Necromancer Preview: Razing the dead

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time training for my eventual career as a sorcerer lately, having only recently put down Nekro and since moved onto Other Worlds’ Necromancer. However, with this outing, I feel as though I’ve shown up to the dark ritual a tad early. The spell has been cast and the dead are on their way up, but I’ve walked in just as the being was taking form; the skeleton is held together, but there’s not yet enough meat on the bones.

Necromancer is a top-down strategy game for PC and tablet that allows you, the titular necromancer, to play the villain, summoning undead hordes to slaughter wave upon wave of intrepid heroes—survivors of the no-doubt zombie-related apocalypse. In practice, the game is an isometric middle ground of real-time strategy and tower defense tactics. You’ve an array of decaying ghouls and ghosts at your disposal—ranging from garden-variety zombies to mummies to revenants—as well as a handful of boons and curses, and with each round are tasked with slaying a squad of heroes before they reach you.


A Mage and Sorceress afflicted by the 'Blind' curse.

This simple formula is made more complex by the strength of the heroes and the comparable frailness of many of your undead allies. Zombies, Ghouls and Wights, for example, can easily be picked off by ranged characters before they’re able to deal damage. In addition, all summons other than basic zombies are finite and must be purchased before each round or scavenged from crypts within levels, which is done simply by scanning the map and clicking the glowing crypts and power-ups you find along the way. Even grunt zombies face a limitation: a limit to the number that may be spawned at a time, which can be raised by spending experience.

The biggest variable, and what I would call the most interesting, is that as heroes cleave and blast their way through your undead allies, they will gain experience and eventually level up. This increases their strength dramatically and simultaneously ensures that you won’t be spamming basic zombies for long. Do so and your stinginess will be rewarded with an army of extra-tanky Berserkers, Mages and Sorcerers that one-shot your zombies before they levelled up, and Nito knows what else. Sadly, the rate at which heroes are defeated and the general scope of the maps lessens the impact of this mechanic.


Let's see ya' take this on, Sorceress!

Interestingly, a lack of impact is Necromancer’s primary hurdle. Maps are simple and house obvious and linear paths; the atmosphere is thoroughly sabotaged by an almost complete lack of sound, with sparse voice work and no music to speak of; and heroes rarely approach in ways that require any strategic thought beyond plopping your best units around them. These issues are compounded by a medley of technical hitches, from broken AI that leaves heroes walking into walls to an unpredictable summon command that often spawns your zombies yards away from where you intended. This quickly grows annoying on PC and could effectively destroy a tablet version thanks to the sensitivity of touch controls.

For all its problems, there’s something strangely charming about Necromancer. It’s incredibly straightforward, but there’s a hidden depth to how you approach various heroes and summons. Luring a Mage into a narrow area, directing their attention to a horde of decoy grunts and then rushing them down with a single powerful summon is surprisingly fun. And saving experience to finally purchase a high-ranking summon and then watching it wreak havoc singlehandedly is genuinely satisfying. However, these strengths of the game are buried under a layer of technical issues which itself is buried under a lack of necessary polish.


Surrounding spellcasters is often the only way to bring them down.

It’s a mixed blessing, but that polish could be applied virtually anywhere. Hero behavior, for example, could use a serious upgrade. An eyesight system would do wonders for the relevance of many summons which currently end up slaughtered despite being summoned far behind a hero. It’s frustrating to have your carefully placed zombies and ghouls killed by seemingly all-seeing warriors, and this often reduces the gameplay to exactly what the devs have tried to prevent—spamming basic zombies and hoping for the best. Placing restrictions on the sight radius of heroes would unlock ambush strategies, making fast minions more versatile and the design of the maps more usable. It would also be nice to be given a preview of each level—a map overview, the heroes you’ll encounter (at least the first wave), and so on—before you start playing so that you could better plan your minion purchases. Actually purchasing those minions could use a tweak as well, since upgrading your base zombies is often unarguably the more efficient option. A price cut would make the middle and high tiers of summons much more live, thereby deepening the game.

Necromancer has survived the Kickstarter battleground but is still quite early in development. That said, I’ve been in contact with Other Worlds regularly and can say with confidence that they are updating the game frequently. Thankfully, because the game still has quite a ways to come before its full release. However, the foundation that’s been laid has the potential to become quite engaging if given the right amount of care.

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Austin Wood started working as a writer when he was just 18, and realized he was doing a terrible job at just 20. Several years later, he's confident he's doing a significantly less terrible job. You can connect with him on Twitter @austinwoodmedia.