In 1995, I played Prince of Persia on PC. In it you controlled an Arabian boy, traversing several dungeons and palaces.
Laid out with traps and puzzles, it required precision platforming. You often ended up gruesomely impaled on some floor spikes.
I never finished that game.
City of Brass reminds me of Prince of Persia, sharing many of the same ideas and frustrations.
It’s a first-person, rogue-lite set in a fictitious Arabian city. You control a faceless, nameless hero in search of fortune in the ruins of the once prosperous city.
That is the extent of the story which sets up the locale and mythology of the game.
Design, levels and graphics
Inspired by Indiana Jones, you use a whip in your left hand and a sword in your right. The whip is essential to gameplay. You can stun, trip and pull enemies and various hard–to–reach items as well as trigger traps.
The whip also allows you to swing between points. A variety of whips, swords and abilities can be purchased at different Genies littered around the levels.
In keeping with the Arabian fable theme, you get three wishes which you can use at various Genies. This improves the quality of shop items, disable traps or turn hostile Genies into allies. Any time you use a wish, its effects persist until you die.
This is great since you usually need a few levels to amass a decent amount of coin to buy the best upgrades.
The game is played over 12 procedurally generated levels. This means, no two playthroughs are ever the same. But the changes to each level refresh are pretty subtle and often dubious. Rooms with unnecessary stairs or alcoves that don’t have any purpose.
The levels also alternate between night and day. For a game that requires you search for treasure, these levels aren’t enticing enough to explore.
Being a rogue-lite game, you need to play through all the levels in one go. Dying will send you all the way back to the first level, stripped of all your coin and upgrades. This can be very frustrating for the uninitiated, as I was.
It took me several hours to get through the first four levels and boss, admittedly by the skin of my teeth. Thankfully, completing every fourth level rewards you with a portal avoiding tedious replays.
Each level has a time limit in which you must find the exit after which indestructible enemies spawn. The time limit is enough to easily find the exit but not for treasure hunters and completionists. You can disable time limits if you prefer.
At the end of each playthrough, you gain XP that increases your characters rank. Increasing in rank gives transient bonuses, none of which is a meaningful upgrade to your character. It’s an unclear addition that could have been better implemented.
Traps, Combat and the Undead
Enemies in City of Brass are the cursed undead citizens of the once shining city of gold. You dispatch them using a combination of your whip, sword and environment.
A whip to the head can stun allowing you to finish off with a slash of your sword. You can also activate traps and explosive barrels to take out enemies from a distance. How you deal with enemies is only limited by your imagination.
In theory, combat should be fun but a poor hit-box implementation lets it down. Targeting enemies or items is challenging at best. Even point blank hits to enemies can inexplicably miss their mark. Annoyingly, the enemies don’t share this problem, easily hitting you. Add in the procedurally generated levels and you have enemies appearing seemingly, out of nowhere.
It appears that this problem is specific to console versions and not the PC. A combination of reduced consoles lower framerate and controller sensitivity. Hopefully, this will be resolved by a patch.
Combat is best approached by weaving and running to stay out of reach of enemies, using your whip on them. The game handles mobility really well; running, jumping, sliding and climbing are excellent. Traversing the levels has a surprising level of smoothness and fluidity.
Like in Zelda games, you have a health bar of four or eight hearts. Damage from enemies and traps easily knock off a heart. Replenishing health can only be done by purchasing at a rare, miserly Genie. It’s the norm to find yourself desperately hunting for health before the next hit takes you out.
You will either love or hate this but either way, you will have to keep a constant eye on your health bar.
Game bosses reside on every third level. While they aren’t particularly difficult, those poor combat mechanics get you killed easily. Then it’s wash, rinse, repeat — ad infinitum.
Divine blessing is the way
City of Brass is a torturous game that doesn’t offer you traditional difficulty settings. Instead, you use ‘Divine Blessings’ which help or handicap you. I have no idea why you would want to do the latter though.
The blessings allow you to increase your health, damage as well as reduce time, traps and enemies. Several hours and countless restarts of the first two levels forced me to activate blessings to progress.
In the end, City of Brass could have been a truly fun game but falls short in its rogue-lite aspirations. The lack of engaging story, frustrating combat, uninspired levels and unsatisfying loot make this a chore.
Games are meant to be fun and I didn’t have any playing City of Brass. Instead, I forced myself to push through to get this review out.
Games being difficult is fine — Cuphead and Dark Souls are great examples. The difference is that City of Brass just isn’t as fun, engaging or rewarding.
City of Brass was reviewed on Xbox One using a digital code provided by the developer.
Game Title: City of Brass
Game Description: A rogue-lite game with aspirations of Indiana Jones whips and treasure that ultimately falls short.
How cool is that whip y’all - 5/10
More 50 Shades of Grey than Indiana Jones - 4/10
Show me the money - 4.5/10