Hidden beneath the desert sand, accessible only by way of a genie’s wish, the City of Brass is a hidden madina full of untold riches. Of course, accessing it is only the beginning; surviving it is the real trial, as the folks (or at least, the glowing remnants of what, long ago, were folks) that occupy the city’s mean streets aren’t very keen on the idea of you leaving – with or without their loot.
Fortunately, the developers behind City of Brass, some of whom once worked on BioShock – have given you the tools you need to survive. Treasure can be converted into upgraded weapons from the djinn (that’s genie to those of you, like me, that grew up watching American television), or hoarded for a better score if chasing numbers is more your thing.
While you start with a stabby thing (or sword, if you prefer that nomenclature) in your right hand, it’s what you wield in your left that is far more interesting. True to the Indiana Jones adventure aesthetic and supernatural setting, your whip will prove your most valuable interactable, no matter how much you upgrade that which you hold in your other hand. With it you can slap the hat off a zombie, rip its weapon out of its hand, and even stun it into submission. You can reach distant treasure, trigger traps, and swing majestically from hooks that hang from roofs. It is, in a word, indispensable.
What is a little funky about the whip, however, is the way in which it works. Basically, it works the way you’d expect an actual whip to work; you give it the old heave-ho and it blasts forth, uncurling its full length before snapping with a satisfying crack. “But you said funky, Mr reviewer man; what you described is no such thing!” I pretend to hear you say, writing this all well in advance of you reading it.
What’s funky is that, through years of exposure to the rote lessons of innumerable prior videogames, one expects the actions taken on press of a button to happen either immediately or eventually; here, the whip begins its dark work the moment you press the button as you’d expect, but it doesn’t finish (the cracking / smashing / stunning stuff) until milliseconds later, by which time you may well have moved on to pointing at something else. It’s not a big deal, as it seems less problematic during combat than it does when you’re trying to snag a treasure or something, but it’s definitely a unique and interesting mechanism. Once you’ve put some real time into it, of course, the requisite skill develops and such considerations become a thing of the past.
Fortunately, the combination of exploration and stabbing / whipping things proves to be quite exhilarating. Fortunately? Yes, fortunately. Why fortunately? Well, you’re going to be repeating the levels – especially the early ones – quite a lot. City of Brass, you see, is a “rogue-lite”. For the uninitiated, that essentially means when you die, it’s game over and you have to start over should you want another go. Like an arcade game.
The genre, made popular before the invention of computer graphics, is pretty much vanilla in terms of implementation here. Levels are randomly laid out each time, vendors have a random assortment items available, and dead men tell no tales. There is some level of continuity between runs; levelling up your profile through experience earned each run unlocks bonuses you can take into your next attempts, and there’s an all-too-rare vendor that lets you buy insurance (resulting in a cache of cash appearing at the start of your next run, which is quite the leg-up for that attempt!).
Mechanically it’s solid without being spectacular. Exploration is fun and includes some added bonuses like vaulting, long-jumps, and the aforementioned whippy-hook-things that boost level traversal above the norm. The level-based nature of the experience means that running through like a loon, pocketing only what you happen across, and avoiding through pace alone the avid attentions of the evil glowing demon things is an option, too, which helps alleviate the stress that can develop when you find your skill plateauing.
One aspect that really wasn’t to my taste was the inclusion of a (short) level timer. Get to the end before the sand runs out or die, end-of. I’m sure there’s a reason behind it and it definitely fits the theme, but I really wanted to explore the nooks and crannies more than I could, which was frustrating. Still, when the only real criticism you have of an experience is that you wanted to have more of it than you could, that’s not bad is it?
Rogue-lite fans are going to love this one and there’s enough interesting, fun, and engaging stuff in here to make it well worth a look for action fans too. It’s difficult without being ridiculously so, and the varied levels ensure replayability is high even if you can’t get very far. It’s top stuff – you should totally get it.