A remastered version of the unfortunately named, but well received Iron Fisticle, Iron Crypticle blends rogue-lite mechanics and high score chasing arcade sensibilities. The core of the game has been retained here, with the enhancements polishing rough edges and providing a smoother experience. So does Iron Crypticle have enough to reward you for exploring its depths?
Whilst a twin-stick rogue-lite at heart, Iron Crypticle plays much like a procedurally generated update to the arcade classic Gauntlet. It doesn’t offer the character class choices of its spiritual ancestor, but the waves of enemies and vaguely D&D trappings are highly reminiscent of the classic game. It brought me back to evenings in my local chip shop where I would happily play Gauntlet II on an arcade machine whilst waiting for my saveloy and chips. I could almost smell the vinegar and feel the grease on the joystick…
The tenuous backstory to your adventuring involves the search for missing royal treasures, mysteriously stolen during a charmingly old-school intro. Your armoured avatar, representing the Royal Guard, leaps into the dungeon to investigate. There is surprisingly little mention of the princess who also disappears alongside the treasures, as the focus is clearly on loot.
The arcade feel is maintained by the fact that this loot is mostly food-based. Defeated enemies drop foodstuffs from fruit to burgers and fries, with random drops of sweets and doughnuts boosting your score and successful combos are rewarded by infeasibly large pieces of cake – a motivation which I have since adopted into my writing targets. The golden treasures that you seek, moreover, are also food related, making it clear that the kingdom prizes eating above all other pleasures.
Iron Crypticle’s gameplay, therefore, is a highly refined combination of rogue-like and high score management. Collecting the loot dropped by defeated enemies establishes combos with the essential risk and reward system provided by having to collect the foods before the combo runs out. Maintaining a maximum combo of x8 for long enough causes bonus points foodstuffs to drop and, crucially, can also produce power up tokens.
These power-ups provide part of the rudimentary RPG aspects to the game and are essential to successfully navigating the various floors of the dungeon. You can upgrade movement speed, damage, rate of fire and length of bonus weapon duration. All of these are useful with a successful run seeing most fully upgraded. You can also buy upgrades at the stores located before the floor bosses, but the combo method is far more efficient.
Alongside the food drops, you’ll also find rune tiles and gems, both of which lead can grant you smart bombs when sets are completed, and bonus weapons that improve on your basic axe. I found almost all of these weapons to be well balanced, with only the Molotov proving difficult to aim. Having said that, I always found the equivalent useless in Ghost’s ‘n’ Goblins, another arcade classic from which Iron Crypticle takes aesthetic influence, so this is possibly deliberate.
I was surprised that there were no negative power ups, as these would have added an extra layer of strategy, but perhaps this is for the best given how hectic later levels can become with enemies and projectiles flying around.
Progress through the dungeon takes place along a branching path, allowing for some degree of forward planning. You generally see when special rooms are available, with these ranging from specific combat trials to shops and a meta-arcade room in which you can spend coins to play a mini-game. This mini-game sees your character enter a 2d platformer environment and can be a good way to boost your coins ready to buy more upgrades. If nothing else, there were times when such rooms were a welcome respite from the health-sapping combat, although the point-scoring options are more limited.
Each floor ends with a boss fight, with each boss also having a range of possible forms to keep you on your toes. Generally these fights are challenging without providing too much of a difficulty spike, apart from the very end boss in New Game +. This particular boss, the details of which I won’t spoil, provides a huge challenge, compounded by the rogue-lite convention of death sending you back to the very start of the first floor of the dungeon.
Stepping up from easy difficulty – which I completed the game in for this review – to harder skill levels, it’s here that I have my main complain with Iron Crypticle. Harder difficulties don’t add more dangerous enemies, they simply make them take more hits to kill, making combat more about attrition than skill. That’s particularly true when rooms are time limited before invincible enemies teleport in, and it dilutes the fun. Some may welcome this balance, but I feel Iron Cryticle gets it wrong when there’s just as much fun to be had on lower settings.
Iron Crypticle is a fantastic rogue-lite update of some of the seminal arcade experiences of my youth, and provides a rewarding challenge even at its easiest setting. Coupled with the compulsive delights of competitive high score tables and randomised dungeons, I can see myself returning to it for a long time to come. It isn’t the revolution of the genre that something like Nex Machina is, but it refines its influences into a hugely enjoyable game, and as such comes highly recommended.
Versions tested: PS4 and PC