For some games, their goals and intentions are obvious from the get-go. Some want to show off their graphics, others their gameplay. City of Brass, on the other hand, seems to want to put the uniqueness of its difficulty on display. Unfortunately, this is the main attraction of the game, which never seems to quite stick the landing. I myself am a lover of challenging games, the Soulsbourne series, Cuphead, Crash Bandicoot and many other franchises, so I’m not strange to games that punish you for your mistakes. The problem here is that all the previous games mentioned are tough but almost always feel fair/rewarding. While City of Brass rarely feels fair, rewarding or even fun.
The setting puts you in a world that looks like it was ripped straight out of the Disney’s Aladdin (if the movie was more into skeletons and a lot of evil genies). From the start you have the choice of doing a tutorial which is, of course, optional. What the game doesn’t tell you, however, is that the tutorial is where the story of the game is explained. This might be one of the most shallow plotlines I’ve ever experienced. This couldn’t be more prevalent than the way the narrative unfolds, which is more reminiscent of reading sticky notes, rather than actually being enveloped in a story of any kind. Nonetheless, if the player doesn’t go through it then they’ll never even know the reasoning behind their journey.
However, the biggest issue of City of Brass lies in its difficulty. The game wants you to struggle over and over again. No, I mean really struggle, in every bit of the game. Did you die on level three? Congratulations, you go back to level one. How about you’re on level two, but you have to run an errand so you quit the game? Back to level one, as there is no save feature here. In fact, the only way you can return to a higher level in the game is by reaching a sort of checkpoint. For example, once you get past level three with a mini boss and you die on level four, you go back to level one. However, when you return you’ll have the option of using a “wish” (a limited in game currency), of which you only get three to use (duh) throughout each journey. Therefore starting back at level four instead of level one will cost you a wish that you won’t be able to use for the rest of that playthrough.
In case you were wondering this is a slight reward to dying. If you die (not exit) you get XP. When you gain enough XP (essentially die enough) then you will be rewarded with a level up. This results in you receiving a better item to start with, which can range from a stronger whip, a sword, or a power up. All of which you can find throughout the game, but the difference is that you’ll start with it in each playthrough. In theory this should make the 50th playthrough much easier than the first, assuming you have the patience to still be playing by then.
The basics of gameplay in City of Brass are somehow both complicated and simple. In each level your objective is to make it to the big door in the end. That’s pretty much it, except you have many options in how to get there. You can play the normal way without any blessings (handicaps), in the standard version the difficulty is fairly relentless. Only a few hearts, many enemies, a timer to finish, even more traps and an overpowering desire to simply turn off the game. Luckily, before you start each playthrough you are provided with the option of blessings, or if you’re one of the craziest people on the planet, curses. The blessings to start do different things, ranging from less aggressive attack patterns, more hearts, turning off the timer, and so on. Even better is that you can turn all of these on! The curses are the complete opposite, making your experience even more brutal. Trust me when I say this, you won’t need the curses. In fact, turning on all the blessings will still yield a mind numbing struggle.
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There is also a strange currency in form of wishes, which can grant you almost anything. From something as small as turning an evil enemy genie, a special hostile variant of stores, to your side as getting a boost of health when you purchase it. And therein lies the other unnecessary evil of this game. You have to pay for everything. Want a weapon? Pay up and lose the one you have. Want an NPC that will fight with you? Give money. How about health? Yeah, that’s right, other than a powerup that slowly charges to give you health over a long period of time, to replenish hearts quickly one must pay for it. On top of that, you have to come across a friendly genie, which seems like most of the game, at random. Sure you could probably scour an entire level and find the right genie, but you risk losing even more health to the difficulty of the level, which kind of defeats the purpose.
The game doesn’t do itself any favors with difficulty when everything from powerups, weapons, to armor are all found at random. There are different genies in different places carrying different items almost every time. The player is also only able to carry one of everything, except power-ups. This creates a problem, as developing an actual strategy to the game is near impossible when you can’t choose what you use. The game does, however, give you the option of adding “blessings” before each playthrough, such as more health or less aggressive enemies. I’ll be honest and say I started using all of these and the game was still tough as nails. All of that could be forgiven if the gameplay itself was enjoyable, but sadly, it isn’t.
Since you never get to save your money after death, or weapons, or power-ups, the game becomes a repetitive boring mess. The gameplay itself feels like a bad attempt at Dishonored fighting mechanics. First person view with a sword, but without the fun ranging powers and mechanics. To top it all off, the environments and music hardly change throughout the game. Throwing a jungle or night theme on similar looking levels doesn’t provide enough life to make each area feel different.
It’s not all bad though. There are a couple of things that City of Brass does well. For example, when you play the first level a second or third time, it changes. Sometimes it’s daytime, others it’s night and the level itself is shuffled around. This was actually a really neat tweak, I liked it and thought it was well suited for adding difficulty. I just would have preferred it in a game that wasn’t bordering on unfair in other areas. They also provided unique armor and weapons. Each one feels special and can help you in certain situations, some better than others. The whip itself is what helps this game along, it gives it an interesting aspect. Most games would have a shield in the players left hand by default, instead, they opt to have a more aggressive off-hand weapon for both defense and offense. With a basic whip you are able to stun enemies, knock weapons out of their hands, even have them briefly sidelined on the ground.
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Other versions of the whip that you can find throughout your play can do a number of things. One I found slowed my enemies down, another lit them on fire so they would continually take damage. In all honesty the whip is arguably the most enticing part of this Agrabah like experience.
In the end, City of Brass attempts to reinvent the wheel with its version of challenging gameplay. Unfortunately, the save/checkpoint system is archaic. In addition, the only way to start a playthrough with better gear is to repeatedly die to gain experience points and level up. At the end that’s what the game becomes, repetitive and not in a way that’s fun. The uniqueness of the powerups, weapons, and armor attempts to save it but only offers a glimpse of hope. Meanwhile leaving most strategy of gameplay to pure chance in regards to what friendly genies you come across. I recommend this game only to the most hardcore of the hardcore. Anyone who enjoys an over the top challenging game.
City of Brass is not welcoming to the majority of people unless you are a glutton for punishment.