In 1980, designers Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman released a small freeware game known as Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom. It featured some entirely original concepts for its time, such as randomly generated maps, endless levels and the concept of permanent death; once the player died, he had to restart from the very beginning. Over the years, additional games with similar elements have coalesced into a specific genre known as rogue-like, with some variations being known as rogue-lite when they’re not quite as punishing but still maintain the core concept. Notable recent entries in the genre would include Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy; games that feature the same general concept but offer a level of persistence to the experience, so that each successive play builds on the last and death isn’t entirely permanent. These games also feature an ending, some kind of ultimate goal to strive for that is absent in a lot of true rogue-likes. City of Brass, the new rogue-lite from Uppercut Games, falls into this more “relaxed” part of the genre, but ups the challenge with some clever ideas about persistence and customization.
ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS
Inspired by folktales from the Golden Age of Persia commonly known as One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights in the west), City of Brass places you in the role of a young thief who stumbles upon the ruins of a cursed metropolis filled with gold and treasure, but also terrible monsters and deadly traps.
One of the first things you’re likely to notice about City of Brass is the fantastic art design on display in every room, hall, dungeon and courtyard of the city. The wonders of ancient Persian architecture have featured in other games, most notably the Prince of Persia series, but nothing on this scale or level of detail. The lighting is particularly praise-worthy as Uppercut does a wonderful job using light and shadow to create foreboding spaces even in the bright of day. Minarets tower above you, lush gardens and crystal clear pools surround you, torches create shadows that play along the walls, and despite how beautiful it is there’s a clear and deliberate sense of unease.
The level design will have you constantly glancing up at the magnificent surroundings, leaving you to stumble across any number of booby traps that can send you to an instant, ignominious death. It’s the kind of game that leaves you a little saddened when you realize it doesn’t have a dedicated Photo Mode to help you capture all the amazing scenery that surrounds you.
INDIANA JONES EAT YOUR HEART OUT
Whether or not you can make it out of this beautiful but deadly city depends on how good you are with a bullwhip and a scimitar. The core gameplay at work in City of Brass is a give-and-take rhythm between your whip and blade. Your whip works mostly as crowd control, allowing you to disarm, blind, knock down or pull in enemies, whereas your blade does most of the heavy lifting, but can also be used to push enemies into the various environmental traps strewn about each level. The flow created by using your whip to set up kills that you execute with your blade makes for decisive, fast-paced combat, especially when using the whip on the many available grapple points to ambush, flank or just swing past your foes.
The number and variety of moves at your disposal when engaging groups of enemies make for a combat system that is as deep as your imagination. While the standard whip-blade combo can take care of most basic enemies, City of Brass ups the difficulty in each of its 13 levels with newer, tougher, faster enemies that require more creativity to defeat. To that end you can use your whip to grab nearby objects, including flammable or poisonous containers, to fling at your enemies. You can also use your whip to pull bad guys into environmental traps, knock them off ledges, or explode lanterns.
YOU AIN’T NEVER HAD A FRIEND LIKE US
Adding further complexity to the overall system are the various genies you encounter throughout the game. Most are friendly, acting as vendors offering various services or goods. You can purchase more powerful weapons, better defensive gear, and an assortment of talismans and charms that alter your luck in numerous ways. Some genies will offer to disable traps, let you gamble or even bank items for later use. The blue flame of the friendly genie quickly becomes a welcome sight, as they can turn the tide of any run through the City of Brass in a heartbeat.
In addition to their base level services, genies also offer you three wishes (total, not each) that you can spend to drastically increase the benefits they provide. For example, Bhetun the Curative will usually replenish one heart in your health meter for 125-250 gold. Spend one of your wishes on him, however, and he will completely refill your health for 700-900 gold, every time you see him throughout the rest of your run. There are 9 distinct genies in the game, all of whom offer game-changing gear, stats or assistance, and finding out which ones work best for you is the key to successful runs. I found the greatest success by using my wishes on Bhetun the Curative to ensure I could always refill my health, Khashaz the Meddlesome to disable all traps on every level, and Dhuake the Traitorous, an evil genie who summons fiery apparitions to attack you. Wish upon him, however, and all he summons will fight for you, instead.
All these services cost gold, and lots of it. Of course, you are there to pillage the city’s riches, of which there are plenty. Gold is earned in the game by picking up treasure left about on shelves, tables or the floor and by looting chests which can contain massive stacks of gold coins. To ensure that you don’t waste too much time picking up all this booty, especially if playing with a timer, City of Brass allows you to use your whip to quickly collect any loose treasure you come across without having to walk over and pick up every single piece, and little touches like this are what helps the game feel so polished.
CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT PERSISTENCE
One of the most important aspects of any rogue-lite is how they handle what’s become known as ‘persistence’, or the aspects of a rogue-lite which continue from one run to the next. It is an important mechanic because games with little or poor persistence can become too much of a slog, whereas games that offer too much help lose all challenge early on. It’s a fine balancing act, and every game handles it slightly differently. FTL: Faster than Light, for example, lets you unlock new ships with which to start your runs, while Rogue Legacy lets you permanently upgrade certain stats so that your character is potentially stronger with each new attempt.
City of Brass has some new ideas about handling the problem of persistence that are, oddly enough, entirely randomized, themselves. Zaibof the Guarantor allows you to buy “insurance” so that some of your fortunes carry over for subsequent runs, and Iqorif the Keeper lets you bank items for later use. If you’ve got a great flaming whip that you’d like to keep using but are fairly confident you’re not going to complete your current run, you can simply hand it over to Iqorif. You lose the ability to use any item you bank for the rest of that run, but they’ll be waiting for you in a chest at the beginning of your next play. Since the appearance of any genie in the game is entirely randomized, you never know when you’ll run across these two, which makes for some interesting moments of hand-wringing as you contemplate whether you really want to give up your fancy lightning sword or sink precious funds into supernatural liability premiums.
Each run also grants experience towards player levels, and each new level unlocks items and/or weapons that are automatically equipped on your next run, and only your next run. These also appear to be randomly generated. The only universally persistent feature that players can unlock are the boss-level shortcuts. The first time you beat any of the game’s bosses on levels 3, 6 or 9, you unlock the ability to skip to the level directly after theirs, for an increasing number of wishes. One wish lets you skip to level 4, two will let you skip to level 7, and three will let you jump all the way to level 10. Of course, the more wishes you give up, and the further into the game you start, the fewer resources you will have to work with when you reach the end.
This may sound confusing and even irritating at first glance, as it did to me, but the further I progressed in City of Brass, the more I saw just how brilliant a design choice it really is. Some rogue-lites use persistence to all but guarantee that if you simply keep playing, your chances of success continue to rise with each playthrough, even if very slowly. It generates a feeling of low stakes in a genre that is supposed to be all about high stakes. No one run feels consequential because they’re all more or less the same with some slight progression; if you don’t get it this time, you will next time.
City of Brass sidesteps that problem entirely, as the random-ization of its persistence means that any run can be the run. If you didn’t level up in your last attempt and have nothing in the bank, it’s a great time to experiment with different combat techniques and polish your skills. However, if you just hit Level 10 and were rewarded with a cloak that masks your movements and a bracelet which makes you impervious to fire, now might just be the right time to take that ice whip out of your bank and go all in. The randomizing factors require you to constantly change your strategy, use different gear and actually master all aspects of combat and movement.
BLESSINGS & BURDENS
If the difficulty presented by the randomization doesn’t quite suit you, or if you’re the kind of gifted player who can blitz through these types of games in just a few tries, City of Brass’s Blessings & Burdens system is a welcome feature, as it allows you to greatly customize different aspects of the game’s challenge.
Blessings increase your odds of survival in various ways, from extra health and damage to eliminating the timer completely. All blessings are unlocked from the very first run and can be used immediately. Activating them all creates for a relatively relaxed time where you’re sure to progress deep into the game even on your first few attempts. Burdens, on the other hand, pile on the punishment by doing the exact opposite. Enemies become deadly, nigh-unstoppable juggernauts, traps multiply throughout the world, genies can become less cooperative and charge higher rates, or you can just cut your allotted time in half, making every level a mad dash for the exit. Burdens must be unlocked by progressing through the game, as you essentially have to earn the right to a higher challenge, and for good reason; activating all burdens at once turns City of Brass into the most difficult game I have ever played. Death is swift, brutal, and guaranteed for all but the most hardened players.
There are eight Blessings and eight Burdens available, almost all of which can be activated at the same time, or in any combination that suits your particular play style. You can create custom parameters that make you and your enemies as delicate as glass for quick but dangerous runs, increase everybody’s defense and health for a full-on slug fest, or fine tune your options to present unique and different challenges on every run.
CRACK THE WHIP
Rogue-lites can be frustrating games, which is why they’re usually relegated to niche status. City of Brass is a beautiful, highly-polished and mostly successful attempt at turning the genre on its head by making it more accessible to everyone, from rogue-lite veterans to first time players. With a unique and intuitive new combat style and some innovative takes on genre conventions, you’ll find plenty to like about City of Brass no matter what your skill level.