There’s a lot more to a good roguelike than just permanent death and randomised dungeons. What makes the best of the genre work so well is the way they encourage experimentation with different weapons, different items, different builds—driven in part by necessity and in part by a game loop that gives you a good reason to not just stick to the same old thing. Sword of the Necromancer tries to follow that mold with a unique quirk—the ability to revive fallen enemies and use them as your minions—but it’s surrounding systems are too limited and too restrictive to ever let it really hit that roguelike sweet spot.
The biggest issue is item space: you can only ever carry three items on you at a time (in addition to a basic sword), and those three spaces are used for everything. Weapons, magic spells, individual consumables, accessories with passive upgrades, and revived monsters each take up one of those item slots. Once you’ve found a loadout that you like—which will usually happen before you even finish the first floor of the dungeon—there’s very little incentive to swap out something you’re familiar with for something you’re not.
You can’t swap items back, either. When you replace something you’re carrying with something you’ve found, the original item is immediately lost forever, so there’s no choice to take the new thing and try it out for a bit, leaving the old one lying on the ground ready to be reclaimed if you decide you don’t like the replacement. As a result, every time you find something new, the question becomes “Am I 100% sure that this is going to be better than one of the things I’m already carrying?”, for which the answer is almost always “No”.
Depending on your playstyle, monster resurrection can sometimes be a little bit more fluid, at least in the short term. A revived monster can be summoned and revoked at will, but while it’s fighting, it’s as susceptible to taking hits and getting killed as you are. If you decide to just use monsters as fodder—to act as a decoy for you, and cause as much bonus damage as they can before inevitably getting destroyed—you’ll go through them quickly, and you’ll inevitably get a chance to play around with different types as you keep replenish your horde with new recruits.
But even then, you’ll eventually run into the same problem: you get a monster that’s too strong or too useful to just let die, so its item slot becomes “locked”, and then another, and then another. The whole “monster meat shield” strategy is unreliable, anyway, and regular equipment seems more practical in the long run, further limiting the usefulness of the game’s most unique gimmick.
Sword of the Necromancer is still a roguelike. Dying means losing all your items and a few (but not all) character levels, and starting the dungeon again from the first floor. That can work well, as the genre’s popularity has proven: with the right systems in place, be it some sort of passive permanent upgrades, story progression through death a la Hades, or even just a combat / gear system that means a new run is a new chance to play around with a new build, repeated death and retrying can be a big part of the appeal.
But Sword of the Necromancer doesn’t really have any of those things, so even though it’s not overly difficult, it can still be frustrating and tedious. Death doesn’t incite excitement for another attempt so much as exasperation and the feeling of your time being wasted. There’s a system for upgrading equipment, but it requires a huge time investment to grind materials—which are found in a completely random fashion from broken pots within the game’s dungeon. That investment is wasted as soon as you fall and lose your equipment, giving you little reason to pursue those upgrades at all. Its only real value is if you’re playing with item loss turned off—an option that unlocks after a few deaths, alongside an easy mode and a no level loss upon death option—but that just exacerbates the existing problem of disincentivising trying to different items and builds.
Beneath all that, there’s a competent action RPG system with some interesting enemies and a few unique boss encounters, but Sword of the Necromancer struggles to ever climb above “competent”, despite the unique monster-resurrection gimmick.
Its saving grace is a cute, heartfelt story. Sword of the Necromancer follows Tama, a young bandit on a quest to resurrect her dead lover, the priestess KoKo. This is what brings her to the Lair of the Necromancer in search of the titular sword, though until she charges it to full power by killing the Necromancer himself, it’s only good for resurrecting soulless monsters (hence the monster-reviving system).
As you complete each floor of the dungeon for the first time, you get to witness a flashback showing how the two young women met and fell in love: a failed attempt to steal a priceless relic turns into a religious pilgrimage with a bandit as the next high priestess’ unlikely bodyguard, which turns into fun and frivolity and accidentally seeing one another bathing, which turns into …
It’s a familiar tale, but a heartfelt one, with an overt statement on the validity and value of queer love. It’s no coincidence that Koko is a priestess on a religious mission, religious condemnation of queer people is as present in the world of Sword of the Necromancer as it is in ours. But it’s something that Koko doesn’t buy into—in her view, the scriptures are a guide to leaving a meaningful life, not a rulebook, written thousands of years ago. “If gods created love, and if I can feel that love for you… What can be wrong with that?”
Unfortunately, a cute and thoughtful story isn’t enough to distract from Sword of the Necromancer‘s other struggles. There’s a competent action RPG in there, but it’s lost beneath a misguided attempt at a roguelike experience that misses most of what makes roguelikes exciting. Even something as unique as a system of reviving slain enemies to fight alongside you gets lost in the narrow constraints of the game’s other systems, resulting in a largely forgettable experience.
Sword of the Necromancer is developed by Grimorio of Games and published by JanduSoft. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.