I have always fostered a lingering fascination with necromancy, but what really piques my curiosity is the perspective of the recently deceased (and more recently revived). Were they forcefully ripped from a heavenly cloud resplendent with harp music to join the cold, mortal world? Do they endlessly regret finding themselves alive again to fight another day? Are they cursed to repeat this process for eternity, beholden to the whims of another? Like those poor souls we dragged back to the land of the living, I found myself asking these same questions as I trudged through one identical dungeon after another in Grimorio of Games’ new rogue-like, Sword of the Necromancer.
Following a tale as old as time, Sword of the Necromancer tells the story of Tama, a rough-and-tumble bandit with a heart of gold, and Koko, a priestess-in-training who has outgrown her cloistered lifestyle. The latter tasks the former with joining her as she experiences the world at large, and the two naturally fall deeply in love along the way. After a fatal run-in with with an old friend, Tama must fight her way through the fabled crypt of the necromancer to find a higher power that can bring Koko back from the dead.
Try as it might to spice up its list of tropes with a dash of progressive sexuality, Sword of the Necromancer isn’t taking home any trophies with the plot alone. And while I could forgive it for its lack of originality, I cannot fathom a reason (sans an absence of creativity) why it would make me run through the same story twice. We’re not just talking about a perspective swap along the way to develop a richer atmosphere. No, Sword of the Necromancer literally makes you run the same dungeon twice (at least) to accomplish the same goal while only switching out who needs saving. The two characters don’t even appear to have different playable attributes, making it feel about as novel as a new skin for a faceless sprite. As the type of game that relies on repeated runs anyways, this was a strangely redundant choice that felt like lazy padding at best.
Padding aside, Sword of the Necromancer fits the bill of your standard rogue-like. Players start each run in the homebase Altar Room, where they can re-read journal entries, watch the cutscenes, upgrade their weapons, access their stored items, or stare at their dead (and presumably decomposing) girlfriend. Exiting stage center, players are immediately met with the first procedurally-generated dungeon and quintessential boss fight, followed by a handful more of the same rigmarole. Dying resets the player back at the Altar Room with half of their accrued experience levels and nothing in their inventory unless they saved it in the chests that appear after successful boss fights. Rinse and repeat.
While many of its kind err on the side of being controller-chuckingly difficult by providing a veritable flash mob of swarming enemies and projectiles in each room, Sword of the Necromancer actually keeps a fairly light pace up until the final boss. There were usually no more than five to eight enemies in a room, and most of them seemed content with the 1v1 approach, so the difficulty itself really boiled down to avoiding death by a thousand cuts over the course of several hours. This too was preventable since health refills from slain foes were about as numerous as the foes themselves, and there are plenty of in-game items to refill the ol’ heart bar when needed.
In a move that slightly distinguishes it from its peers, Sword of the Necromancer does allow players to adjust the difficulty, turn off the experience level reduction, and preserve the player’s inventory upon death. Perhaps this was an effort to include the less patient players, but it definitely allowed me to run through the game at a breakneck speed (especially during the superfluous Koko run). All in all, playing with the default settings was much more fun because it posed a greater challenge, but I enjoyed having the option nonetheless.
It’s no surprise that a game with the word “necromancer” in the title would try its best to make you play as the titular corpse-reviver, but having gone through this ordeal I think I finally understand why body re-builders are typically treated as merely one of many playable classes in other games: reanimated minions are quite literally braindead. Time after time I would waltz into a fresh room and spawn my spider, headless knight, and imp archer only to find them wandering around, aimlessly threatening the light fixtures or staring morosely into the abyss as I got my ass handed to me by a much more motivated spider, knight, and archer. While I imagine one could circumvent this by redeploying them in a more populated region of the map, the only way to call back a minion is to either leave the room or go up and pat them on the shoulder, a luxury ill-afforded when you’re backed into a corner by a series of cloaked ghouls.
Even if I could call them back like a demented Pokémon trainer, my minions’ utility would still be limited by their mayfly lifespan. Given that they had all the intelligence of an excitable Labrador, my crew found itself sucking up damage like it was on sale, resulting in each one only lasting a couple floors. And apart from sucking the life out of a rabbit minion (whose IR code looks like the new stand-in for the eggplant emoji), I couldn’t find a way to heal them outside of combat. This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that each minion is capable of leveling up, so I found myself in a constant cycle of congratulating and mourning my fallen comrades.
Adding insult to injury, the necromancer’s sword takes up a permanent place in your equippable inventory, leaving only three other spaces with which to fill with minions, other weapons, or passive relics. After finding out the hard way that necromancing was going to be about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, I decided to opt for buffing out my Tama/Koko with a couple stones and a regenerative ring, rendering the game a proverbial cakewalk. This was disappointing in more ways than one: First, it demonstrated that necromancers really are just the netherworld version of teachers on a field trip. Second, it established that the only way to successfully play the game was to take up the tired mantle of a one-man army, thereby renouncing the game’s mission statement (and shining an even brighter light on the wasted quarter of my equippable inventory).
In addition to combat, Sword of the Necromancer offers players the chance to upgrade certain items back at the Altar Room by mashing together materials gathered either throughout the levels or from dismantled gear. I actually think the upgrade system is fairly well balanced. Sure, you can increase your damage by 100%, but the amount of time it takes to locate enough of those specific resources feels fair and conducive to the rogue-like gameplay. It genuinely feels like a reward every time because you put your heart and *someone else’s* soul into it.
The in-game aesthetics are clean and thematic if not original, and while I’m not a huge fan of anime/manga, the still-frame cutscenes were really well drawn (with some getting downright provocative, ooooooolala). The voice acting during these cutscenes is also extremely good, even if it does lean heavily on the over-exaggerated anime noises that make me want to crawl up into my own guts and disappear out of shame. The in-game sound effects and music backing my time in the dungeons were also clean and sharp, meeting the often-forgotten standard of “it’s so good you don’t notice it.” In essence, the game looks and sounds pretty.
Sword of the Necromancer was a huge gamble from the start. The developers took a chance by trying to force a playstyle that we often ignore while instead opting for the paladin, rogue, or wizard. While the core mechanics are solid and the balanced increments of success across each run feel fair, the AI has been eating paint chips and the forced second run as Koko feels like a soulless grab for added playtime. A rogue-like’s appeal is already built on repetition, so there’s absolutely no need to shoehorn in more for the sake of a story that’s already been told.