Nekro Preview: Sometimes, deader is better
After a successful run on Kickstarter, darkForge Games’ breakout title Nekro has developed into quite the Frankenstein’s monster—which is an apt comparison given the game’s focus on Necromancy. Composed of gameplay elements parallel to action-RPGs, tower defense, and MOBAs, Nekro is a mixed and heavily stylized bag that, even in early Beta, stands out from the crowd. Admittedly, I’d be worried if a tattooed witch doctor leading an army of bulbous, voracious flesh-monsters didn’t stand out from the crowd—because what the hell does that make the crowd—but the result is impressive nonetheless.
Nekro plays like a top-down action-RPG, in which you guide your character, the titular Nekro, through map after map of objective-based gameplay. While my experience with the game’s current build was entirely single player, there is a multiplayer element that, upon completion, may take the game in a cooperative direction. However, even as it stands, you’ll never be alone as you reap souls and devour bodies; you’ve an army of demons at your disposal, known as Summons.
Summons are integral to Nekro’s gameplay, as your demonic comrades function not only as spells and abilities, but as soldiers at your command, ever eager to clean up enemies and bloody the ground in the process. They are immobile ranged attackers, slow-moving melee units, temporary AoE defenders, and everything in between; Summons are the life’s blood of the game and the core of its combat, and their variety is what makes Nekro’s combat such a prism.
As you complete missions and earn Sins, you’ll be able to unlock new Summons and augment the abilities of your current demons. This allows you to create a lineup that complements your play style and character, although upgrade options are fairly linear. Each unique Summon is assigned to a number key (1-6) and can be summoned at any time by spending Blood, your primary resource, which is generated by consuming the corpses of defeated enemies. Consuming corpses is also how you’ll recover health, although some Summons have skills that grant a bit of health based on the damage they deal.
Your current forces are displayed at the top right corner of the screen, along with the occasional free Summon—an object that comes to life once imbued with a Scourge, a free Summon. This lets you easily keep track of how many of what Summon you have in play, and plan your tactics accordingly. Unfortunately, this functionality is dragged down by the occasional but crippling bug of the game registering dead demons as active. This prevents you from playing at full strength and can effectively make some levels impossible. But hey, Beta.
Here’s where things get more complex. Virtually all Summons benefit from being summoned with a sacrifice—that is, using a corpse as the Summon. While using up the corpse, this creates a stronger version of that Summon. In addition, killing enemies with certain Summons will not spawn corpses, and may or may not yield a blood return at all. Coupled with the fact that your forces will constantly be killed themselves and need replenishing, these two elements turn an otherwise straightforward combat system into a strategic balancing act of available resources and active units: consume too many corpses and you’ll wind up facing an entire town singlehandedly, but summon too frequently, and you’ll die for lack of corpses to recover health.
That’s not to say your Nekro plays no role in combat other than ringleader. The two Powersets (classes) included in the current build offer a melee and ranged role—The Grimm Keeper and Alchemist, respectively. Both are armed with a basic and secondary attack which use no blood and can be comboed together for boosted effect. Firing the Alchemist’s Blood Beam through his deployable healing portals, for example, extends the beam’s reach. Your Nekro’s damage output, maximum health and blood pool can also be upgraded after each round, through an independent resource known as Power which is gained through completing levels. You’re also able to craft one-time-use Trinkets to give you an extra edge in combat. Despite these abilities, a Nekro without his Summons will scarcely be able to defeat even a single enemy above grunt level.
While lending greater importance to maintaining a healthy squad of demons, the frailness of the Nekro himself can also prove quite troublesome in that, despite sending a horde of demons ahead, some enemies seem to always target you and you alone. I’ll be frank: Nekro is not designed for one-on-one combat. Your character is controlled by WASD, the camera can be rotated with Q and E, and the mouse is used to monitor and direct Summons and control your basic attacks. As a result, if anything breaks through your defenses—or in this case, completely ignores them—you’re left helpless, with the contingency plan of spamming ‘dash’ and hoping your demons notice your declining health bar. This frequently leads to quick ends to otherwise successful runs and can become quite frustrating, though it is excusable given the game’s incomplete status. In any case, along with the limited value of Trinkets—you can’t use them as you see fit but only as they’re ordered—it’s a problem worth addressing.
As an action-RPG with prominent strategic elements that revolve around Necromancy, one of the most overlooked branches of magic, Nekro has stolen my heart. Thanks to its diverse gameplay and striking visual style, it’s sure to do the same to many more. The game is an innovative hybridization of heretofore divided genres, and is more than worth monitoring as it progresses toward a public Beta this April.