Crypt of the Serpent King is a budget indie "medieval first-person hack'n'slash dungeon crawler with roguelike elements" and "some light RPG mechanics"
This title originally released as an Xbox Live Indie Game on the 360 back in 2015 for 1.00 USD by developer Rendercode Games. As I understand it, Rendercode Games is a one man development team out of Spain with past experience working with other studios on budget titles on previous console generation and has published a few avatar-based titles for the 360.
Reading reviews of the 2015 XBLIG 360 version, some changes to the XB1 have been made. Some of the visual art assets for the enemies, such as the orcs, have been improved, along with improvements to the background art and wall textures to help differentiate the different levels.
Some elements of the old game have also been altered, including:
- the 360 version let you keep your XP and gold upon death (which only applies to Easy Mode in the XB1 version)
- no minimap in Hardcore mode originally (no minimap changes occur with changing difficulty settings in the 2016 version)
- the original XBLIG version only had enemies in the keyrooms and mostly in pairs (the new version solely spawns enemies in hallways and always solitary)
The altered version game released for the XB1 on Dec 20th, 2016 for 2.99 USD in limited regions such as the USA, Canada, Mexico, Germany and Brazil. It also released on Steam on Dec 27th, 2016, on the PS4 Feb 27th, 2018, on the Xbox One in Europe on June 1st, 2018 and on the Nintendo Switch on May 31st, 2019.
The Xbox One version also received a January 2017 patch which made some of the platforming sections easier but made some elements of the enemy AI more difficult on higher difficulties.
The base price of the game was lowered to 1.99 USD on Sept 3rd, 2018. This title occasionally goes on a 50% sale for about 0.99 USD.
The gameplay involves a first-person perspective in seven different dungeon levels with elements of exploring hallways, fighting enemies and opening chests to collect loot. The ultimate goal is to traverse traps across the level to collect all the keys to open the gate to fight each level's final boss.
Each level is procedurally generated, but every playthrough ends up feeling the same as each level only contains one type of predetermined enemy and final boss, the number of keys needed to open the final gate always stay the same and the variety of room design/layout/appearance along with decorative assets vary very little.
There is no tutorial for the game, save for a "How to Play" button layout on the menu screen. There is also no attempt at exposition or storytelling whatsoever. The player is simply dropped into the first dungeon without any backstory or direction.
There are three difficulty options, Easy, Medium and Hardcore, with the hardest mode only unlocked upon completing the game on Medium.
The Easy mode allows the player the roguelite option of keeping any gained XP or gold accumulated in the level to date upon death, allowing the allocation of skill points to Player Speed, Damage and Health or the purchase of improved weapons for a better chance of success in future runs.
This is the extent of roguelite qualities though, as the Medium difficulty setting eliminates any gains in XP or gold unless the player successfully clears the level, along with making the enemies and bosses faster, more aggressive and possessing larger health pools.
The Hardcore mode further eliminates all available health powerups available in chests, so players have to challenge themselves to clear the level with the 100 HP they are provided with to start off each level, while doubling down on enemy attack speed and toughness.
The player is dropped into the first dungeon equipped with a simple hatchet and tasked with uncovering a labyrinthine dungeon filled with twenty or so Kobold rat enemies, chests filled with gold, food replenishing HP or later on, arrows for your ranged weapons once they have been purchased.
The goal of the level is to collect 8 keys surrounded by lava in order to open the gate to the first boss, a human brandishing a long halberd axe with great range.
Downing the boss ends the level, allowing the player to allocate their accumulated XP on skill points for improved abilities or spending gold on different melee weapons (mace, halberd, flail, sword) with improved damage and range or ranged weapons (crossbow, bow) before jumping back into the next dungeon to repeat the same.
The combat system leaves something to be desired. Each level is limited to one enemy type. The enemy AI is very basic. A clever audio prompt with the beginning of an easily recognizable change in the background music often informs the player that an enemy has been alerted to their presence long before they are even visible on screen. The default settings to this game are very dark, making it hard to see enemies approaching in the distance, which I found was easily remedied by turning up the in-game brightness to +2.
Enemies will predictably charge in a straight line directly at the player as soon as they detect you. All enemy types are melee-only, usually limited to one or two different attack animations. The seven levels all have a set order of kobold rats, goblins, orcs, skeletons, knights with halberds, spiders and snakes as you progress through the dungeons.
Enemy AI is very limited. Almost all enemies can be dispatched with a simple "backup to avoid attacks then counterattack" strategy, although the window of opportunity shrinks as the difficulty scales up. Enemy attack animations can be triggered by swinging your own weapon even at great distance. Enemies will return to suspended animation and give up their attacks and pursuits if they get caught on a doorframe or a player jumps over a narrow chasm. In the Hardcore mode of the game, I soon realized I could clear entire levels without receiving any damage by fighting enemies across gaps and killing them as they remained inanimate.
Enemies and bosses similarly become completely helpless if the player begins to circle or strafe them. The sometimes wonky hitboxes seem to only allow the player to take damage if the enemy can melee attack them head on and the player becomes invincible if they remain on the move.
There are also some questionable design choices with respect to the combat. Whenever a player takes damage, the entire screen turns red for several seconds, obscuring the field of view and disorienting the player, leaving them vulnerable to further damage.
The game also some very light platforming sections to obtain the requisite keys to gain access to the cage containing each level's boss. These keys are always located in identical square-shaped rooms with keys contained within a central island guarded by lava, spikes or flames.
There were originally many player complaints regarding the janky jumping controls on release, leading to many one-hit jumping deaths, forcing restarts. However, a January 2017 patch changed some platform designs, removing all challenge from the platforming, save for Level 5.
There seems to remain a design flaw where a player is unable to jump while descending stairs or sloped platforms, leading to deaths when trying to vacate raised islands. This can be remedied by performing a counterintuitive maneuver by which the player performs a jump while stationary and subsequently pressing forward to clear the chasm in midair.
All seven levels conform to a "fight the enemies, collect the keys, kill the final boss" format, including Level 7 where the player clears a level full of snakes before battling the titular Serpent King in an anticlimactic showdown that differs little from the previous six bosses.
The ending is similarly very stark, with a parchment displaying "The End", followed by sepia sketches of the seven bosses before dumping the player back to the menu screen, interestingly without any credits or developer rollcall to be found.
Expectations obviously have to be scaled for a one-man indie developer releasing a budget title for under three dollars. I personally thought the game looked great.
The default settings had the dungeon lit very poorly and I ended up turning up the menu brightness to +2 from the get go. While the visual assets are repetitive (and unfortunately for the most part indestructible/noninteractive), I enjoyed the visual style. I particularly thought some of the enemy models such as the Orcs were very detailed. The wall textures were well done, although overused. The weapon art in the foreground fits with the theme.
That being said, some of the lava effects harkens back to early 90s Doom days. Similarly, the blood splatter animation upon striking enemies is comical.
The HUD seems initially obstructed, as a good portion of the left side of the field of view is covered by opaque status bars for HP, gold, XP and keys. I found it initially quite constricting for the first few levels, but grew accustomed to it later on.
The developer astutely provided provided an audio prompt where a specific piece of music begins to play whenever new enemies are approaching, making up for limitations in draw distance and brightness.
I personally found the music choices complemented the theme and immersion of the dungeons quite well. However, some of the music loops have some jumpscare-style horror elements like creaking and shrieking which are initially quite unnerving after the player learns the significance of the initial enemy audio cue. With time though, the player learns that most audio changes are simply canned and have no significance, allowing it to fade into the background and be ignored.
The difficulty settings and the achievements in this title do not stack, so three playthroughs are required to 100% the game.
The Easy mode is initially quite forgiving, especially once the player learns the enemy audio cue and the timing of the counterattack strategy. Similarly, the initial gifting of accumulated XP and gold even upon failed runs allows fast upgrading. The greatest initial challenge is the flawed platforming on Level 5, forcing the player to learn the stationary jumping technique via trial-and-error.
The difficulty in Medium scales up as partial XP and gold gains are removed and enemy speed, aggressiveness and hitpoints are noticeably improved. However, all seven levels can still be cleared with more skillful mastery of the same counterattack maneuver as previous, especially since ample health powerups are available each level in chests. XP and Gold are plentiful, so much so that attributes are near max by the final level and accumulated gold serves no purpose for the later levels once the best melee and ranged weapons have been purchased.
The rubber meets the road on the Hardcore difficulty unlocked after successful completion of the game on Normal difficulty. All health powerups are eliminated, so each level must be cleared with the initial 100 HP provided. Enemy AI remains rudimentary and unchanged, but refractory periods between their attacks become almost imperceptible and a player will die after suffering only a few blows from foes.
Players are forced to resort to exploiting holes in the game's mechanics, such as the inability for enemies and bosses to damage you from anywhere but forward facing or the fact enemies can't hit you across any sort of gap.
I personally cleared 6 of the 7 Hardcore levels by luring each enemy back to a key platform, where I could kill them across the chasm while they were inanimate and defenseless. This strategy only failed me on Level 2, the only level lacking platforms. Instead I exploited the enemy AIs plodding speed to dodge all 20+ goblins in the level to run around solely collecting the nine required keys to reach the stage boss, failing to engage a single foe.
Similarly, as the end bosses got faster and tougher, I resorted to exploiting their ability to damage a moving target by holding the Left analog stick in a fixed position to constantly spin while attacking opportunistically, including the final endgame Serpent King.
There are 21 achievements in the game for 1000G. The achievements are as simplistic as they come, as each one is based on clearing one of the seven dungeons on the three difficulty settings.
All achievements are obtainable.
This game is neither fast and easy nor is it exceptionally difficult. 36% of TA users have finished the game for a TA ratio of 1.446, compared to 7% of the Xbox population at large.
Unfortunately, the difficulty settings do not stack, so three playthroughs will be required. Successful levels range from 15 to 40 minutes in length. Completion time estimates average 5-6 hours, with myself exceeding 10 hours. The greatest time sinks involve instadeaths on unsuccessful platforming (especially Level 5), having to clear entire levels again upon dying in boss fights or the extra time involves in searching all corners of dungeons for extra chests of gold and food or extra enemies for XP or time consuming strategies like having to lure enemies back to platforms to fight them at a distance.
This game ran very well until the final Level 7 on Hardcore mode.
Prior to the final level, it ran very smoothly on my OG XB1, save for an occasional wall texture turning gray for a split second.
At times, the enemy hitboxes and attack animations seemed a little wonky. The act of taking damage did not always seem to match perfectly with the timing of an enemy's attack phase.
Unfortunately, the animation required to open the doors separating rooms in the final dungeon seemed to cause slowdowns that would last well past the end of the door animation, though it didn't actually impact gameplay.
I do not believe this game has received any support since the original post-release Jan 2017, so it should be considered a finished product.
It's a challenge to scale criticism for a budget title made by a one man developer selling for less than two dollars presently. Reviews since the game's initial 2016 XB1 release have been overwhelming negative.
Upon 100% completion of the game, I am still torn. I enjoyed the artstyle, though it quickly became repetitive. The combat system evolved from mindlessly easy to frustratingly difficult requiring constant exploitation of AI limitations.
I think the main problem with Crypt of the Serpent King at the end of the day was that it was never really fun to play at any point. I flew through the first half of the game, but then found myself limiting myself to one level a day throughout the more challenging sections as the gameplay was repetitive and tedious, along with unforgiving if mistakes were made. The game became more of a chore that required completion by the end. While clearing a level was satisfying, I didn't desire to keep playing and looked forward to playing something else once I'd made my daily progress.
I do think 10 hours of gameplay for 0.99 CAD on a 50% sale was fair value, but I am certainly happy to be able to clear this one off my hard drive, never to be seen again.