City of Brass is a first-person rogue-lite action game from Uppercut Games. Founded in 2011, the independent development studio consists of industry veterans. With titles like Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel and the first two Bioshock games under their belt, how does this team’s second console/pc endeavor fare?
Iffy First Impressions
First impressions paint a morbid picture. The game feels off from the moment you begin playing. Default movement speed is mind-numbingly slow with a sprint toggle making a barely appreciable difference. Running around only feels right when the player is lucky enough to encounter the fleet foot upgrade in one of his/her runs. This simple upgrade turns City of Brass into the experience Uppercut Games says it is at face value.
They claim the “natural” and “fluid” movement puts you in the shoes of a cunning thief. However, default movement speeds are so slow that walking is completely useless. I ended up playing the entire game with the sprint toggle on and it feels too slow even then. Beyond the tortoise-like movement, every single animation looks unfinished. Slashing swords, grabbing ledges, sprinting, pushing enemies, and lashing out the whip never look normal. City of Brass lacks proper force feedback despite strong controller vibration, which can be adjusted in the settings menu. Killing something or jumping a large gap doesn’t provide the sense of gratification you’d hope. Every animation looks like a placeholder meant for an early access title rather than a polished final product. City of Brass isn’t in early access anymore. This is the 1.0 final release.
Things Get Better: Structure
City of Brass‘ core gameplay loop is satisfying enough to bury the jank for genre fanatics. The “lite” in rogue-lite is minimal compared to something like Rogue Legacy. Unlike that game, the player won’t work toward consistently improving the protagonist’s base stats incrementally. City of Brass contains an entirely superfluous leveling system. An upgrade might be awarded at the start of the next run after each level up. It only lasts for that session, meaning a level 30 player won’t have any advantage over a level 10 player. The upgrades’ rarity and usefulness also don’t increase as the level goes up.
City of Brass expects you to get good and pay attention. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself dying dozens of times before even facing the first of five bosses. Each level is procedurally generated with boss fights book-ending tile sets after every three levels. There are twelve levels with the end-game boss acting as the final thirteenth level.
Things Get Better: The Meat and Potatoes
Gold, acquired from chests, destroyed objects, or the environment, is spent at various genies. There are seven different genie types with each selling different things. One genie might offer the ability to disable traps whereas another sells combat-related enhancements. Players begin each run with 3 wishes, which can be used to acquire more substantial benefits. Using a wish on Zaibof The Guarantor transfers up to 1,100 of the player’s current gold into the next run. On the other hand, a standard transaction with Zaibof caps off at 250 gold. Deciding what to do with the genies is part of the strategy.
Should you allocate gold to your next session or save it to spend on immediate upgrades? Should you place a weapon/upgrade in the bank for the next run, leaving you with one less bonus, or trudge onward? Is wasting a wish on this genie for one specific upgrade worth it? Will disabling traps help or hurt in the long run?
You must contend with all of these decisions while racing against a timer. An endless stream of projectiles assaults the player once the timer expires. This time-sensitive management is a major element to City of Brass‘ thrill. The player must constantly decide how much time should be spent searching for gold vs. killing enemies vs. finding the exit. Exploring a level in its entirety is impossible. This especially holds true as the game’s difficulty progresses with each new tileset.
While combat feels lackluster due to the horrid animations and drowsy movement speed, there is something to latch onto. The standard lasso, which can be replaced with fire, ice, impact, and vine varieties, does no damage. The end result changes depending on what the rope is aimed at. Aim at a skeleton’s hand and he’ll drop his sword. Aiming at enemies’ heads will simultaneously stun and push them back. You can also trip most enemies by striking their legs, though some variants are immune to tripping.
Environments are also littered with traps and throwable objects. Using the environment and limited move-set to wipe out waves of enemies without the sword’s help is where City of Brass shines. It can be easy to lull yourself into a rut of tripping something and running in to slash it, but City of Brass counters this with a decent mix of enemy types, traps, and environments. You’ll find conventional strategies difficult to use by the time the fourth level rolls around. Each tile set introduces variants of existing enemies and traps along with entirely new ones. It forces acute environmental awareness that rewards efficiency, effective crowd control, and navigation.
Burdens and Blessings
Divine burdens and blessings can customize the difficulty according to an individual’s preference. The game contains eight blessings and eight burdens. Blessings provide boons such as the ability to remove the time limit, increase player health, and so on. Burdens were made for the masochists that flock to rogue-likes for punishment. They alter things such as doubling the number of traps or halving the time limit.
This customizable system allows players to mix and match as they please. Do you want to reduce genie costs and increase drop rates while contending with respawning enemies and double the enemy health? You can do exactly that. Do you want a schizophrenic experience, activating all eight burdens and all eight blessings at once? Nothing is stopping you.
The Xbox One X Difference
Uppercut Games claims City of Brass renders at “4k resolution” on the Xbox One X with improved visual settings. Visual fidelity tweaks range from higher quality lighting to higher quality shadow resolution/draw distance. It’s hard to argue much of this without a point of comparison. It doesn’t look like a native 4k frame buffer, but then “native 4k” was never claimed. The framerate is my biggest point of contention, though.
Framerate issues crop up regularly enough to be worthy of mention. General gameplay runs fine, but the frame rate dips noticeably during explosions and physics interactions such as throwing items that explode on impact, sending particles across the screen. This likely points to a CPU bottleneck, though it doesn’t bode well for the other console versions. If the Xbox One X, with the fastest CPU of the current generation consoles, still struggles during CPU-bound interactions, I’d hate to see how the weaker machines run similar scenarios.
Keep in mind that Uppercut’s co-founder himself felt the need to point out this version’s better performance. Yet, despite that, it buckles frequently enough to make ignoring it feel like a disservice.
City of Brass is a worthwhile addition to any rogue-like/lite fan’s library. Animations are too deeply-rooted to be fixed with a simple update unlike movement speed, but there’s enough to satiate gamers looking for a challenge. If you want something you can pick up for twenty minutes or invest hours into mastering, City of Brass has you covered.
Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by the publisher.