First released via Early Access on Steam in 2017, City of Brass makes its debut on the Nintendo Switch. Finally, players are also able to be on the go and enter the titular city for its promises of treasures beyond imagination and boundless adventure, but is the gameplay worth its weight in gold?
After a quick and painless tutorial in which the most basic game elements and the setting are introduced to the player, we are on our way to explore the City of Brass. The game’s fundamental mechanics are rather simple, the challenge lies in mastering the execution.
In the beginning, you start out with a sword and a whip. The sword is your primary means of dealing damage to the enemies the city pits against you and the whip is your main method of interacting with your environment, one of the big twists of the game.
Moving your cursor across your surroundings changes it, depending on the context. Take aim at some treasure and the cursor changes to a hand. Now you can use your whip to just pick said treasure up from a distance. Aim at an enemy’s feet, make them trip, aim at their weapon of choice and just whip it out of their fists. If I’d be able to get my hands on City of Brass’ whip, I might never stand up again in my life.
The environment and the interaction possibilities, in general, are a big gameplay element and one, depending on your ability, you can use in your successful traversal of the city. There are many traps all over town, which you’re able to trigger using your whip. You can also turn them into weapons of your own disposal by just whipping an enemy and pulling them straight into the closest trap. These come in many different forms and can be quite the hazard for unassuming players. Either way, the controls remain simple enough to accomplish feats like using the traps against the mostly skeletal hordes without much of a hassle, the challenge lies in your ability to position yourself well enough.
The plethora of possible interactions with your environment definitely makes City of Brass stand out from the typical roguelike crowd, using an approach that hasn’t yet been done to death in the genre. The sound aids you pretty well in informing you of your surroundings, enemy types give off distinct enough grunts to identify them when nearby and traps have pretty audible activation noises. In general, the gameplay is tailored to make the player carefully scan the environment and scour through it in a calculated fashion as opposed to just barging through it and the sound design does its best to help out.
Another standout point for City of Brass is its oriental flavor in atmosphere and design. The various enemy types and different environs do a good job of evoking an Arabia from ages past, with lots of scimitars, sand, genies, and houses hewn from stone. The music does its part as well and, while being very subtle, perfectly supplements the mood of a city not wanting to be awoken once more. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that particularly in the graphic design department costs have been cut, some of the assets stand out in a negative way by sticking out like a sore thumb, just not fitting the whole picture very well.
This is, unfortunately, a more general issue. The game lacks polish in almost every department. The textures are poor in detail, the animations are lifeless at times, the controls seem wonky, and combat can feel very sluggish. All in all, the game sets out to materialize a great concept, it just doesn’t quite get there. Add to that some baffling game design choices like one-run-only rank up rewards and ridiculously situational items and you have a title on your hands that just screams “better wait for a sale”. In all fairness, the game ran smoothly on the Nintendo Switch, in handheld mode as well as on the big screen.
Despite all its faults, City of Brass offers a great type of variation on the tried and tested first-person roguelike genre. The procedural level design and permadeath work wonders for the core gameplay, as I had to be on my toes constantly, ever vigilant of traps behind many doors and enemies around every corner. Not being able to quicksave or just memorize the sandy streets definitely keeps the tension high.
Beyond that, City of Brass belongs to the breed of roguelikes without much persistent progress in between runs. You can unlock new classes which will slightly alter the playstyle, but not by much. Everyone still has a whip, even the genie. You can’t just grind your stats up and beat the game by brute force, the progression happens mostly inside the player, not in statistics and experience bars. Additionally, you can unlock burdens, which you can activate for an added challenge, e.g. a halved time limit per level or respawning enemies.
Opposed to the burdens stand the blessings, which you can activate right from the get-go. These can completely remove the time limit altogether or increase the player character’s health. In that way, City of Brass’ difficulty is highly customizable and the game is pretty accessible for it. To me, the burdens and blessings felt like a double-edged sword. Of course, we have a difficulty that’s highly customizable, but there’s no incentive in the form of enhanced or decreased rewards. The choice is left to the player. I can’t shake the feeling it was implemented because of the developer’s problems in creating a balanced and unified vision for the game in light of the flawed gameplay, including an adequate difficulty curve in relation to the player’s ability in the confines of the sluggish combat. Though this might be the cynic inside of me speaking.
In the end, the enjoyment you can get out of City of Brass depends on your preferred style of roguelike. The game isn’t one to treat you like a pavlovian dog, it dares the player to challenge themselves and to master the mechanics instead of being drip fed constant feedback with unlockables and experience points. In that sense, it has a very old school, almost arcadey philosophy. Unfortunately, that is a design philosophy I’ve never been a huge fan of, I like my constant feedback with unlockables, experience points, and skill trees. The sands still have their charms and the gold’s luster is alluring, but I don’t know if the City of Brass will be able to pull me back in.