First impressions of the Sword of the Necromancer’s showed a lot of promise, with the weapon- and monster-based combat feeling satisfying to use and well-balanced. However, the detailed narrative seemed at odds with the roguelike structure. New story beats were only revealed after defeating each level boss, which made the progression system, which sent you back to the first level of the dungeon if you fell, dragged out the time between them and highlight repetitive elements. Thankfully, several updates in the release version not only allow you to tailor the severity of the roguelike systems, but better balance gameplay for those who want to stick with the developer’s original designs.
In the Sword of the Necromancer, you take control of the brooding bodyguard Tama, who arrives in the ancient dungeon lair of the titular necromancer who, if legends can be believed, overcame death. Tama’s charge, Koko, a young priestess who was looking to experience and understand the world before ascending to power, has fallen at some point in the past. Tama is desperate to revive her, no matter the cost, but the “why” is something the player will only discover over the course of the journey.
The visual novel story-telling frequently swings between charming and salacious.
After an impressively animated cutscene sets the mood, you’re presented with a familiar roguelike dungeon-crawl. You need to tackled level after level, clearing rooms of enemies, finding the key for the boss encounter, and looting equipment chests for new gear. The weapon-based combat in Sword of the Necromancer is solid, with different weapons – such as swords, axes, and halberds – requiring unique strategies that consider their reach, area-of-affect damage, and combo potential. However, the novel feature in Sword of the Necromancer is the ability to revive slain foes with the titular sword. When revived, they function as summonable companions, each with unique abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.
The common gameplay loop – assuming you’re not relying purely on gear-based combat – is to clear a room of monsters, consider strengths and attack patterns, then revive several monsters using the Sword of the Necromancer. Revived creatures require one of three available inventory slots – the fourth is always the sword – and are assigned to one of the face buttons (if you’re using a gamepad, which I’d recommend). As you have limited slots to work with – slots also required for secondary weapons, amulets, rings, and consumables – you will soon have to decide if you’re prioritising weapon- or summons-based combat.
Even if you’re focussing on weapons and gear, a tank-type summon is always a good back-up plan.
Summoned monster combat in Sword of the Necromancer is hands-off and follows a simple rock-paper-scissors formula based on physical and elemental weaknesses. Simple slimes offer slow-moving ranged attacks but they’re effective in large numbers; skeletons can self-revive several times and make for great distractions; mage-like summons cast a myriad of elemental orbs that inflict damage through defences that would block a physical attack; larger tank-like summons draw aggro, allowing the player or other summons to pile on the damage. Weaker creatures often fill support roles, like a head-spider that snares and slows enemies, a flute-playing cherub that buffs your attacks, and a rabbit that sacrifices its own HP to heal you.
Unfortunately, these summoned monsters don’t possess the most complex AI and can barely follow the player effectively. Most automatically engage enemies at short range and then go idle. They de-summon every time you transition to a new room, which keeps them at the ready, but you will only want to summon them once engaged in combat or place them centrally and lure enemies towards them. Although summons are disposable and easily replaced, they can level-up like the player, unlocking new abilities, increasing damage output and survivability. To maximise their effectiveness, you need to match the right monster summon against the right monster type. That said, I often found dropping a diverse group – typically a mix of defensive, ranged, and magic-wielders – worked well regardless of the situation, particularly against bosses.
The difficulty of the boss encounters can vary wildly depending on your party composition and their mobility (given that your summons are useless at following moving targets).
Initially, Sword of the Necromancer’s roguelike gameplay loop clashed with the apparent focus on storytelling. Defeating a boss grants a lengthy, fully-voiced cutscene, not dissimilar from a visual novel, that fleshes out the growing relationship between Tama and Koko. For many players, the harsh progression system would stifle progress as, by default, you’re stripped of any acquired gear and summons (aside from the sword), your level is halved (which automatically provides buffs to your health, resistances, number of dashes etc.), and you’re sent back to the start of the dungeon if you die (or simply need to quit for a break!). Rack up a few poor back-to-back runs and you can find yourself in the same position as you started hours before.
Thankfully, the release version unlocks a new difficulty menu after several deaths, allowing players to remove several penalties associated with dying. You’ll still need to battle your way from the first level of the dungeon, but you can retain your gear and/or level, and even drop the overall difficulty (or increase the difficulty to better balance the overall experience). It’s a great option for those who enjoy the action and narrative but grow tired of the inherent repetition of roguelikes – which also serves to highlight the limited environment, enemy, and visual variation between runs.
Local coop is a great addition and you can even revive one another.
For those who want to stick with the roguelike structure, the developers have introduced several new features that make it a more fluid and engaging experience. Aside from the usual assortment of collectables to find (think bestiary entries, gear descriptions, and journal pages), you can now return to the starting area after defeating a boss without losing gear and level, allowing you to stash gear for later runs or use crafting material to imbue your gear with new passive effects before restarting the run (think increased elemental damage/protection).
Another great feature is the potential for local coop, using the “Flask of the Homunculus” that unlocks after defeating the boss of the first level. As most monsters and bosses are weak to flanking, a (temporary) second companion is a massive boon. The second player can collect and trade gear with you, and even revive you if you fall (though they don’t have the sword and can’t summon an army). You can still use the potion in a solo game to create a clone that copies your movement and attack patterns, but this feels a bit broken as getting the clone to follow you effectively is a distracting meta-game of its own.
This simple menu goes a long to making the game more accessible and increasing the chance you’ll see they story through to its conclusion.
Overall, what Sword of the Necromancer may lack when it comes to a unique visual design and level variety, it makes up for with the narrative hook and satisfying monster-summoning combat. Whether you’re hacking your way through your foes using weapons or a carefully selected menagerie of monsters, combat feels good and you’re only ever one boss away from more story content. With player-assists now available for those who would prefer a tough hack-and-slash experience, and several upgrades that improve the flow of the roguelike experience, it’s easier to progress without long slogs between new narrative beats. Make no mistake, it’s still a tough game that’ll punish you for reckless play, but the gameplay now feels more in line with the developers narrative ambitions.
Sword of the Necromancer was Developed by Grimorio of Games and published by JanduSoft and Game Seer Ventures.
Sword of the Necromancer is available on the following Platforms Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Xbox Series X and Series S, PlayStation 5.
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