City of Brass Review

Simon Belmont meets Aladdin
Developer: Uppercut Games Publishers: Uppercut Games Platform: Windows, XB1, PS4

Talent without skill is like a desert without an oasis, and this game is one hell of an oasis

The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia is home to a quote that still resonates strongly today:

“No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”

Video games, sadly, never quite got the memo. The riches of Arabian culture and mythology are often ignored in our medium, often opting for the legends of the rest of the world. Those mythologies are still cool and all that, but where are all the genies & hinns? The grandiose mosques? Australian studio Uppercut Games has a response – “هنا في يدي أيها الوغد”. City of Brass wears its Arabian influences on its sleeve, with a rollicking first-person adventure set inside gorgeous Islamic architecture. Scimitar and whip in hand(s), you’ll fight the cursed inhabitants of a city long lost to time! It’s just come out of Early Access, but has City of Brass been whipped into shape?

City of Brass is a roguelike (I know I’m sick of that word too but hear me out) action game, with first-person combat not unlike games such as The Elder Scrolls or Bioshock. Fittingly, Uppercut’s staff include former Bioshock developers. You begin each game with just your sword and whip and are tasked with finding the end gate to get to the next of the game’s thirteen levels. Being a roguelike game, death is permanent – you’ll have to start from the beginning. At the same time, death never feels like the game’s fault. Traps are easy to locate and disarm so you have no excuse for bumping into them, enemies convey their attacks clearly, and bosses provide a firm-but-fair challenge.

The hacking and slashing with your scimitar will be very familiar, but City of Brass raises the bar with the inclusion of a secondary whip weapon. The whip, that I gave the pet name ‘Jonesey’, can be used against enemies or to interact with the environment. Enemies can be tripped up, stunned, pulled towards you, or disarmed; the action depends on where you aim. You can also use Jonesey to swing from ceiling hoops, set off traps, pick up items, or just make cool noises. You’ll be using the whip every chance you get, especially after you pick up a solid upgrade for it – more on that in a bit.

If City of Brass had a motto, it would be “you gotta risk it to get the biscuit”

Man, I love skeletons

Enemy design is one of City of Brass’ strongest suits. Skeletons are everywhere, who are the basic enemy with some bits tacked on, masters of the arcane wear long and mysterious robes as they lob fire/ice/green stuff balls at you, and a statue will follow you when you’re not looking a la the Weeping Angels. Combat never feels samey as a result and could even be called addictive. Movement and attacks are delayed just enough for them to require precision, particularly the whip. Landing disarming strikes is difficult at first but is utterly satisfying when you can pull it off.

City of Brass looks very nice. Like, very nice. Even on my medium-tier PC, I was awed by the wicked sick-looking city and all its colours. This game does Arabia’s gorgeous world justice, but sound design was unfortunately lacking in comparison. Music is non-existent save for a reassuring chime at the end of each level, and some attacks and effects don’t quite have that ‘oomph’ they need. Personally, I had no need for such luxuries as the best Arabia-themed music of all time has already been composed.

Levels and enemy mobs are procedurally generated, which means that they’re randomised each time you play. This is where the game’s addictive nature begins: having a different level each run makes said runs unique! Bosses remain the same in every playthrough, however, which is unfortunate. As well varied as the standard enemies are, it’s a shame that the bosses will always be the same each run. Having a pool of them for the game to draw from would have made the game that little bit more varied and help each run feel more unique. Available upgrades, too, are randomised. Genies will be placed throughout each level, offering you upgrades in exchange for treasure you pick up along the way. Make a wish, though, and the upgrades get stronger…for an inflated price. You get (wait for it) three wishes each run, which can be used to do a great deal many more things than pump up your new stuff like teleport to a later stage, convert ‘Genie turrets’ to your side, or plead for your life at the feet of health Genies (not quite that dramatic, but that’s what it feels like). The Wish mechanic is brilliant at injecting risk directly into the veins of each run. Do you spend two Wishes on jumping ahead six levels to start your run, or take your chances with Genie grooming – potentially picking up upgrades that’d save the day?

Why, you look like you’ve killed a ghost!

“You’re a big guy.”
“For you.”

If City of Brass had a motto, it would be “you gotta risk it to get the biscuit”. Playing it safe is absolutely an option, but you’ll have to make do with the game’s crumbs at the bottom of the container. Taking on that horde of ghost skeletons or exploring that extra room could make the difference between final victory and utter defeat. Using Wishes to skip levels could leave you with little in the way of strong equipment. Balance between risk and reward is important to a compelling videogame, and City of Brass nails it. The experience is almost addictive in how it encourages just one more game. If any game can do that, it’s a keeper.

Final thoughts

Arabian Nights is a sorely underappreciated aesthetic in videogames, but I hope that City of Brass is the one that breaks the mould. Auspicious positives more than make up for the minor niggles that dissipate after a few minutes of addictive gameplay. City of Brass is a home-grown title that’s well worth your time and money.

Reviewed on Windows | Review code supplied by publisher

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Good

  • Looks gorgeous as Hell
  • Addictive and engaging combat
  • Fantastic enemy design

Bad

  • Sound design is lacking
  • Procedural Generation has its usual hiccups
8.5

Get Around It

Aza blames his stunted social skills and general uselessness on a lifetime of video games. Between his ears is a comprehensive Team Fortress 2 encyclopedia. His brain, on the other hand, remains at large.
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