STAFF REVIEW of City of Brass (Xbox One)

Monday, June 4, 2018.
by Royce Dean

City of Brass Box art Gather ‘round children, its story time with Royce! Once upon a time there were three little pigs. All three pigs decided to build houses. The three pigs came across a man carrying a bundle of straw. The first little pig declared: “Please give me that straw to build a house with”. The little pig quickly built a house with it. Before long came a wolf who knocked at the door, and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in”. The pig replied, “No, no, not by the hair of my chinny chin chin”. “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!” said the wolf. So he huffed and he puffed, and he blew the house down, eating up the foolish pig within. The other pigs passed a man with a bundle of sticks. The second little pig said to the man carrying the sticks: “Please give me those sticks to build a house with”. The man did, and the pig quickly built a house with it. Then along came the wolf and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in”. Just like the first pig, the wolf huffed and puffed and blew the house down eating the little pig within. Finally the third pig met a man with a load of bricks and said: “Please give me those bricks to build a house with”. The man gave him the bricks, and he built his house with them. The wolf came, as he did to the other pigs, and said, “Little Pig, little Pig, let me come in”. “No, no, by the hair of my chinny chin chin”. Well, he huffed and he puffed, and he huffed and he puffed, and he puffed and he huffed; but he could not get the house down so he gave up and went to play an easier video game.

In case you didn’t pick up on the subtle messaging in the story above, I have a rocky relationship with extremely difficult games at best. My philosophy for playing games is that I have to be having fun, an element that does not occur naturally when I am losing, or learning by dying. Unfortunately that puts me at a disadvantage in the current “Dark Souls” era of gaming. This is something I’ve made good effort in changing, but old habits die hard as the saying goes. To aid in breaking myself of habitual challenge avoidance, I picked up my controller and turned to my current review: City of Brass.

City of Brass is hard. Like, harder than bringing in all of your groceries on the first trip kind of hard. It’s also a member of the dying arcade style of games. Essentially you play until you die, and then you start all over again. City of Brass is a first person action game that has you taking to the cursed streets of a long lost city in search of treasure, and I’m assuming killer pictures for your Instagram story. Along the way you’ll be going toe to toe with the undead, genies, undead that run really fast, traps that you didn’t see, controllers in your dry wall, and undead...with hats.

Progression in City of Brass is done by the age old system of levels. Start level 1, beat level 1. Start level 2, die in level 2, start level 1. You know what I mean. The levels themselves are always the same, but the layout will change from attempt to attempt. For example, “Level 1” will always be the “City Outskirts”, but where the start, where the end, and what’s in between those two points is always random. I certainly hope you like Mystery Dungeon games. In addition to the general layout; treasures, enemies, shops, and even the time of day, will always be different. This is part of what makes City of Brass such difficult game.

The other half of the difficulty equation is City of Brass’s generally fast paced combat. Combat is relatively simple with few command options, but how you use those abilities, and with what timing, will determine your success. Your right trigger, when pressed, swings your sword. As shouldn’t need explaining, your sword kills things, and it is pretty much your only way to do this that doesn’t involve the environment. Your left trigger lashes your whip, which when used does a number of things from stunning enemies, grabbing far off treasure, to swinging you across distances depending on what you target.

Using your trusty sword and whip is the key to your victory, when you manage not to die. You can also run, jump, and dash-slide, but these actions need little explanation. You can also shove your enemies in a pinch if correctly positioned near a suitable trap. I found I didn’t use the shove command very often, but its utility speaks for itself.

When you inevitably die, you’ll earn experience points. They don’t come in particularly large quantities, but your success in the run that killed you will have some measure of effect over how much you receive. Leveling up will grant you rewards for future runs to help ease the steep difficulty. Other features exist to help you along the way, like the many Genies that open shops for your benefit. The treasure you pick up automatically converts to an in-game dollar value. This currency can be exchanged at Genie shops for a wide array of power-ups or helpful tools. Some shops even offer to heal you, store purchased items for later runs, or disable obnoxious traps.

Your game experience can be altered further with the Blessings and Burdens system. In place of a standard difficulty slider, City of Brass let you adjust various elements of the game on a singular basis. Things like number of enemies or the amount of damage you deal can be changed by selecting which Blessings or Burdens you’d like to have in place for your next run. While each of the Blessings (options that make you experience easier) are available from the start, Burdens (options that make you question life) are unlocked by completing in-game objectives first.

I don’t often give unmitigated praise for singular systems in a game, but having a fully customizable gameplay experience like this is brilliant and is something that other game studios should take notes on for future releases.

Being a sort of “high score” game, there is a leaderboard in place to track your worldwide progress. This is important as it lets you make sure that your coveted position at 453,711th isn’t snatched by up and comers. Gotta keep the noobs in line you know. Even more interestingly, City of Brass lets you completely overhaul your keybinds. Keybind rearrangement is nothing new to the PC gaming community, but it is still finding its footing on consoles. Seeing this option make an appearance is welcomed with open arms, and like the Blessings and Burdens system, and it is is encouraged in the future. City of Brass also comes with baked in streaming features, but because I am not a streamer I did not understand the words I was reading and promptly backed out without doing anything with them. I’m sure these are very useful things to have, but I’m going on trust.

The audio and visual presentation of City of Brass is on the money. The musical score sells the Arabian theme beautifully while still being appropriate for what is in essence Resident Evil: Aladdin Edition. The game looks every bit as great as it sounds with the city shimmering in splendor during the day, as a city of treasures should, while being truly dark and foreboding at night. The enemies look just different enough from one another for you to know what your next encounter requires of you while still looking believably like they come from the same place. Perhaps my favorite artistic touch is when an enemy sees you, their face begins to glow an eerie blue before they rush you down. It’s both alarming, and a helping hand when wandering around in the dark.

While City of Brass can be punishingly hard, it’s a very well built and 'fun-to-play' game. Unlike most games of its kind, I found myself actually wanting to go back and make another attempt after dying. Simple combat that gives the player the opportunity to improve, combined with predictable yet fun enemies, and a world that is ever changing all add up to make an experience that stays fresh long after your 50th death. City of Brass is a perfect platform for gamers that enjoy speed running and adrenaline chasing, but it is also a great experience for the less dedicated that just want to run around and eventually say they overcame something momentous. While it isn’t for everyone, City of Brass has taken an old-ish genre that few think about anymore and turned it into gold.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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