Early Access Review: Courier of the Crypts

Courier of the Crypts is a top-down retro RPG developed and published by Emberheart Games. As those of you that know me may be aware I tend to be harder on retro games sometimes, since they are (relatively speaking) easier and quicker to make, and I tend to play a lot of them that are as such quickly hacked together affairs that lack in production values and soul.  So I have to admit, I didn't go into Courier of the Crypts with the rosiest of expectations.  And I was quite glad to have found a very charming retro style RPG.  This isn't soulless at all, and that's a damn good thing to see - but neither is it perfect, and there's certainly room for improvement.  Now that I've quite soundly thrown my hand onto the table for all to see, let's back up and unpack this a little.

The production values in Courier of the Crypts are great

Cast your mind back to the previous paragraph dear reader and you may recall that one of my chief beefs with these kind of retro games is that many of them use that as an excuse to have rather poor production values, utilising a very rudimentary graphical style to knock off a game very quickly without much attention to detail, and if ever there was the antithesis of that mindset, a game that provides the counter-example, it's probably Courier of the Crypts.  In fact, I would go so far as to say - admit, perhaps some would likely rebuke is the proper word - that I think that this game does that better than Shovel Knight, or at least to the same degree.

The pixel art here really is the seat of the game's brilliant art design.  It's very well done, both in terms of pixel art and just in terms of looking (in my subjective opinion) good.  I was particularly impressed with the character portraits.  The thing that really stands out for me is a little more unquantifiable however, and it's how the whole game seems to fit very well into the certain coherent style of a pixel-art game.  Many of these games try to have their cake and eat it too by having pixel-art presented in incongruent fashion alongside more modern art, but the style of Courier of the Crypts is much more coherent, and it's a very good one in my opinion.

Sound design is the cherry on top of that art direction sundae as well, with some good sound effects and atmospheric music.  I am not aware of composer Zdravko Djodrjević's past works, but I find myself compelled to look up them after Courier of the Crypts.  This is an atmospheric soundtrack, as I said, so I am not sure that I would say that it's something I would put on my iPod and listen to it at the gym, but it is a penultimately-fitting soundtrack that strengthens and elevates the game, and provides a very great aural backdrop to the game.  It's a good combination of appropriate instruments that are most importantly melodic rather than just an orgy of "epic" (ugh I hate using that word in this context) juxtapositions that might sound loud and impressive but don't really fit, whereas Courier of the Crypt's soundtrack tells the story in it's own way listening to it from stem to stern, so to speak, and it only strengthens the game in that light.

Courier of the Crypts offer a new spin on old mechanics

While there is the typical top-down RPG movement mechanics and such that you may expect, they are not core to the game in Courier of the Crypts.  Rather, the core mechanic is basically.. lighting.  You are thrust into a dark and foreboding dungeon unarmed and helpless, with only a magical torch to light your way.  The amount of time left on your torch is your time left to complete the level, and that torch is central to most of the other game mechanics: it keeps many enemies away, it allows you to see where you are going, and it is integral to puzzles (lighting braziers), among many other things.

The thing that I most like about the light mechanic is that it gives the levels a very natural time, while at the same time being controllable mechanic that rewards skill in your play since there are pick-up orbs that replenish some of the timer left on the torch.  That torch can be extinguished and re-lit and indeed that becomes central to some of the puzzles later on, such as magical fields that you can pass through that will disable your magical torch, becoming obstacles to overcome in those puzzles.  The torch mechanics are quite neatly explained organically though the course of the game - and that actually highlights one of the problems.

Which is to say, the combat mechanics.  Don't get me wrong, they're not particularly difficult to my understanding, since the flaming oil ammunition seems to be useful against one enemy type, the rocks you can pick up to throw others, but these could have been quite neatly explained in the such way, perhaps through the first combat situation with a spider having rocks nearby and perhaps giving the same kind of hint-hint-wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of dialogue about the fact that you could use rocks to throw at the spider.  I much prefer organic tutorialising like that, so it's something I'd rather like to see extended somewhat.

Environmental story-telling
is a good strength of Courier of the Crypts

The other big thing I liked about Courier of the Crypts is just that - it manages to tell a story more through the environment itself, the courier's commentary on the things you come across, and the occasional scroll dropped audio-log style.  It is the sort of deliberately paced, drip-feed of a story that modern gaming has all but forgotten, and I was quite enamoured of it.  Indeed, the way that the courier comments on the various situations made him a much more likeable character than most usually sardonic or meme-references of many other retro RPG game protagonists.  It was something of a breath of fresh air to have a somewhat-relatable character; it put me rather in the mind of Garrett from the Thief series seeming to stand beside the player and expressing a shared disdain for the thicky guards as the player themselves had.

Pacing is the name of the game, and it is the thing that elevates Courier of the Crypts from somewhat decent to actually kind of really great.  Modern games seem so utterly afraid that the players will lose interest if something doesn't explode every fraction of a second to hold their vapid interest, an attitude I think has always shown an extremely patronising view of the gamers that modern development often caters to.  Courier of the Crypts seems much more confident in the yarn it is spinning, so to speak, and Courier of the Crypts does a good job of that pacing, giving just enough in each little snippet to hold interest while giving appropriate 

There's nonetheless a few rough edges in those stone crypts

While Courier of the Crypts recommends a gamepad, it didn't seem to pick up my DirectInput-emulated DualShock Controller, something that also contributed to the initial feeling I might be lest lukewarm at best to the game since I was playing it with the control method that is the sort of secondary controller that might not have gotten time and effort put in, but actually, other than a somewhat odd default configuration that I fumbled with a bit and the odd usage of the cursor keys over WASD, I found the keyboard controls entirely adequate, good even, perhaps controversially, but what I didn't like was the layout, and herein we find my first major complaint: the lack of gameplay options.  To call back to my previous comparison to the much-lionised Shovel Knight, that is the one major thing Shovel Knight did well, that Courier of the Crypts flat out does not have - rebindable controls.  Indeed, this is a fairly elementary accessibility feature the game could stand to have, and the absence of such is no doubt something that will turn off people with PCs unwilling to shell out the cost of a couple sticks of RAM simply to get the controller from a console so they can get the complete experience.  Indeed, it adds a good 80$ to the price tag here in Canada to require a controller, and as such, it might be a hard sell to such a gamer, to say nothing of how many games on PC now allow you to rebind the controller let alone the keyboard controls.

To explain my second misgiving involves a minor spoiler, so while it's only the third level in, if you want to avoid it, just leave off here with a general recommendation - it's got a few failings, but Courier of the Crypts already stands well enough on it's own as a pretty neat little RPG.

Right, for those still curious, the reason why I feel the combat mechanics could use better explanation is what is essentially what could be called the first boss fight, not that it's poorly designed, mind you, but because it isn't explained and you have to figure things out with what is essentially trial-and-error.

That isn't the reason I bring it up, however: the reason I bring it up is to highlight the fact that the checkpoint system doesn't always work.  The game presents a pillar in the first mission to which you will return if you die, however, the same pillar appears in the third mission, directly before the boss fight.  It makes sense: have a checkpoint just prior to the boss fight, so if you fail it, you won't have to repeat the level.  So it's a bloody shame that it kept sending me back to the start of the level regardless.  Indeed that's really why it was mildly frustrating to have to figure out the combat mechanics myself.

It's a minor thing, since the level wasn't overly long, but worth fixing regardless, or making clear that's not a checkpoint, if that wasn't the intention.

While Courier of the Crypts could stand to teach you its core mechanics a little better, what is there is a nicely-wrought, very charming retro RPG with a very new spin on mechanics.  It's not the deepest RPG you'll ever play, but what is there is well-polished and well-executed.  It could easily stand on its own right now, even with its flaws, and given the nature of Early Access, that's high praise.  Worth a look, if you like a retro game with a twist.