City of Brass opens with an ominous warning about the many dangers lurking within its cursed city, before dropping a tantalizing tease of incredible wealth should you manage to overcome all of its obstacles. You play as a thief trying to reach the mythical treasure through endless foes and dangerous traps, and if you’re able to overlook some technical and presentation shortcomings, there’s a lot of fun to be had with City of Brass’s thoughtful combat and first-person dungeon crawling.
City of Brass is a roguelike which takes place over 12 procedurally generated levels and one final boss battle, and every playthrough is different. Shifting level layouts, enemy spawn points, and different trap types require you to be on your toes, and keep the game engaging and continually surprising. But though it’s exciting to experience “new” levels in each playthrough, the presentation leaves a lot to be desired.
Each of the twelve levels is broken down into four unique backdrops–cities with desert, overgrown, and opulent themes, as well as underground catacombs. They’re initially impressive to look at, but repeating textures and assets quickly become noticeable, resulting in stages that are virtually indistinguishable from another. The Arabian Nights-inspired audio design is minimalist and fitting for the game’s aesthetic, but is generally unremarkable. Oud and flute-heavy themes feature heavily, but like level assets, are reused time and time again. The shortcomings in the presentation also extend to the menu–cumbersome interfaces make learning about City of Brass’ levels, enemies, weapons, and gear needlessly frustrating and unhelpful.
The lack of stage variety means that City of Brass occasionally feels like a four-level game being padded out into 12. But while they can be dull at times, the first-person combat plays a huge part in alleviating the tedium. You’re armed with a whip in one hand and a sword in the other, and the interplay between them is wonderfully implemented. Should you be unable to break through a foe’s defenses, there’s the option of using the whip to pull their feet from under them before rushing in for the final blow with your blade, which feels incredibly good to do.
When overwhelmed in situations where your sword and whip are simply not enough, you can use randomly scattered items or the many available traps to turn the tide of the fight. Items like an explosive jar or a lamp can help clear out a big horde of enemies; pushing an enemy into a venom jug will make them easier to kill; docile enemies can be lured or pulled into traps like floor spikes and bottomless pits. There’s a satisfying amount of strategic thinking and creativity allowed within City of Brass’ combat. There is also a sizable roster of enemies and mini-bosses scattered throughout each location, most of whom require different strategies to overcome. The enemy designs aren’t particularly inspired, but the rudimentary AI offers up enough of a challenge to keep you alert, particularly during moments when large groups of enemies relentlessly chase you down.
Memorable and heart-stopping combat moments are also generously sprinkled throughout City of Brass. One particularly notable encounter has you tailed by a near-indestructible enemy statue that only comes to life when your back is turned and can only be damaged by explosive jars. As soon as you’re within the proximity of an enemy statue, the music immediately hits high-pitched notes, and you’re on edge trying to keep sight of the statue while searching for an explosive jar or the exit.
Death will be a regular occurrence, but the short stages and friendly learning curve help encourage repeated attempts. City of Brass also allows you to generously tailor difficulty according to your skill level. A total of twenty modifiers aimed at buffing or nerfing both you and enemies alike are available from the beginning, allowing you to be as flexible with the difficulty as you please.
The fantastic sword and whip mechanic is unfortunately tarnished at times by the combat system’s poor hitbox recognition. Several times over the course of a single playthrough, sword swings can pass harmlessly through a skeleton’s head despite standing at point blank range. Similarly, the whip doesn’t have any noticeable effect on enemies outside of small strike zones on their head, feet, or weapon. Skirmishes on PlayStation 4 were also negatively impacted by occasional frame rate drops that interrupted the flow of fights.
But performance issues aside, City of Brass is notable for its impressive balance between its pacing, difficulty curve, and combat systems. Each level takes only a few minutes to complete, but the time limit, the high-paced nature of all enemy encounters, and the constant wariness of traps and ambushes instills high-stakes tension to every stage. In order to combat the progressively tougher enemies, buffs, stronger weapons, and health can be bought from genies scattered throughout each level.
City of Brass’ enemy difficulty and character upgrade system is tuned well enough that you will never be too over- or underpowered at any stage of the game. Treasure used to purchase new weapons and upgrades is easy enough to find, but there’s an element of strategy on how to most effectively spend your coin. There are several times where you’re forced to make a choice between buying an expensive stronger sword or buff, but run the risk of having not enough money for a much-needed health boost later on.
City of Brass is a good dungeon crawler, with some of its best moments and mechanics derived from its rendition of an Arabian Nights theme. While its repetitive scenery and uneven presentation are noticeable tarnishes on its sheen, the satisfying combat and well-balanced difficulty curve will keep you going back for more.