With a sword in your right hand and a whip in your left, City of Brass sends you into procedurally generated districts in a city inspired by Arabian Nights. Spike traps, bottomless pits and explosive braziers are scattered everywhere, ready to punish the slightest misstep as you battle increasingly resourceful skeleton warriors in search for the exit, and passage to the next zone. There are twelve zones in total, but in the manner of modern roguelikes, expect to die and repeat stages often as you learn enemy patterns and trap systems.
The fundamentals of City of Brass are already in place, which can't be said for a lot of new games on Early Access. Level generation produces a believable mix of environments that flow from wide outdoor courtyards to tight indoor spaces crammed full of smashable pots and yet more traps. Enemies are vulnerable to environmental hazards, so goading enemies into a wall-mounted shard spitter or a glowing explosive pot is a perfectly good tactic. Combat is simple otherwise. Left-clicks swings your sword left and right; right-clicks crack the whip at your cursor.
This is where things get interesting. You can whip different enemy body parts with the whip to trip them, smack a weapon out of their hand or stun them with a blow to the head—the latter attack causes them to clutch their faces and writhe, proving that skeletons in this world do feel pain. Some skellies wear cages on their heads and like to charge headfirst into you, which seemed unavoidable until I learned to take their legs out mid-charge so I could slash them in the back when they collapsed forward. I wish there was more to swordplay than relentless clicking. These moments are crying out for an execution move.
Aside from tormenting your enemies, the whip has environmental uses. You can whip glittering gold to snatch it into your purse; you can whip explosive urns to blow them up; you can whip select elevated bits of scenery and swing past danger. All of these actions are performed with a satisfying, resounding snap. Games have fallen in love with bows in recent years; thanks to City of Brass I now want multi-purpose whips in all games now. Let's get some whips in Tomb Raider, Far Cry and all outdoorsy combat games pronto.
In spite of this excellent weapon the repetition in City of Brass grates after about an hour at this stage, largely because the upgrades I have managed to purchase so far haven't changed the game in interesting ways. Between fights you're encouraged to scoop up glittering golden loot that you exchange for weapons and armour at genie shops. If you're lucky you will find a genie selling a glowing companion who runs around bashing things until they get a bit lost navigating the terrain.
I've also bought some porcelain armour, which negates one hit before smashing, and a glowing club that does no damage to enemies but sends them flying back. It was occasionally fun to send skeletons sailing into traps with the club, but after a couple of stages enemies start flying at you in large groups that the weapon can't manage. Likewise an upgrade that added damage to my shove move, (bound to F, and also useful for sending enemies into hazards) proved largely useless, as did a long stabbing blade that took half a dozen stabs to dispatch a basic enemy.
The only helpful item I found was a bigger sword that increased my attack range and dealt damage in slower, more decisive strikes. Even this didn't help much against the first boss, who you find running around the third stage with an enormous weapon/shield combo.
The game's opening messages indicate that there is plenty more tuning to be done, as you would expect from a game that's destined to spend a good time cooking in Early Access. In its current state there's about an hour of fun in it, but that stands to expand as more inventive items are added and the game balance is refined so that the reaction to a restart is 'just one more go' rather than 'oh no not again'. City of Brass reminds me that items and special powers are so important in parmadeath roguelikes with no persistence. They have the power to keep things new even as you fight the same enemies in the same sandy city blocks. I look forward to seeing how the game has moved forward in a few month's time.