Growing up as a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark one can’t help but be impressed with the very Indiana Jones way City of Brass implements its whip. Used to both stun enemies, knock swords out of their hands, drag them forward into traps, swing across gaps, and even collect hard to reach shiny bits of treasure - it’s some of most fun with a digital whip you’re likely to find. Not only in terms of the mechanics, but also animation and sound effects. Canberra-based developer Uppercut Games nails the whip-cracking sound, giving it a classic Lucasfilm sheen.
As a team comprised of ex-BioShock designers there’s a level of polish to the visuals and presentation that is immediately noticeable. Played in 4K with HDR enabled, on an Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro the result is an often-beautiful Arabian Nights city overrun by traps, undead soldiers, and genies. Lots of genies. Or, Djinn
. Played from the first-person perspective City of Brass is an intricately designed dungeon crawler where procedurally generated levels merge with a one-life to make it to the final stage or restart from the beginning arcade-like setup. Countdown timer, leaderboards, and high-scores included.
Enticing players to venture back into the City of Brass for one more run, in addition to the procedurally generated levels, is a system of light progression and dozens of items and in-game power-ups to purchase at the many genie storefronts scattered throughout. A rogue-lite where you get increasingly more powerful over time this isn’t, as full difficulty customisation is available from the beginning. Where you can increase your health, lower enemy spawn rates, the number of traps that appear, the cost of items, and more importantly - disable the timer.
As a melee title where you’re using a whip to stun enemies and then a sword to finish them off - slow and steady is the right way to play. This makes the timer a weird addition. The slower than a shooter movement plays into every aspect of combat and even exploration, as you’ll need to be careful not to trigger any traps. Which are everywhere. And so, the timer does little more than rush you towards the exit leaving little time to explore each new room in search of treasure. Being able to tailor the experience to your own tastes kind of makes this complaint somewhat of a moot point when you can easily turn it off.
Playing City of Brass, it’s easy to see that it’s an experience full of interesting enemy encounters. Including one that just so happens to be an indestructible statue that chases you every time you turn away. Think Super Mario ghost by the way of a waking nightmare. The flow is part Spelunky part Dragon’s Lair, which is refreshing in just how unlike other shooters or first-person titles it is. Naturally the downside to this is that combat lacks the finesse of a faster-paced title and is often repetitive and robotic in nature – whip the face, whack the body, rinse and repeat.
Which is probably why every three stages the tile-set and region of City of Brass changes to introduce new traps and foes. But even this aspect falls short of drawing you back in to replay or retry for the umpteenth time. Repetition, but without the continual reward and feeling of growing more powerful over time that comes with a rogue-lite. A more focused effort with perhaps more puzzles and predetermined linear stages and regions might have been a better fit. As it stands the item and genie storefront system offer variety and incentive to keep playing for a while, but after a stretch they don’t feel as powerful or game changing as they should.
With City of Brass there’s a feeling you’re playing a home port of an arcade game, where short spurts of action, strategy, and fun doesn’t translate to a sit-down to play for an extended length of time videogame. It looks fantastic but there’s not a lot below the surface. But by keeping all power-ups and progression tied to procedural generation, there’s just not enough to keep you coming back time and again. And after you find yourself not being able to progress past the first few levels, difficulty customisation is like getting unlimited credits so you can see how much game exists.