In City of Brass, you have to make it to the centre of the Arabian Nights inspired city by any means necessary while hordes of skeletons stand in your way and hundreds of traps wait to rip you in half.
City of Brass is a first-person roguelike game. In case you're unfamiliar with roguelikes, every time you play, you have to start from level 1 and fight your way as far as you can until you die. There are thirteen levels including twelve normal levels and a final boss. When you beat a level, your health stays the same as it was when you completed the previous one and the only way to restore it is to find a genie that sells health and even they only give you a single heart. There are so many ways to beat each level in City of Brass. You can defeat enemies the traditional way by stunning them with your whip and finishing them off with your sword, push them into traps which impales them or makes them fall to their death, lure them into a safer room where you're free to beat them in one-on-one combat, or simply ignore them completely and run to the end of the level as fast as you can.
If that sounds too hard, City of Brass thankfully gives you a host of blessings that you can enable at the start of the game which can give you a variety of helpful perks like extra health, more damage, less enemies, and removal of the annoying time limit. On the other hand, if it isn't hard enough for you, you can turn on the so-called burdens that make an already hard game even more brutal.
You have two weapons at your disposal: the whip that you use with the left trigger and the sword which is used with the right trigger. The whip is a long-range weapon that's good not only for stunning enemies but also to trigger traps and deflect projectiles. The sword, predictably, is your tool whenever you want to finish off enemies. You'll have to master both weapons if you want to survive.
If you want to get far, you'll also need to get through stages while taking as little damage as possible. With no health regeneration between stages, you have to value every heart because your life literally depends on it. Most enemies are dangerous to approach so you need to use the whip to stun them first before striking them down. Thankfully, the combat is intuitive. My only gripe is that sometimes, you can miss enemies with the whip, leaving you wondering what happened which is especially common when enemies charge.
Running, jumping, and sliding are intuitive, too, especially if you've played Prince of Persia and you can move pretty fast while sliding which is an effective speedrunning tactic. You might want to thoroughly familiarise yourself with the controls because there are commands that aren't mentioned in the tutorial such as double-tapping circle to quickly hop backward which is handy for evading.
The city has four sectors that contain 3 levels each: the outskirts, gardens, catacombs, and the imperial district. You can take a portal to level 4, 7, or 10 at the start so at least you don't have to play through the entire campaign to get back to where you left off. Each sector has its own enemies and traps so your strategy has to change each time you move to a new environment. For example, in the gardens, you encounter mages that hurl fireballs at you. You'll also find dart traps on the walls that trigger from a distance.
Levels are procedurally generated so each time you play, the layout will be different. However, you'll find the same enemies and traps so your strategy should stay the same. There's not a huge variety of enemies so you're free to try out different tactics to see which ones work best. There are also helpful genies littered throughout who you'll trade collected gold with for helpful services like health, items, and mercenaries. Trading with genies is the best way to find useful items like the fire whip or the pads of silence. These items can save your life but you lose them when you die (unless you find the banker genie who can save one of your items for the next life).
City of Brass isn't a deep or complicated game but it is a rewarding one. From your first run to your hundredth, you're given the same tools and the only thing standing in the way of success is your own abilities. To make it far, you have to learn how to defeat enemies without taking damage. It's not easy and I still make mistakes but I've become much more proficient since I first started playing.
At times, City of Brass felt too unforgiving and repetitive. I made a mistake by staying on the default difficulty setting for far too long but after I turned on the health blessing, the challenge started to feel a lot fairer because I was able to make more mistakes before starting again from the beginning. In the end, making it through the City of Brass is much more enjoyable and gratifying than it is frustrating.
- + Improving is satisfying for goal-oriented players
- + Frustration is part of the fun / highly adjustable difficulty settings
- + Amazingly detailed Arabian Nights inspired city
- - Steep learning curve
- - No progression system and permadeath makes it feel as if you're not making progress
- - Death can be tiring and repetitive