City of Brass Review
This clumsy first-person rogue-lite is bland, tortuous, and maddeningly difficult.
It is a more patient person than I who endures City of Brass without a great deal of suffering. Even by the exacting standards of the rogue-lite genre, which aspires to difficulty like most games aspire to fun, this is a grueling, grinding, brutally hard experience, one that left me full of bitterness and resentment rather than satisfaction or joy. I got through it in the end — after much pulling of the hair and gritting of the teeth, after screaming at the television in agony and sending my controller pinwheeling across the room. I can’t speak to its possible replay value, because I simply don’t have it in me to play it again.
Criticizing a game for its difficulty is a delicate matter because one person’s excruciating gauntlet is another’s leisurely cakewalk — and I appreciate that I may be admitting my own ineptness here. But while I’ve completed notoriously difficult trials from Contra to Bloodborne and Cuphead with cheers and sighs of gratified relief, City of Brass aroused in me no feelings so strong as misery and anger, even when I finally, mercifully defeated its back-breaking final boss and concluded its seemingly interminable 12-stage campaign. In fact, City of Brass illustrates an elusive but important distinction between challenging and tortuous: while the former may be hard, the latter is overwhelmingly unfair. It’s the difference between deriving pleasure and finding only pain.
With arcade-like simplicity, City of Brass plunges you into the fabled ghost town of the One Thousand and One Nights, where, as in the folktale, deadly curses lurk about and untold riches are for the taking. Don’t expect to learn anything much about the original story, however, as the source material is drawn on superficially and is never engaged with in a serious way — Arabian mythology is nothing more than window dressing, used to give the adventure exoticized flair. The aesthetic leans on familiar cliches of ancient Persia, rife with hookah pipes and colorful rugs, and the historical research in evidence never rises above the level of a few Google image searches. Perhaps as a result of the procedurally generated level layouts, one interlocking room seems to vary from the next more by color than by style or design. It all looks the same.
If repetitious enemies weren’t irritating enough, every one of them cackles loudly and incessantly.
You play as an unnamed, uncharacterized vagabond with designs on the gold scattered throughout the eponymous city, and the only plot – if it indeed counts as one – concerns your quest to gather treasure and leave this haunted place with it and your person intact. Which, naturally, is easier said than done: the successive chambers and courtyards of the city are teeming with nefarious demons and sword-wielding skeletons, each endowed the power to vanquish you in hand-to-hand combat or with the magic they can instantly summon. There are monsters that shoot fireballs and ones that charge at you with kamikaze zeal. Some explode after death; others teleport, or carry shields. Aesthetically, they feel indistinguishable and, because they’re contended with in similar ways, it was not long before I tired of them all. That, for reference, was far less time than it took me to reach the final boss. If repetitious enemies weren’t irritating enough, every one of them cackles loudly and incessantly. You have to put up with their grating laughter from the minute City of Brass begins until it ends.
To defend yourself you have a sword, which you can wag in the direction of your foes gingerly, and a whip, which has a target area of about one millimeter (homed in on a whisper by scarcely effective auto-aim assist) and must be cracked with sharpshooter accuracy to connect with anything at all, doubly imprecise with a PlayStation controller. These weapons can be upgraded at randomly appearing genie-powered vending machines, at sometimes enormous cost — the flame-enhanced whip replacement ‘Strip of Ignition’, hot and fresh out the kitchen, is so much more powerful than the default it replaces that reacquiring it becomes a necessary (and therefore boring) priority for each new run. Even still, fighting enemies remains second in difficulty only to fighting the controls: landing a blow feels inexplicably troublesome, as the radius of your attacks is poorly defined and inconsistent, while I could only make halfway precise use of my whip after fussing repeatedly with the sensitivity levels of the joysticks.
Countless times, I inexplicably missed at point-blank range.
Similarly annoying is that there seem to be fundamental issues with the hitboxes. Countless times when endeavoring to strike an adversary at point-blank range, I inexplicably missed — a perilous blunder given the glacial reaction time of the controls. In the heat of battle, this clumsiness routinely thwarts your efforts and in short order depletes your limited (and expensively replenished) health. It makes battles feel unsporting and losses wildly unfair.
Just how long it all will take is up to you — or, perhaps more accurately, up to you and up to luck. City of Brass is, in a sense, quite short: 12 procedurally generated levels, four minibosses, and one final fight, each component brief and straightforward. Where it manufactures longevity is in death: if you die, wherever that death occurs, you start the entire thing over from the beginning – and by design, you will die a lot. It’s possible to breeze through any given stage in a couple of minutes or less, if you manage to sprint past enemies and skirt the innumerable fatal traps that line so many floors, doorways, and walls; the problem is, you probably won’t manage to, at least not for long, and no matter how slowly and carefully you otherwise proceed, you will likely err badly and often. Those traps, in particular, are a nightmare for the accident-prone, snaring you viciously without warning from well-hidden nooks. You’re encouraged as a battle strategy to bait or shove enemies into their jaws, but their haphazard arrangement makes them rather too dangerous to put them to constructive use. I cannot overstate how infuriating it is to bumble into yet another secret pit of spikes as you feel you’re blithely hitting your stride.
Death, in customary rogue-lite fashion, has a humbling effect: it brings you back not only to the first stage, but — notwithstanding trivial gains after infrequently leveling up— to your default state, returning any loot, gear, or items you eked out during your previous run back into the ether. It’s a reliable thrill of the genre to really feel the consequences of dying. But the thrill is diminished when what awaits you each time is another nearly identical run: despite nominal randomization, the levels play out essentially alike each time, as you toil through the same laborious slog again scrounging for the same precious trinket pickups to buy the same indispensable upgrades. The sense of discovery and true unpredictability that make death in rogue-lites compelling is absent here. Instead, there’s arduous scavenging, demoralizing repetition, and maddening mistakes.
City of Brass seems dimly aware of how vexing it can be.
City of Brass seems dimly aware of how vexing it can be. It does offer a salve, in the form of what it calls “divine blessings”: a series of optional benefits that either reduce the intensity of the challenge (by scaling back the number of enemies in a level, say, or weakening their individual defenses) or increase the advantages available to you from the start (such as additional health or the removal of level time limits). Even the earliest levels only begin to feel balanced or feasible with blessings switched on; if progress is more important to you than the sheer grind of regular play — and regular play is far too tedious for it to engage the attention long — they’re necessary. It is a testament to how inordinately punishing City of Brass can be that its developers saw fit to work these cheats into the menu. They also included “divine burdens,” which make it harder, but why anyone would wish this upon themselves is incomprehensible to me. Again: I’ve beaten Bloodborne.
“Defeat the genies to break the curse,” an instructional window advises you at the end of the final stage, before you square off against the trio of genies that together form the ruthless last boss. Well, yes, it does feel rather like a curse, stuck in this cycle, doomed to repeat the same dozen monotonous levels over and over again, feebly battling the same cursed skeletons hundreds of times in succession, gathering the same miscellaneous treasure only to have it cruelly snatched from you once more. Yes, that’s the idea, but City of Brass fails to make this fun. Killed for about the millionth time in the eleventh stage, inches from the exit, by a set of spikes in the floor I didn’t see, I had to ask myself, facing the prospect of stage one like Bill Murray on February 2: where is the delight in this? There’s no joy or happiness to be found in this drudgery. Only a curse, and a wish to break it.