Ask me my favourite game of all-time and I'm split between two titles: Spelunky and Demon's Souls. Excitingly, Shadowrun Returns developer Harebrained Schemes is attempting to mix the two in its upcoming action roguelike Necropolis. Whether it will succeed in such a lofty ambition is another matter, but the Shadowrun developer seems to have a good grasp on what it's doing, even if it's following in From and Mossmouth's nearly impossible to follow footsteps.
Taking hold of the controller in Necropolis puts you right in pure Souls territory. The right trigger buttons handle light and heavy attacks, left triggers block and bump the shield, the D-pad handles weapon and item swapping, while the face buttons evade and use items. There is a dedicated jump button - so that's new - but the basic skeleton of Necropolis will feel familiar to anyone who's handled a Souls game.
While the controls are well-worn territory, the design is entirely new. This is a procedurally generated dungeon-crawler with a neon, aquamarine-hued aesthetic. Passages, enemy waves, and items reconstruct with every playthrough as you take the reins of what essentially amounts to a groundskeeper whose omnipotent boss' collection of demons has run amok in an ever-shifting inter-dimensional zoo.
In truth, the very early pre-alpha build Harebrained Schemes shows me doesn't demonstrate this to a noticeable degree. Where one playthrough has an open passage to the left, another has one to the right, but the sorts of foes I encounter are largely the same. This won't be the case in the final build, however, and the team at Harebrained describe all sorts of complex interlaced systems they've been brewing.
Necropolis' most promising feature is its robust ecology. Each monster type will have its own unique behaviour and place in the food chain. There will be hermit crab-like critters that scuttle into view and munch on magic items before you have a chance to snag them. Another type of creature will duplicate everything it touches, be it a helpful item or a dangerous foe. Swift gremlins will bother you then dash away, but if you can slay them you'll be able to use their corpses as bait to avoid larger foes. "We want a coherent ecosystem of monsters," explains design director Dennis Detwiler. "Imagine the Bronx zoo 200 years after people were there."
It's not just the creatures that radically alter the environment, as you'll be at the mercy of the Necropolis' liege, the Brazen Head. The Brazen Head is a magical creature in charge of sorting out the Necropolis before its founder, the great wizard Abraxis, returns. As such, he will offer you optional side-quests throughout your journey and respond to your behaviour. For example, he may ask you to clear out a hall of gem eaters. Fulfill his wishes and he'll reward you with some sweet gear. Defy him and he'll make things more difficult for you.
"You can serve him, you can defy him, and we want him to react differently to you when you do those things," Detwiler explains. "He can give you a fetch quest and you can refuse to do it. The prices may go up if you defy him. There may be no potions of vigor available at all on the level because he's removed them. It should feel like he's messing with you quite a bit."
While these concepts all sound lovely, the early build I play is focused primarily on Necropolis' combat, which is still pretty rough around the edges. "We don't want to compete with Dark Souls' combat," Detwiler tells me, but Necropolis' nearly identical control scheme suggests otherwise. It doesn't quite measure up to its inspiration, understandably. Some foes can be bested by simply mashing the same attack a dozen times while they recover, while the feedback dictating whether your shield is blocking a hit could certainly use some work. Overall, the fighting feels sluggish and floaty in this pre-alpha.
If you ask me, the Souls games have the most refined combat in the business (though Monster Hunter rivals it), so no one can blame a 14-person team from not wanting to compete. But I can't help but feel like its robust variety of attacks (light, heavy, charge versions of each, aerial, etc) feels a little too complex for a roguelike, a genre that bases its charms on accessibility. After all, Spelunky's core combat - lashing a whip - is as simple as an early Castlevania game. Sure, it gets more convoluted as other weapons and accessories are introduced, but it never extends beyond one-button attacks (with a trusty bomb remaining a consistent secondary throughout). Perhaps Harebrained is biting off a little more than it can chew at the moment and something simpler (maybe more akin to Wind Waker?) would better serve the already ambitious project.
Thankfully, combat isn't always the best way to go about things. There will be many ways to avoid the more dangerous foes, such as potions that allow you to turn invisible or fly for a brief period of time. You'll also be able to draw enemies away with bait, get monsters to fight each other, or lure foes to traps and teleporters. Just don't accidentally stand on the teleporter yourself after doing that.
Currently Necropolis is looking a little craggy, but it's hard not to see the potential Harebrained Schemes is concocting as it adds more ingredients to the mix. Given that it's only been in full development since November - with only a handful of developers prototyping it for a few months prior - it's way too early to determine how the final product will end up. Yet Harebrained is toying with some really auspicious ideas here and the studio has a nice track record, so it should be a lot of fun to watch this delirious realm take shape as it wraps up development next year.