed from the like of fantasies like The Lord of the Rings. “Before the Phalanx of Semeter burned the Cities of Thought, And the Iron Lords ascended to the Throne of Ash.” You won’t meet these characters, though, or travel to these places; you’ll never even hear of them again, as they have nothing to do with the game. This makes these snippets of setup little more than a joke (the one about the Throne of Ash ends with a flippant “Other stuff happened, I guess”), and it renders the game itself one long non-sequitur, a shaggy-dog story that strings players along as they wait for some follow-up to the introduction, even if it’s nothing more than a punchline.
Roguelikes don’t generally dwell on plot, but Necropolis refuses to treat your protagonist’s quest seriously, which in turn undermines the serious gameplay. The game’s titular, labyrinthine tomb is 10 floors deep and filled with wide, dull areas, featuring grey corridors and grey swamps. Enemies provide a brief, refreshing change from the monotonous scenery, thanks to their golden, headless suits of armor, the multiple red laser-spewing faces adorning floating orbs, and the green tattered tunics hanging from skeletons, up until it becomes clear that later floors are just palette-swapping their colors. Of the many deceased creatures found in this city of the dead, none are as lifeless as Necropolis. The developers would have been best served addressing the tiresome gameplay instead of scribbling irrelevant jokes on the walls.
Every opportunity for the game to redeem itself only digs it into a deeper hole. Combat is especially unsatisfying, as the key to beating enemies is simply to stagger them with a shield or charged-up attack and then laboriously cut them to shreds. Against individual enemies, with their one or two blatantly telegraphed moves, there’s no challenge, and so the game instead fills rooms with mobs of foes, sometimes unfairly conjuring them up out of thin air such that they spawn right behind you. At these points, progress is determined almost entirely by blind luck—that is, on whether you’ve found high-tiered armor for your character. This, in turn, is based on whether you’ve earned enough chest-opening Tokens of Favor from previous playthroughs, or if there’s been an opportunity to complete the three chores assigned at the start of each new game: You can’t “expunge the useless pottery” or “smash scampering spiders” if they never appear.
It refuses to treat your protagonist’s quest seriously, which in turn undermines the serious gameplay.
No matter how far players descend into Necropolis, the game never gets any deeper; enemies just get more hit points. By the third of 10 floors, every weapon type has made an appearance, from difficult-to-aim bombs and fiery crossbows to jabbing pyramid spears and unwieldy broadswords or hasty hatchets. Most have similar area-of-effect special moves, and enemies don’t appear to be any more susceptible to the elemental attacks imbued upon some blades, so there’s no real sense of progression upon gearing up.
The only notable change with each new weapon is in the increasing amount of endurance required by each one’s power moves, and that’s because your stamina meter doesn’t recharge in these cases. As both food and the resources with which to craft it become scarcer, players will increasingly require it, or become dependent on the mysterious potions and scrolls that start dropping. Those magical items, incidentally, are as likely to paralyze as protect you, and their positive effects (like invisibility or defense-boosting stone skin) are so short-lived that they’re effectively useless.
That lack of meaningful impact to actions and skills is the most frustrating part of Necropolis. It’s bad enough that combat never gets any more complex and that the randomized elements of each level effectively keep the maps devoid of any landmarks or scenery to marvel over. But each playthrough also essentially resets your character; the one thing that carries over between games are the earned Tokens of Valor, which can be exchanged for Codexes. But the ways in which these tomes alter gameplay can be hard to spot, and because only one can be equipped at a time, players are advised to simply grind for the most expensive one (something to do with vampirism) and to pray that it’s useful. There’s a cooperative campaign, too, but this mode’s dangerous mixture of friendly fire with unresponsive controls, to say nothing of increased enemy spawns, proves only that some things are not more fun with a friend. (The game even makes the resurrection of allies feel punitive.)
Early on, players learn how to clunkily move by jumping atop a misshapen black chunk that’s perhaps meant to be a rock. Standing there, looking at the vast ceiling and all the empty space between columns, preparing for some unknown reason to enter Abraxis’s crypt, the game’s omniscient narrator announces: “Not much of a view.” Truer words have never been spoken.