I’m going to get this out of the way right out of the gate. I have not beaten City of Brass. Not even close.
I’m putting that information out there, because I typically consider it a point of pride (and to some extent – ethics) to see credits on a game before I sit down to write a review. Some games (think Overwatch) simply can’t be beat, and that’s okay, but City of Brass is not one of those games. This is a game that has a definite ending, and UI showing you how many levels you need to beat to see that ending is dangled in front of you over and over again while you play the game. But try as I might, I just can’t beat this game. City of Brass is hard, y’all.
But that’s kind of the point. City of Brass is a rogue-lite of blistering difficulty, and I could almost hear the game laughing at me when I bumbled around a corner without looking and fell down into a pit full of spikes. City of Brass sets you loose to run spastically through a city full of traps and deadly enemies, and then pitilessly beats you to death. And to thank them for the privilege of an ignoble death, I would immediately push the button to start all over again, without even pausing to think about it. When I was unable to continue because I had played so much that the carpel tunnel had kicked in and I could no longer feel my fingers, I called my son into service. Then I sat there on the sofa and cackled to myself as he flailed around getting murdered by headbutting skeletons.
City of Brass has a great loop. You start at the gates to an old Arabian city, recently risen from the sandy desert and looking for all the world like Agrabah from Disney’s Aladdin. Your mission is simple. Get to the center of the city, avoiding bad guys and traps, and grabbing as much treasure as you can along the way. The game is divided into a series of levels, which are procedurally generated. While the layout is different every time you run through, the levels typically contain the same assets. For example, you can expect to run across the genie that throws fireballs at your face every time you run through level two. He’s just never going to be in the same spot he was in last time. A handy arrow at the top of the screen points out the general direction you need to head to reach the level’s exit. Each level has a timer that is constantly ticking away. If the last grain of sand falls before you find the exit, its “lights out” and all the way back to the beginning. The beginning of level one, that is. Permadeath is a fact of life in City of Brass, and it comes quickly and without remorse.
You are armed with a sword and a whip. The sword is just a sword, handy for whacking dudes if they get close enough, but the whip is something else entirely. The whip is capable of pushing baddies into traps, pulling baddies towards you so you can whack them with the sword, grabbing treasures, triggering traps, all sorts of fun stuff. The whip is also capable of contextual attacks. Aim towards a bad guy’s legs and you can knock them on their rear end. Aim for the head and you will knock off their hat (and occasionally their head). You can knock weapons out of hands, whip exploding barrels to take out nearby enemies, and occasionally wrap the whip around an overhead hook and swing through environments like Indiana Jones. The whip is crazy handy. If it were not optimized, this whip would be a game-ruining nightmare. But in fact the whip is amazing quick and accurate, and I never once thought that it was behaving in a way that was glitched or unfair. When I missed a shot with the whip, the fault was all mine.
Running levels is a unique balancing act. You need to keep moving quickly to stay ahead of the timer, deciding on the fly which enemies you need to eliminate and which you can safely ignore. City of Brass teaches you by killing you, and often you will only learn how a trap or enemy works while they are in the act of dispatching you. The treasure dynamic in particular trips me up. I know that it is wise to clear out all of the bad guys from an area and then go back and sweep through, picking up all of the treasures. But I can’t help but get greedy, trying to snag things as I run by, which invariably leads to a quick and harsh death. It seems that I can’t be taught.
While it didn’t have to be to be considered a success, City of Brass is a beautiful game. The presence of Bioshock veterans is clearly visible in the DNA of this game, as the animation is silky smooth and finely detailed. The AI is finely tuned to relentlessly attack without hesitation, but the bad guys rarely seem stupid. Characters behave as you would expect them to, but do not seem trapped on tracks or loops. This keeps you on your toes even if you displace while under attack, as guys will pause to readjust their trajectories before screaming and launching themselves at you. There is a great variety of bad guys, and as you move into later levels, the game continues throwing new wrinkles at you while still folding early-level favorites into the mix.
To offset the harsh difficulty level, City of Brass regularly offers the opportunity to purchase temporary power-ups with your hard-earned treasures. Several genies are nestled throughout each level, each offering a variety of cool perks, health bonuses and weapon upgrades. There are tons of these bonus items packed into the game, some of them dramatically changing gameplay. One of my favorite perks is the ability to have a ghostly companion run along with you, fighting bad guys and cleaning up behind you. There is also a leveling system in place, with each failed run earning you an amount of experience points, depending on how successful you were. Each time you level up, you are granted one of these perks permanently, so if you play long enough, the scales will eventually start tipping in your direction.
Additionally, players are able to activate “Blessings”. These are perks that, when turned on, slightly mitigate some of the challenges that players face. You can lower the number of enemies and traps. You can give yourself a much larger amount of health. You can (thank God) turn off the timer. I am not ashamed to admit that I used Blessings liberally, especially once I started running into the game’s bosses, which are sprinkled into the game every few levels. It is important to note though, that the use of Blessings sometimes excludes you from being listed on certain leaderboards (though there are leaderboards for runs using Blessings in the game as well).
Speaking of leaderboards, I now come to the point of the review where I tell you why I’m comfortable admitting that I have not beaten City of Brass. There are leaderboards in place to list the top game completion times. At the time of this writing, these leaderboards just spin and spin, never bringing up any rankings. Last night, while we were playing around with the leaderboards, I looked at my son (who is the best gamer I know) and asked “Do you think that means that no one has beaten the game yet?” And he said “Oh yes. I totally believe that.” Even if our assumption is not correct, and the non-functional leaderboards are the result of some technical glitch, just the fact that we were willing to entertaining the idea that no one on Planet Earth has beaten City of Brass on PlayStation 4 should be a testament to its difficulty.
This difficulty that I keep harping on should not deter players. In fact, there is an entire subset of gamers out there that will eat this up (I’m looking at you, Spelunky fans). City of Brass is an extremely polished game, and though it eats you alive, it never feels unfair. The game will teach you through failure, and if you give it the opportunity, City of Brass will polish your skills for you. Just don’t expect to beat the game in your first session. Ain’t happening.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a 45-year-old dad with four kids, ranging in age from 1 through 17. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on PS4, PSVR, PS Vita, 3DS, Wii U and a janky PC. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.View Profile