The scorching sun beats down. Ahead lies the cursed City of Brass, doomed by the greed of its long-dead inhabitants who still stalk its streets. The walls of this mighty city stretch far away into the distance, while their height is only surpassed by the towers, topped with onion shaped brass domes which gave the city its name. With trusty sword and whip in hand, I step forward. The great portcullis opens and I step forward and through the narrow doorway beyond, eager to explore the city. Mistake. In my eagerness I hadn’t noticed the grid of small holes just in front of the door, which I would later recognise as signalling the presence of a spike trap... I survived (not unscathed), and set out on an instructive voyage of discovery, which included loot, a friendly genie offering wares for sale (and the option of using one of my three wishes), a booby-trapped treasure chest, and a terminal encounter with a demented skeleton with his head in a cage (given the desert climate, the other skeletons sensibly wear hats) whose mode of greeting seems to be to lower his head and charge in a bull-like fashion. Welcome to the City of Brass. No, you’re not paranoid, everything is out to get you.
Made by Canberra-based Uppercut games (composed of a number of former Bioshock devs), this is going to be a fairly hard game to review, simply because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises this game throws at you (and there are plenty). Granted, most of these take the unwelcome form of a new type of trap or enemy intent on making you a permanent part of the city’s legion of skeletons, but that’s part of the fun.
The aim of each level except the last is straight-forward: find the exit (perhaps doing in a gatekeeper along the way), and grab as much loot as you can. Being a roguelike game, City of Brass readily punishes mistakes, poor judgement, and inattentiveness (like the above mentioned spike trap) and one of the surest ways to come a cropper is to try and tackle everything the same way. Try rapidly sprinting for the exit, and you’re likely to blunder headfirst into a trap or a nest of overpowering enemies. Take too long, and the timer runs out (I won’t spoil the surprise, but you can survive what follows if you move quickly).
One time, courtesy of a friendly genie and a spot of luck with a treasure chest, I thought I had a winning combination that would let me get at least beyond the fourth level. Using my Cloak of Obscurity (an invisibility cloak which activates after a few seconds standing still and stays active until you sprint or attack) and the Element of Surprise (does what it says), I was methodically working my way through the levels. Though I restricted myself to moving slowly (to stay hidden), I still had ample time to make the exit before the timer ran out. That was before I ran into a trap specifically designed to catch slow-moving malingerers; ‘sigh’ back to the drawing board.
Rather, a tactical approach coupled with decisiveness is what’s needed. This extends to combat: with no ability to block and only a moderate speed for sword and whip swinging, fighting relies on rapid thought, quick positioning and situation awareness rather than button mashing. While one opponent can be easily dealt with, it’s a different story with two or three, and simply charging in, sword swinging, is the perfect way to be sent back to the menu screen, as missteps in combat hurt. It’s rare for a game to make me panic, but my first encounter with one of the gatekeepers did just that - as did the first time I came across the terrifying Silent Effigies...
No, a plan is needed, and some of the most gratifying moments are when your hair-brained schemes play out exactly as you’d envisaged (think the fight scenes from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies): I can use my whip to grab that explosive jar and hurl it at one foe whilst sprinting and power-sliding into the next to knock his feet out from under him, quickly spin around and use my whip to disarm/stun/knock over (depending on where I aim) the third enemy, whilst side-stepping to dodge the charge from one of those caged-crazies (which will run straight into the spikes I’ve positioned behind me), before returning my attentions to the first guy I knocked over before he can regain his feet.
As you get further into the game, new characters and abilities become available (such as the spear-wielding soldier, the dagger throwing thief, and - my personal favourite - the delightfully insane croswbow-toting Renevant), adding to your tactical choices. Further adding to the challenge, the levels are randomly generated, meaning you never know just what you’re going to find. The level may be sparsely filled with loot, or positively dripping with it. It may be reasonably safe, or have oodles of traps. That potion you’ve found may bestow some benefit... or might turn you into a chicken. You just never know. Whilst procedurally generated levels run the risk of being dull, broken or too similar, I’m happy to say in the dozens of runs I’ve had (and so far I’ve only reached the end once) I’ve not encountered these issues.
All in all, City of Brass’ opulent 1,001 Arabian Nights art-style, punishing difficulty and liberal use of traps (this is a game trying to beat you, as much as you it), is reminiscent of the very best parts of the original 2D Prince of Persia games. A brilliant game that will have you coming back again and again, at $19.99 AUD ($24.99 if you get the soundtrack as well), you simply can’t go wrong. ■