Developed by Uppercut Games, a team that includes former Bioshock developers, City of Brass is not what I expected. It’s a roguelike with a Persian aesthetic and an enjoyable gameplay loop that introduces plenty of variation and complexity to any given run. Even less expected was the complete lack of a narrative, outside of a few lines of text in the tutorial level and some brief journal descriptions. In brief, a wealthy city of increasingly corrupt leaders made a pact with genies to live forever and, unsurprisingly, ended up cursing themselves to an eternal un-death; cue a lot of skeletons. Your characters uses a magical amulet to raise the city from the sands and sets off to plunder lost treasure and, maybe, break the curse.
Thankfully, I quickly forgot my concerns about the lack of narrative context as the minute-to-minute gameplay loop is solid and City of Brass kept me hooked over several evenings until I finally reached the final battle (and immediately perished). If you’ve played any recent first-person roguelikes, such as Tower of Guns or Immortal Redneck, you’ll have a good idea of what you’re getting into; just replace the guns with a cracking whip and scimitar.
Loot! Each level is littered with secret treasure chests to plunder, however, going out of your way to collect them takes time you may not have.
After a brief tutorial, you begin your adventure in earnest, traversing, fighting, and looting across a dozen levels, each with a suitably ominous title such as “The Tortured Dwellings” or “Oasis of Death”. Replay-ability comes in the form of randomised level layout, affecting everything from the time of day, to enemies, the traps you'll encounter, and any potential upgrades you may find (purchased with the loot you’ve found from genies in bottles, of course). Every three levels you’ll encounter a Gatekeeper (i.e. boss), and the 13th stage is a final showdown against the accursed genies themselves.
You can run, slide, jump, clamber, or swing through most levels - a necessity given the number of traps that litter the floors, walls and doorways - while wielding a sword in their right hand and a whip in the left. The whip allows you to latch onto grapple points, trigger traps, and snag distant loot, but it’s also integral part of attack and defence. With numerous enemies patrolling every level, and a few unavoidable bosses, mastering the combat is mandatory; your ability to outmanoeuvre and outsmart your foes becomes integral to your survival. Tripping up, disarming, or stunning foes before rushing them with the sword is effective but you’ll want to let the traps do the work for you by dragging or shoving enemies into them.
Few enemies are as terrifying as the Silent Effigy that can only be destroyed by explosions and stalks your every step as soon as you turn your back (made worse by the nerve-wrecking audio cue).
City of Brass is a tough game by default but it offers several “Blessings” and, once unlocked, “Burdens”, which allow you to modify the experience further. Twice the amount of health and half the damage taken sound great but there are very few opportunities to regain health during a playthrough so reckless players will still be punished. Assuming you don’t select to remove the time limit, you’ll also be racing against the hourglass to avoid summoning an unstoppable foe that'll pursue you to the exit.
Unlike many roguelikes, you’ll not unlock persistent character upgrades but rather unlock portals that lead to later sections of the game. Teleporting to these levels requires you to use up the three wishes that are also used for re-rolling the shop selection and converting genie defenders to your side. This speeds up your progress but reduces the number of upgrades you’ll accumulate. It’s a risk-reward choice that is also found in every other mechanic in the game.
You'll always start back at the gates of the city if you perish, however, reaching milestones will unlock shortcuts to later levels at the cost of a wish.
For example, you don’t have to fight and loot as your character is nimble enough to out manoeuvre most foes and dash to the exit. However, tackling the few mandatory bosses without upgrades is a challenge (though direct combat is is only one way to defeat them). You also have to choose your upgrades carefully; do you pick a whip that knocks back enemies, latches on to grapple points at twice the range, or sets enemies on fire? The correct answer is, of course, set them on fire (It's probably the one unbalanced item in the game). Different swords offer a trade-off between speed and damage; armour can reduce or reflect damage; traps can be disabled to make for a smoother run but at the expense of providing alternative means for defeating foes. Constantly making choices while experimenting with new combat strategies will keep you on your toes and entertained throughout. For those with a competitive streak, there are daily challenges and online leaderboards to work towards.
It helps that the presentation is superb, with a distinct visual style, thundering sound effects, great ambient tracks, and subtle soundtrack that only ramps up in intensity during combat to great effect (I often found myself humming Aladdin's Arabian Nights for added effect). Sure, with repeated playthrough you’re more likely to notice repeated layouts and the monster design may grow stale but, when you’re in the zone, hurtling past traps while picking off stray enemies and snatching loot mid-sprint, it looks and sounds incredible.
The game often looks (and sounds) stunning in places, especially at night or when the devs remember to add some colour.
Unfortunately, the game is not without issues but most of these apply to the console ports. The game runs with an unlocked frame-rate that, for the most part, keeps the controls responsive and any stutter minimal. However, any time the game has to deals with complex physics, the fram-erate noticeably tanks; just try smashing several crates or pots simultaneously to see this in action. There are also precision issues when using a gamepad that are only made worse by an auto-aim system that feels either unresponsive or too aggressive, dragging your cursor towards traps and enemies when you’re trying to dash past. I quickly got to grips with the controls but playing with a mouse and keyboard is probably the easiest way to play.
If I have one last complaint, it’s that the setting, atmosphere, and even progression mechanics could have worked within a simple narrative framework and I’d love to have seen a dedicated single player campaign of some sort.
Controller and performance niggles aside, City of Brass is an enjoyable roguelike experience that is tough at first but offers enough variety and complexity during every run that you’ll want to return over and over again.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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PC, PS4, Xbox One
4 May 2018
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