Review: City of Brass (PS4)

The roguelike genre has become a staple of today’s video game industry, with the likes of Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, and The Binding of Isaac being defining releases that helped to legitimise the phenomenon. One more feature that links the three together is the fact that they’re all 2D, a perspective that the genre rarely breaks away from. City of Brass is one of those outliers, but does its leap into a fully realised 3D world represent the next step forward for Roguelikes?

City of Brass is a first-person 3D Roguelike that takes clear inspiration from the likes of Arabian Nights to fashion a world full of dangers and deviousness. Equipped with a whip and a sword, you’ll explore a procedurally generated city that houses all manner of enemies, traps, and tricks, with a simple main goal of just making it to the end of each and every labyrinth. What sets this experience apart from anything else, however, is how your offensive tools interlink with each other during combat.

The whip is the defining mechanic here, as it allows you to do two different things. First off, you can stun an enemy, stopping it in its tracks for a brief moment, which allows you to close the gap and take a swipe at it with your sword. Due to the amount of adversaries that can be on your tail at any one time, doing this becomes hugely important as you thin the horde and halt anyone who gets too close. Secondly, the whip can be used to pull your rivals towards you, and it’s here where the traps become your advantage. Rather than avoiding them, tricking an enemy into a hidden chasm, fire pit, or set of spinning spikes can be incredibly satisfying. With the manipulation of an enemy and the quick pull on your whip, their doom can be spelled out in no time.

The main combatants you’ll come across take the form of skeletons, each equipped with their own swords, shields, and bows. Later levels introduce evil genies that throw fireballs at you, but generally, it’s an army of human scaffolding that stands in your path. They’re fine as an antagonist, but after you’ve bested the same character model for the one hundredth time, things start to get a little uninteresting. We’re surprised that the source material wasn’t taken advantage of more in this space, because some variety in enemy design would have gone a long way to making this an even better overall experience.

While there are some that have chosen to align with the skeletons, there are just as many genies willing to help you out with items and perks. You’ll encounter multiple in each level, and using the coins you gather from treasure found throughout the environment, you can purchase their wares. You’ll be able to purchase some health, pay for a ghostly partner to spawn and help you out, or even finance for every trap in the current level to be disabled. With even more perks to be found, the genies can offer a helping hand and change a level on its head if you’re in need of help. They’re a welcome addition to the game as they help to mix things up with random bonuses that’ll have you wishing for a certain perk to appear when you need it most, and resenting those that live in a lantern when it doesn’t turn up.

Of course this is a roguelike, and with that City of Brass brings with it the usual genre baggage and trappings, but also some pleasing tweaks and changes. The game is structured around a sequence of 13 levels, which are then broken up into sets of three, with a boss known as a Gatekeeper to greet you at the end of each. If you were to die before reaching the chief, you’re sent back to the beginning of the game. However, if you manage to beat it and then continue to make progress, your next respawn after a death will start you off upon the conclusion of the previous Gatekeeper’s death. This is done via portals placed at the very start of the game, meaning you can skip a number of levels if you just want to make hard progress. For the purists out there, you can choose to ignore those portals and start the game over again from the beginning. This is a huge change for those that may find themselves interested in City of Brass, but are put-off by the typical mechanics of a roguelike. Now, they can choose to start their next run at a certain milestone if they manage to overcome that certain test.

Another mechanic that benefits both newcomers and purists alike are the burdens and blessings. Selected at the start of a run, these are modifiers that can make the experience an easier one or even tougher. You can give yourself more health, lower the amount of enemies that spawn, completely disable traps, increase enemy movement speed, halve the time limit of each area, or double the amount of damage an enemy deals. With even more alterations available, you can tune the difficulty to what suits you the most. It’s a neat little feature that allows you to scale and adjust the challenge as you become better at the game, eventually taking the stabilisers off and venturing into burdens that make things much tougher for you. In essence, the combination of portals that save your progress and the blessings on offer makes City of Brass an excellent starting point for a newcomer to roguelikes.

Unfortunately, the end-game leaves a bit to be desired for genre veterans. Your initial run to the finish will probably take around two hours, with subsequent play-throughs streamlined to about 30 to 45 minutes, but with only online leaderboards in place to try and tempt you back, there isn’t enough reason to play the game over and over again. There is a persistent rank across every single run which unlocks further perks, but this isn’t enough when they’re funneled into a slightly lacking procedural generation. The title’s end-game appears to be structured around venturing into the burdens on offer, but that likely won’t be a good enough reason for most players to come back day after day.

Conclusion

City of Brass is a fantastic starting point for newcomers to the roguelike genre, but those that know a thing or two may leave feeling a little short-changed. The core gameplay loop at its heart is very satisfying, thanks to its experimental nature, and with the genies’ perk selection, there’s a decent amount of variety when you’re in the thick of it, but there just isn’t enough here to keep you coming back past your first couple of completed runs. There’s definitely fun to be had here for a few hours, but it’s nothing you’ll remember with a great deal of affection in six month’s time.

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