I’m going to start this review by saying I’m typically forgiving when critiquing indie and budget titles. I’d take a short, janky, but mechanically engaging indie title over any “AAA” experience that amounts to little more than rote gameplay sections between lavishly overproduced and overwritten cutscenes. However, even if I set the bar low, Crypt of the Serpent King Remastered 4K Edition is still a simple upscaling of an already shallow game.
Story? What story?
I’d usually start by discussing any narrative elements but there’s nothing to say. Despite seemingly drawing inspiration from classic PC dungeon-crawlers and blobbers from the late ’80s and early ’90s, Crypt of the Serpent King offers not even the slightest hint of narrative context. Is each level part of the titular “Crypt of the Serpent King”? Why is each level patrolled exclusively by one type of creature? Who designed doors that take a dozen keys to open? All you get is a “how to play” sub-menu to outline the basics: collect the keys, defeat monsters for XP, loot chests for gold and food, fight the boss, and then move on to the next level.
Bait, backpedal, bludgeon, repeat…
The lack of narrative elements would be more forgivable if the gameplay loop was more compelling, but Crypt of the Serpent King quickly reveals its mechanical depth – what little there is – and then seems content to drag out the experience with increasingly long key hunts in each successive level. You stomp around slowly in first-person, engage in simplistic and repetitive battles, collect X-number of keys while avoiding rudimentary hazards, open the gate to the boss, and defeat them after a bout of equally uninspired combat.
Given exploration involves little more than moving forward, sometimes with a smidgen of timing or pushing the jump button, the combat is presumably the core gameplay element. I’ll admit I was initially confused by the system and fell quickly to basic foes on the first level when trading blows. However, I soon realised these werewolf-looking creatures could be baited into an attack, easily dodged by backpedalling, and then struck with a follow-up blow. Repeat twice and it was over. What I didn’t expect was that the same approach would work for the first boss, the enemies in the second level, the second boss, and so forth.
Sure, some enemies have a flurry of attacks or greater reach, but that just means you have to backpedal further or wait slightly longer before counter-attacking. The only threat came from aggroing multiple foes (something tough to do given their spacing), backing myself into a corner in the compact boss arenas, or getting bored and playing recklessly. New weapons typically offer higher damage and improved reach, and you can unlock two ranged variants with limited ammunition per level, but they feel unnecessary. Even playing on hard – with no health-restoring food in chests – is manageable once you’ve mastered the bait-and-counter rhythm.
Progression so smooth it’s boring
What I didn’t expect was the rogue-lite structure and a surprisingly balanced progression system. At the end of each level, you can invest the gold you’ve collected into new gear and spend XP on increasing three attributes that allow you to deal more damage, take less damage, and move ever so slightly faster. Die, and you’re back to the start of the current level with your XP and gold lost (unless you’re playing on easy).
If you’re systematically exploring each level, there’s almost always enough gold and XP on offer to buy the next most expensive weapon and upgrade each attribute once. The downside to this design is that each level ends up playing out in the same way, with enemies doing much the same damage and falling to the same number of blows, simply reinforcing the sense of repetition.
“Remastered” is a strong word…
Another element that can often work in the favour of indie or budget games is a distinct aesthetic – something Crypt of the Serpent King lacks. The procedural generation system produces large but barren levels, blighted by a severe lack of diversity when it comes to textures, enemy designs, and props. Given the number of free 3D asset libraries, it’s also remarkable the levels are barren enough to pass for something from the PS2 era.
In combat, taking damage results in an obnoxious red haze obscuring your vision, while dealing damage to enemies triggers the briefest recoil animation, making it difficult to tell if you’ve hit or missed. Environments, weapons, and monsters look much sharper in this “Remastered 4K Edition”, albeit in a smoothed-over and crudely upscaled sort-of way. Unfortunately, movement is always sluggish – even after several attribute upgrades – and combat animations lack impact, leaving melee combat particularly unsatisfying.
What I did find somewhat impressive was the dynamic, tension-inducing soundtrack. The tracks don’t vary wildly from level to level but they have an unsettling effect similar to the classic Resident Evil and Silent Hill games; not exactly subtle but effective in generating atmosphere. They’re coupled with a draw distance that ensures everything beyond 10 meters is shrouded in darkness, so the music often ramps just as an enemy emerges from the gloom ahead of you. Of course, that means more unsatisfying, badly animated combat and the impact is quickly lost.
Why settle for this?
Although I don’t have much of a nostalgic hook for classic PC dungeon-crawlers like Eye of the Beholder or Ultimate Underworld, I’m a huge fan of more modern titles like Legend of Grimrock and Vaporum. Maybe that’s an unfairly high standard to compare Crypt of the Serpent King against, given it costs the same as a cup of takeaway coffee, but it feels like the developers only built the most basic foundations of a game and then shipped it – repeatedly. I had hoped for something budget but smartly built, not budget and rudimentary. All things considered, the group that might enjoy Crypt of the Serpent King Remastered 4K Edition are achievement hunters. You could get the dozen on offer in a 2-hour, easy-difficulty run if you so wanted. For everyone else, lay off the coffee for a few days and save up for any number of better dungeon crawlers.
A review code for Crypt of the Serpent King Remastered 4K Edition was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Crypt of the Serpent King Remastered 4K Edition (Xbox Series) ReviewCrypt of the Serpent King Remastered 4K Edition (Xbox Series) Review
- The balanced progression system
- Tension-inducing soundtrack
- Simplistic, repetitive combat
- Bland, uninspired, repetitive levels
- It feels like the developers put in the bare minimum of effort