City of Brass Review

By Kevin Tavore, 1 year ago
The stories of the One Thousand and One Nights (the Arabian Nights) have been famous throughout the Western world ever since they were first translated in the 18th century. That translation added a few new stories which became some of the most famous, such as "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and "Aladdin," but there are many more stories in the compilation worth learning about. One of those stories is “The Story of the City of Brass,” which serves as the inspiration for Uppercut Games’ first-person roguelite, City of Brass.

30/04/2018 - Carousel

In the original “The Story of the City of Brass,” a group of travelers searches the desert for the City of Brass. The walls of the City are traps that drive men mad, the inside is full of the dead, and ultimately the travelers narrowly escape after many are killed with a horde of treasure and genies in bottles that are ultimately freed. It’s a story that City of Brass could have done some interesting things with, but instead the developers went a story-lite route with you as a lone protagonist looting and fighting undead and genies with the ultimate goal of freeing the city of the curse. The bulk of the game's story is told up front with essentially none during the game, which renders the story practically worthless as you’ll have forgotten it all by the time you get around to finishing the game.

What the developers did take from “The Story of the City of Brass” are Arabian themes for the environment. I’ve no idea what Arabia looked like whenever this was set, but this setting of a sprawling stone city full of sand, undead, elemental genies in lamps, as well as a few touches of humanity like gardened and groomed plants and furniture create an environment that’s exciting to be in since it’s so rare in gaming. If you work hard, it feels like you’re living one of the Arabian Nights tales, which is undoubtedly fresh since Prince of Persia ended. The environments are cohesive in their imagery and that matters quite a lot as it ensures the game feels like an Arabian fairytale throughout.

City of Brass screenshot

The gameplay of City of Brass does not match the quality of its theme. It’s essentially a dungeon crawler with first-person melee combat. You’ve got a whip you can use to stun or trip enemies and then you’ve got a weapon you can beat on them with until they get up. Unsurprisingly, it’s about as fun as it sounds.

Throughout the game you can obtain new gear and other benefits to aid you from randomly-spawned genies if you have enough treasure to buy them. These weapons can occasionally change the way you play just as in many roguelites, though the general mechanics are not substantially altered. Likewise, the other benefits do things like give you increased speed or make your armor absorb an entire hit before breaking entirely. Whether the buff you get is even good will remain a mystery to you until you’ve used it at least once, which encourages experimentation with new weapons and the like and the occasional disappointment makes the occasional excitement feel a bit better.

The game is designed as a set of 13 levels with four different city themes. Your goal each time is to search for treasure and get to the end, with a helpful UI indicator letting you know where to go so you can’t get lost unless you want to. As you move through the levels, you’ll fight enemies and dodge traps. Each level theme has some unique traps which vary in deadliness but are ultimately all easy enough to identify and avoid as you sprint through levels. Every third level has a boss which is somewhat fun to overcome the first time around and otherwise identical every run after.

City of Brass screenshot

That speaks to one of City of Brass’ largest issues — a lack of variety. This is a roguelite, a genre with a core tenant of replayability and the game is clearly intended to be replayed with its permadeath and randomly-generated environments, but the combat, traps and bosses are dreadfully dull and never evolve. Sure, there are different types of enemies but the vast majority don’t require substantially different strategies to avoid. Likewise, the traps and bosses are entirely predictable. If you want replayability, you need variety and City of Brass just doesn’t have it.

The other huge issue is a lack of progression. You can level up post game which gives you a one-time benefit in your next game, and when you beat a boss for the first time you unlock a teleport to the next level that you can use on subsequent playthroughs to avoid having to constantly start over if you just want to beat the game. Otherwise, nothing carries over. Nothing at all. This makes it entirely unrewarding to try to find treasure and get gear as you know you’re likely to just lose it soon and get absolutely nothing for it. Of course, this isn’t unheard of in the rogue-lite genre, but that it has company is no excuse for its bad decision.

City of Brass screenshot

The achievements are mostly progression-based, asking you to get through all the levels and kill the final boss. You’ll also need to unlock some of the negative modifiers you can apply to make the game harder. Then, you’ll need to beat the game without using level skips and with all of those negative modifiers turned on. That would be a tough challenge to be sure, though I imagine with a bit of luck you could knock it out in a few dozen attempts if you speedrun the game. The list will probably remain tricky to complete, but for the most part it’s easy and will quickly hand over about 700 Gamerscore.

Summary

City of Brass looks like a beautiful epic straight out of the tales of the Arabian Nights. Instead, it’s a dreadful slog designed to avoid everything that makes a roguelite game replayable and fun. The combat isn’t any fun even with the new weapons you’ll occasionally get. Level design is full of traps that are easy to avoid and always the same. The bosses may be fun the first time, but if you convince yourself to play through again you’ll find the shine wears off fast. A complete lack of progression between playthroughs accompanies all of this. City of Brass gives you no reason to play through it multiple times, and frankly very little reason to play through it the first time.
1.5 / 5
City of Brass
Positives
  • The setting is fantastic with beautiful Arabian visuals
  • The boss fights are unique and fun the first time
Negatives
  • Combat is far too simple and repetitive to be fun
  • The game lacks variety in practically all aspects
  • There’s no meaningful progression and thus nothing to drive replayability
  • Story might as well not be there at all
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 4 hours exploring the city for treasure, killing enemies and bosses, and finding plenty of loot for 12 of 16 achievements and 625 Gamerscore. A review copy was provided through the ID@Xbox program. The game was played on an Xbox One X.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.