September 25, 2019
Revealed earlier this year and releasing worldwide during E3, Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer featuring The Legend of Zelda was probably the least expected Zelda title of all time. Spinoffs in the series are relatively few, and Nintendo working with an indie developer to create a new game using one of their most popular IPs is unprecedented. This combination of the indie hit plus one of the longest-running and most beloved video game series makes for one of the most unique crossovers ever made as well. But the question remains: was it good?
Well, by now you’ve probably got a good idea of what the general populace thinks about it, since I am admittedly quite late to review this title. Nevertheless, my thirst for review-ery is not sated, since for the first time since its completion earlier this year, my Lens of Truth series is incomplete! This simply cannot stand so once again I shall take this game as objectively as I can and see how it stacks up to the cannon Zelda games. As always I will rate graphics, gameplay, sound, and story, each category eligible for a maximum of ten points, to come up with a score from zero to forty.
Brace Yourself Games’s first game, Crypt of the Necrodancer, had very clear inspiration from SNES era games, and the sprite work was simply amazing. On this new adventure, their style had to be adapted to mimic the look of a Legend of Zelda game, and this could not have been pulled off better. The blend of the two styles feels very natural, since Zelda is known for never ceaselessly changing art direction. The combo really feels to me like the art directors from Minish Cap and A Link to the Past came together to make something new.
Beyond the style itself, the asset design for enemies and overworld had to be very clever to pull off the vision of combining the two games. Enemies, since Zelda has many iconic foes, and overworld assets because the roguelike aspects must still feel like they were tailored to add puzzles within the random generator. Both of these, in my opinion, were stupendously successful.
Many enemies from the furthest corners of the series could have made the cut, but to add as many as they did left me stunned. From original favorites like the Octorok to those born in the current generation like the Stone Talus, and even including reimagined favorites such as a Gleeok combined with a glockenspiel, this game never once disappointed in the variety of villains.
The idea of a roguelike Zelda confounded me at first, but in the end it worked out so well that I thought the overworld was handmade. On my second playthrough when I realized the overworld I’d been traversing was ao detailed that it felt as though it were carefully curated. How they made modular assets that could be randomly combined in such a way that it felt like it was executed by expert designers is beyond me. The sprite work in a roguelike must be even more difficult to design than in other genres, since fitting the pieces together must be carefully balanced with gameplay, making the sprites not only look good, but making them function correctly when the player interacts with them no matter where they appear in the game world.
The original artwork for this game is incredible as well. They really pulled out all the stops when combining the two styles, as I said for the sprites. The art is very similar to the original Necrodancer style, yet it retains just enough Zelda flare to be worthy of bearing the name of my favorite franchise. Overall the visuals in this game open my review with an out-of-the-park grand slam, ten out of ten.
Playing the original Necrodancer after the reveal, I had a lot of questions about how this would translate to a Zelda style of gameplay. Not being overly familiar with roguelikes, it seemed odd to me that the game did not have a traditional overworld. I postulated the idea of an ever-randomizing world akin to that of Diablo II, but this would make it awkward to revisit places you had already completed, which is generally useful or fun for some purpose in the Zelda series. The other direction I imagined might be plausible was randomizing dungeons while keeping a static overworld. This would abandon certain roguelike elements while still keeping true to the Zelda half of the game.
Option three is all too often the way developers think, however, and they combined the roguelike series with traditional Zelda in a way I beyond my expectations. The world is randomized, with certain handcrafted areas remaining identical each playthrough, while the bits in between change every time you start a new game. This retains the ability to navigate while still giving you the ability to mix it up if you’d like. Plus, it infinitely increases replayability by making a fresh experience every playthrough.
The gameplay centers around moving to the beat of the music. Combined with how important the soundtrack has been to the series, Integrating the music with the gameplay was a genius move in the original game, and it feels just as good here, if not better because of how deeply rooted Zelda’s music is in my soul.
The combat is often frantic; with several enemies onscreen, you can’t always focus a single one, and it is difficult to decide where to move in the space of one beat of music. If you can’t accurately predict the movements of two lizalfos, an octorok, a stone talos, and three bokoblins, you could easily find yourself getting stabbed every beat until you’re dead. This makes for an interesting learning curve similar to that in Breath of the Wild. At the start, it’s pretty difficult but if you power through, you will find it one of the most engaging experiences in gaming. After you find a few heart containers and get the hang of enemy patterns, the game actually becomes fairly easy. Well, in the overworld anyway.
The dungeons are cleverly built, and always feel like you are finding a good challenge. Even when you have the best weapons in the game and are fully loaded on hearts, it’s no cake walk, and a large reason for that is the magnificently designed boss fights. None of them are insurmountable, but each one feels like a challenge no matter which order you complete them. In addition to the heavy hit points they have and damage they deal, every boss uses a rhythmic pattern much like the enemies, but they throw in a gimmick to their pattern that makes you have to think about how best to fight it. Some end up with bullet-hell elements, which adds to the chaos. In the end, they all feel like Zelda bosses because of these mechanics. It’s not a puzzle in the traditional Zelda sense, but it feels like figuring out the patterns and how to deal with them is the puzzle.
Honestly I could go on and on about the gameplay, but eventually my unerring praise would become stale. These larger bullet-points I’ve laid out are but the tip of the iceberg, and one really must experience the game itself to fully comprehend. Perfect ten.
Danny Baranowsky returns from the original Necrodancer, and it can’t be overstated how successfully he captured the essence that defines music in one of the world’s most iconic gaming series. The worry from the get-go was that the remixed and reimagined themes we’ve come to know and love wouldn’t live up to their original versions. It wasn’t a huge worry since the reveal trailer sported one of the best Tal-Tal Heights remixes there has ever been, but this small glimpse of the music did leave me a little skeptical if every tune could be so great.
Luckily, Danny has our back, and the soundtrack couldn’t be better. The mixture of Necrodancer and Zelda’s styles is flawless. It is original yet familiar. Recognizing dozens of themes from the series would have been great by itself, but none of them felt shoehorned in. The style throughout was consistent, and this helped all the music flow naturally between areas. In this, I would say that it has surpassed Breath of the Wild, as there were many tunes in that version of Hyrule that didn’t feel as well implemented. In particular, the game went out of the way to reuse the Dragon Roost Island theme in Rito village. While this was a nice throwback to one of the best soundtracks of all time, it felt a little disconnected from the rest of the music; like it was the only theme they’d ever used for a Rito town so it had to be that one. Cadence of Hyrule managed to take this idea and make every tune its own at the same time. It’s pure wizardry.
That’s largely all there is to say about the sound design, but it is worth noting that the sound effects were also familiar, but perhaps felt a little bit like they were cut and pasted from the source material. Not objectively bad, but it didn’t stand out in any significant way. Along with this, Cadence of Hyrule is the second Zelda game to feature voiceovers. The acting was all done incredibly, though there was so little of it I can’t really say that adds much to the game. I did like the simple yells and grunts from the characters for combat, a minor detail that again went a long way to recreating the Zelda feel, but again it was too miniscule an addition to really make me feel strongly one way or the other.
Again having no complaints, the sound rings up a third ten out of ten. Absolutely astonishing in the music, and while most of the other sound elements were understated, they didn’t serve to bring the game down at all.
Story is not what I consider to be the strong suit of the Zelda series in general, making this one a little hard to place. The story over all other elements has had the most fluctuation of any category in the my personal Zelda experience. Cadence oddly feels a little more like a Zelda game because the story takes a backseat to the other elements. In a weird way, the lackluster story made the overall experience much closer to the series it was emulating.
Not that the story was bad, but it was simple and didn’t seem to impact my desire to play. In a game with a great story, one would strive to complete each objective because of what was going on. You’d want a love-to-hate villain with a compelling motive, maybe some drama and politics, a good moral… well this has none of that. The game’s drive came instead from the desire to explore, fight the incredibly designed bosses, and solve puzzles to get to the next location. Luckily the gameplay pulled you in like the jejune villain couldn’t.
Octavo has an appealing aesthetic, but I honestly have no idea what his deal was. He just showed up and wanted to take over or something and honestly the music was more interesting to listen to than his boastful monologues. I got that he’s the bad guy, and I had to go to Hyrule Castle and beat him up, but beyond that I saw no particular reason to be interested. At the end of the story as well, Ganon shows up and makes you wonder why they didn’t have him more involved beforehand.
What the story did well was the little details within each area that made it feel like a real world. You know how everybody always says you play Majora’s Mask for the side quests rather than the actual story? This feels very akin to that feeling, where every person you interact with adds a little story of their own to the world. The Zoras at Lake Hylia have something going on, you have to find the Hibiscus Potion to revive Link or Zelda from a sleep spell, stuff like that. It is perhaps not as detailed as Majora’s Mask, but the same fluidity of the world really adds a lot to this game.
In the end, the story was just above mediocre because of the thoughtful detail put into the world. The core story and character development could have been handled much better, but it got you through the game, and in Zelda that’s pretty much all I expect. The story breaks the pattern with a six out of ten. It was fine, but it could have been excellent.
Can’t complain about a thirty-six out of forty. That would place Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer as the eighth place contestant if I put it on the list officially, ranking just above A Link Between Worlds and just under Twilight Princess. For an indie developer to recreate the core feelings of an iconic series is impressive, and to be able to crack the top fifty percent of all Zelda games while doing so is simply confounding. They did Zelda better than a lot of the core games. I cannot praise this game enough for what it does right, and I can promise you if you like The Legend of Zelda, you will love this game. I wouldn’t even be kidding if I said this is the best spinoff ever made.
What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them in the comments below, or you can also chat with myself and many other writers from the site on the TGPZ Discord, or you can hit me up on Twitter. If you’ve played it, do you agree with my analysis? If not…. What are you waiting for? My review is months overdue, go buy the stinkin’ game!