A game needs to be challenging to be truly enjoyable. Games like Dark Souls and Bloodbourne stand as a testament to gamers’ thirst for grueling, punishing experiences where death is more familiar than success, to the point where these brutal games have become a sort of sub-genre. Independent Australian developer Uppercut Games offers a fresh take on this genre with City of Brass, a first person Bioshock meets Prince of Persia action game that mixes tactical sword fights with heart pounding chases. The procedurally generated environments and free-running capabilities separate City of Brass from any similarly hard games, but the sluggish combat and grueling difficulty cause the fun to wear off after a few hours of play.
Players who have read Arabian Nights will recognize where City of Brass gets its inspiration, although the lore of the city has been changed as have the general mystic elements. For those unfamiliar with the classic collection of middle eastern folk tales, the game’s tutorial quickly details the context of the titular city while explaining the basic controls. TLDR; the City of Brass was a paradise of the desert where the wealthy pooled together their resources to create a haven until everything went to hell, eventually being cursed for their greed. Since then, adventurers and explorers have ventured to the city in search of the treasures within, however none have ever returned.
After completing the quick tutorial learning the basics of movement, combat, and lore, players are dropped at the outskirts of the city and the game begins as you work your way through 16 different levels to find the riches that lie at the City’s center. Along the way you’ll collect various treasures and coins to purchase weapons, armors, whips, and gameplay tuners to help on the hunt for treasure. The twist? When you die, which will happen often, you go all the way back to level one and none of your gear or coins transfer over. This adds a grueling level of difficulty to an already difficult game.
The gameplay balances speed-running through levels and tactical combat, placing a large emphasis on knowing when to fight and when to simply run away. Combat isn’t exactly fast paced so stopping to fight when overwhelmed usually results in a heartbreaking death sending you back to the city outskirts. On the other hand, blindly running through environments avoiding every fight usually results in an entirely different death as you run yourself into a horde of trapped souls or fall into an unforeseen trap. This creates a challenging yet fun balance between combat and movement, forcing the player to plan and strategize their actions before making any moves.
The responsive movement controls and versatile use of the whip make running through the city a blast, making the idea of running rather than fighting all the more tantalizing. Player’s can seamlessly vault over waist high items, leap over great distances, and use the whip to swing over massive groups of enemies. In fact, free-running is so fun I died countless times because I was enjoying running effortlessly through the city so much I either ran out of time or got pinned down. The whip is a little tricky to get the hang of, requiring precision aim to latch on to swing-able hooks, but getting the hang of it simply takes practice and pays off in dividends when trapped in a sticky situation.
The two handed combat tasks players to combine sword attacks with whip lashes and pulls, shoves, and the occasional throw-able vase to either defeat or stun foes. There’s certainly a learning curve with the slow paced combat; relying too heavily on your sword will leave you exposed while strictly sticking to the whip isn’t lethal enough. Finding the right balance of combat takes time and attacks have to be pretty precise to be effective, but narrowly escaping a deadly battle after mastering sword and whip is a fantastic reward to the tricky combat.
Traps laid about the city at random areas add a whole new level to combat and movement, allowing players to push or pull enemies into spike pits and sand blasters. Traps are integral to successful encounters and saved my ass on many occasions. Knowing the location of a trap and when to spring it is often the choice between life and death, offering even more depth to the combat options available. Be weary though, traps can hurt as much as they help, so scouting your surroundings for traps before making a run for an exit is just as important as planning to use them offensively.
While the combat does require an intriguing sense of creativity to be mastered, the overall sluggishness of attacks ends up making combat more frustrating than it should be, especially when faced with the deviously fast enemies. In general, most enemies felt like they could go on the attack quicker than me, so more often than not I found myself turning tail and running rather than engaging in any combat, even more so knowing that if I died I’d be sent back to the very first level. Combat started out as an exciting mechanic I looked forward to mastering but eventually devolved into a frustrating collection of sluggish attacks that left me dead more often than not.
Of course, players can purchase better weapons from the Genies throughout the city allowing faster attacks at the expense of damage- which I usually felt to be an unworthy trade off. That’s only if the player understands what they’re buying though, since neither the Genies or the tutorial offer any insight into what goods are carried or how the vendor system works. Not being able to carry your coins over to the next level certainly prioritizes spending but the fact that there’s never any explanation of what you’re buying severely diminishes the drive to actually buy anything. When you’re being chased by twenty trapped souls with permadeath on the line, stopping to look at an inventory of unexplained items is simply too much a risk for most players.
This creates an unintentional loop of trial and error to get a sense of what’s available. Once you do discover and use an item, the game does a fine job of explaining its attributes in the pause menu’s journal. However, with impending permadeath haunting over me, I never wanted to risk picking up an unsuitable weapon after finally making headway into the heart of the city. My advice to players: spend your first few run-throughs of the opening level buying as many items as you can to equip yourself with the knowledge necessary to use them.
Trial and error is expected in a game with so much death, but City of Brass‘s procedurally generated levels guarantee the experience never gets stale, no matter how frustrating it may be. Each time you die you awaken into an entirely new arena with new enemies, traps, Genie vendors, and even bosses. Sometimes you’ll get really lucky and get a slightly easier map in a high level. Other times a fireball throwing demon genie will appear in the very first level and absolutely decimate you. Regardless of what happens, the randomized level designs ensure a fresh experience on every single play through, no matter how often you die.
Make no mistake- you will die often. The procedurally generated maps may keep the game fresh, but they also make every encounter unexpected. Traps will never be laid in the same place, enemies will populate unexplored areas, Genies will always sell varying items, and certain bosses show up at random. I died so much that any play session lasting more than an hour was more frustrating than rewarding as I’d make little progress towards the heart of the city while finding new, horrible ways to die. If you’re the type who throws controllers in frustration, stock up on backup controllers or simply don’t play this game.
Games need a sense of challenge to be entertaining, but challenge needs to be met with reward to be fulfilling, so there’s a fine balance needing to be struck in order to justify such challenges. This is where City of Brass is truly lacking- there’s no tangible reward for success. Yes you level up unlocking new items available for purchase after completing an arena, but the flawed vendor mechanics mean you’ll rarely see these rewards.
At first, the reward was the sheer fun and sense of accomplishment after mastering the combat. Luckily, these intangible rewards last for a good five or six hours of gameplay. That being said, after mastering the combat and gaining a true sense of the game’s pace, that sense of accomplishment turned into simple relief, erasing the only rewards the game had for me. Without any noticeable rewards for the incredibly challenging gameplay, the game loses any sense of fun after six hours or so and instead becomes frustrating.
From a graphics standpoint, the game is absolutely gorgeous. Running on Unreal Engine characters, environments, and weapons are all intricately detailed- from the individual braids of your trusty whip, battle scarred sword to the sand stained brass towers. Even with such an emphasis on speedy play, I found myself stopping to admire the beauty of the game multiple times-then subsequently being trampled to death by horde of trapped souls.
The sound, on the other hand, is more hit or miss. While certain audio cues, like the groans of a nearby enemy or the ticking cool down of a sprung trap, aide the player it’s the missing audio that I found to be most frustrating. A bellowing groan alerts me to an incoming threat, but what if there’s no such groan? Well, in that case, I was usually surprised by an enemy waiting around a corner or bashing me while I was gathering coins.
City of Brass is undoubtedly a technical feat thanks to it’s incredible graphics and ever changing world via procedurally generated environments. From a gameplay perspective, things are a little uneven. Traversing the city is fun and combat invites creativity, yet also creates frustration without any sense of speed. City of Brass is an enjoyable game for the first six hours of gameplay, however the feeling of accomplishment quickly gives way to frustration due to the game’s high level of difficulty. After a while, it’s a game that is just too hard for its own good.
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