It was all the way back at PAX Prime 2013 that Crypt of the Necrodancer – a very successful dungeon crawler rougelite with rhythm-based combat – first started getting widespread love. Upon its full release, the game became so highly acclaimed that the team behind it was eventually able to work with Nintendo on a Legend of Zelda-themed spinoff called Cadence of Hyrule. Back for another victory lap, developer Brace Yourself Games attended PAX West 2023 to show off their latest project, Rift of the Necrodancer. While it’s a much more traditional rhythm game than the developer’s previous experiments, my demo with Rift highlighted some interesting twists on the genre that I think will surprise even seasoned fans of the genre.
Narratively, Rift of the Necrodancer serves as a full on sequel, sucking protagonist Cadence into a new adventure thanks to mysterious rifts that are bringing dangerous foes into the modern world. While my demo didn’t include much story-focused content, Cadence will interact with characters over the course of a campaign via short scenes that resemble the format of a light visual novel. Even if you’re not a Crypt of the Necrodancer fan – or perhaps you, like me, haven’t touched it in years – the good news is that you don’t need to be familiar with that game and it characters to have fun with Rift. That’s in big part because this is a totally different type of game than Crypt was.
Leaving behind the top-down adventuring of previous games in the series, Rift of the Necrodancer embraces a more standard format for reflex-based rhythm games, in which players need to time button presses to correspond with the beat of the music as notes come toward the screen. In this game’s case, these “notes” are enemies from the world of Crypt of the Necrodancer – slimes, skeletons, bats and more will move ever forward towards the screen. With only three tracks to manage, it looks simple at first, but there are a lot of little twists and turns that add a lot of complexity even on the easiest difficulty.
One big shift is that some enemies can move between tracks. Like in Crypt of the Necrodancer, players will need to memorize how these characters move to have a chance of hitting them. For example, blue bats need to be hit twice – after the first successful hit, they’ll slide over to the left or right (based on the direction they are facing) so they need a quick 1-2 punch to be defeated. If they’re in the leftmost or rightmost lane, they can even jump to the other side of the screen if they’re looking that direction. Other colors of bats have other movement styles, like moving across all three tracks.
It seems like there’s a high amount of enemy variety, as even a few songs into the demo I was being bombarded with new patterns to memorize and keep track of. Some types of skeletons can be taken down in a single hit, but others will bounce backwards on the track once or twice before coming back for vengeance. Blademasters – which look like little silver knights – are particularly devious, and will first ready their sword with a sound cue, before dashing forward on the next beat, regardless of how far back on the track they are.
With so many moving pieces, and so many variations to how foes can shift around the tracks during a song, I was on my toes the entire demo. There’s also the consideration that songs feel pretty lengthy, at least to me – I didn’t time them or anything like that, but when you’re managing limited health (you can only make so many mistakes during a song before needing to restart), reaching a new point in a longer track can definitely turn up the pressure when you’re down to your last few health points! It was definitely challenging, even as someone who plays a decent amount of rhythm games. But the difficulty wasn’t insurmountable, and I could distinctly feel myself improving over time as I got more familiar with each song.