In the years since 2K’s low-key retirement of the Bioshock franchise, plenty of original and unique indie title have come sprung forward claiming some sort of heritage towards the once-sizable development team at Irrational Games. There was Perception. The Flame and The Flood. The Black Glove. We Happy Few.
The list goes on, but with each of these games touting some link with the critically acclaimed FPS series, you have to sort of ask what - if anything - such a claim really means? With City of Brass, the same question applies. Unfortunately, even after sinking enough time into it to see the final boss, I’m not sure I can offer much of an answer.
Developed locally by Canberra-based independent game studio Uppercut Games, City of Brass is a roguelike first-person action game. Playing as a thief in search of treasure, you’re tasked with running, jumping, whipping and slashing your way through the titular metropolis.
The game’s sandy city is no Rapture but I can definitely see how it would be possible to see the premise as a vague echo of Bioshock. You’re tasked with entering a foreign environment, learning its rules and emerging triumphant but changed. Sure, that phrasing rings out as a little generic and could apply to all sorts of games - but I could see it applying here.
As it turns out, there’s always a city. Unfortunately, it’s not always one you’ll look back fondly upon.
Each level in City of Brass randomly-generated. Regardless, they usually amount to more-or-less thing: a gauntlet. Most of the time, your goal is always to reach the exit. Sometimes, you’ll have to defeat a boss first. Regardless, there always will be enemies and traps standing in your path and Djinn merchants offering you items and enhancements that’ll make overcoming said adversaries a little easier.
You’ll also receive some help from the compass at the top of your screen, which helps guide your way through each level and reduces backtracking. You’re always free to go off on your own and try to maximize your treasure haul from each level but rarely end up running in circles. Like any roguelike, City of Brass understands the importance of balancing risk and reward. That said, it did irk me that there wasn’t any sort of map button.
All in all, City of Brass is a sometimes painfully-straightforward affair. Across the board, it’s an experience pretty light on the surprises and light on story in general. As you progress through the game’s thirteen levels, enemies become more beefier and traps become more deadly. However, the fact that you health is persistent and carried across level to level ultimately generates the bulk of the challenge here.
From the start, you’re able to outrun most enemies and it doesn’t take long before you learn how to outsmart them. Still, you’ll take the odd hit here and there and it doesn’t take long before the numbers start to add up and your health bar begins to wear down.
Of course, the most-exciting tool in your arsenal here is the game’s whip. You can flick weapons out of enemies hands, you can grapple on to wall ornaments and swing around and you can use it to grab treasure that’s otherwise out of reach. Mechanically, this is the most exciting thing in City of Brass. Unfortunately, it only really exciting by comparison.
The combat in City of Brass ultimately proves one of the game’s biggest shortcomings. It has a really floaty feel to it that hamstrings any sort of rhythm or solid gameplay loop. The controls feel loose and imprecise, combat encounters are very mashy, enemies are generic and I quickly found myself growing tired of the game’s semi-randomized layouts long before I probably should have.
While roguelike design and random-generation often work hand-in-hand to produce “endlessly replayable” romps, the end result in City of Brass emerges as a bit dull. Once you get over the initial thrill of using the whip and the initial novelty of the game’s Arabian aesthetic, there’s not a whole lot to it and the mechanics themselves just don’t have the depth or require enough finesse to keep you coming back to it. Whenever I died, my reaction almost always sat closer to resignation and relief than it did any willingness to try again and try harder.
The Bottom Line
As a game, City of Brass is easy enough to learn but failed to convince me that there’s much in it that’s really worth mastering.
There are other games that do a better job of mixing the FPS and roguelike genres and games out there. There are games out there with more satisfying whip experiences. There are even better games out there that do this particular set-dressing with better style and a whole lot more substance.
Despite the ambition and heritage behind it, City of Brass is as forgettable and by-the-numbers as these things come. It’s not awful, but it does fail to take its genre and premise anywhere you probably haven’t already seen before.