After more than 20 hours of play, I still haven’t really got much of a clue what an ‘Iron Crypticle’ actually is, but I do know that the game which shares its namesake is one of the finest twin-stick shooters to come along in a long while, and yes, that is a platitude which puts it in the ballpark of the recently brilliant Nex Machina too, for those of you keeping count.
Encapsulating the golden age of twin stick shooters
An expanded take on 2014 PC title ‘Iron Fisticle’ (no, I don’t know what one of those is either), Iron Crypticle has that most gleefully silly of premises. As a member of the Kingsguard of Cryptonia, you are forced to plumb the depths of a pixel art underworld in pursuit of monsters who have stolen not just the princess, but a small mountain of food too. Sure enough, it’s the most late 80s arcade narrative one could imagine, and yet the love that the developers have for those halcyon days is one that runs deeper than the whimsy of Iron Crypticle’s deliberately wafer-thin plot.
Seeming like a cross between Robotron and Capcom’s Ghosts and Goblins, Iron Crypticle has up to four players braving multiple floors of the underworld, going room by room while wiping out monsters and scooping all that lovely shiny loot that they leave behind. Before you get all hot and bothered about the idea of loot though, it’s important to remember that in Iron Crypticle, loot isn’t equipment as it might be in hack and slash titles such as Diablo III. Instead, the loot you’ll collect will be mostly items that give you score which, in turn, bolster your experience count and provide an increase in maximum health whenever you earn enough to reach a new level. Speaking of score, a combo meter ramps up as more and more food is collected successively, but in doing so this also introduces a risk reward dynamic to the proceedings as you hurriedly dart around the map, balancing the need to collect foodstuffs quickly, whilst returning fire and evading it yourself.
Luckily to help in your adventuring escapades, you’ll have more than a few tools at your disposal to get the job done. A super-quick dash command for instance, allows you to effectively ‘blink’ a short distance from one point to another, but must be used tactically as it operates on a cooldown and might not be there when you need it most if you’re not frugal with its employ. Equally, the aptly named, though desperately finite Atomic Fist causes your character to slam his fist into the ground, creating an area of effect explosion that freezes time and eradicates any enemy caught within it.
Ostensibly, one of the biggest equalizers you’ll find in Iron Crypticle however, are the numerous weapons strewn around in each room. From hammers to axes, grenades and even flamethrowers, Iron Crypticle supplies the player with no shortage of means with which to slay the monstrous denizens of its procedurally generated levels. Intriguingly, it’s in these power-ups that Iron Crypticle’s roguelike leanings come to play, as rather than your character gaining strength with each death, you instead unlock more power-ups and upgrades that can be collected during your next run. It’s a deftly crafted system all told, and one that excels in providing incentives for repeat play in the face of otherwise confidence eroding failure.
Further adding to the deft design of Iron Crypticle and in the interest of keeping players on their toes, is the soft timer cap that exists in each room. Should you dally and not clear an area of enemies quickly enough, an increasing number of indestructible golems appear on the map; forcing you to kill whatever enemies remain and scoop up whatever loot has been left behind before you become overwhelmed. Again, it provides a neat wrinkle to a beloved formula that in turn changes the way you in which you might approach each room.
For all the importance the game places on muscle memory and hair-trigger reaction times, Iron Crypticle is also very much a thinking player’s twin-stick shooter. Before you enter a room, a map is presented that shows the pathways which can be taken through the current floor in order to reach the boss at the end. With the layout changing each time you play, collecting a map from fallen beasties early on proves to be an effective course of action; informing you as to the content of the rooms which lie ahead and then allowing you to plan your route accordingly.
In addition to the many enemy stuffed room types you’ll discover, some of these chambers can also contain shops and, believe it or not, arcade machines too. Starting with the latter, the ‘Castle Crusher’ arcade machines that you will occasionally stumble onto provide a refreshing break from Iron Crypticle’s monster mashing shenanigans; switching to a retro style, 2D platformer where additional cash and extra score can be scooped up to help you along your way. Welcome too, is the fact that Castle Crusher may also be played co-operatively with other players.
In regards to the shops, it should come as little surprise that the code house which birthed the hugely enjoyable Aqua Kitty DX has also cast a feline as a shopkeeper within Iron Crypticle, and of equal non-surprise is the fact that he/she might just be the most adorable pixel-cat in all of games; an award that we don’t give out lightly here at PlayStation Universe. As to the wares of the capitalist cat, the shopkeeper can sell all manner of attack, speed and defence boosting items, in addition to a wide variety of consumable items, health and a range of other trinkets to bolster your chances of getting through the current area in one piece. As such, it always pays to make a beeline for the nearest shop on the map whenever you get the chance.
Without a doubt, the entirety of Iron Crypticle’s clever design would all be for naught if its twin-stick shooter fundamentals weren’t up to the task. Happily, I can report that developer Confused Pelican has laboured long and hard to make sure that their latest offering feels every bit as responsive and pixel-perfect as the classic inspirations it so brazenly wears on its sleeve. Perhaps nowhere is this slavish adherence to the classics of old more keenly felt than in the boss fights. A genuinely challenging bunch of villainous abominations, the bosses in Iron Crypticle routinely fill the screen with health-sapping projectiles and demand a dauntingly high level of dexterity and hand-to-eye in order for the player to triumph over them.
Though lacking the neon-tinged, ocular extravagance of Nex Machina, Iron Crypticle nonetheless remains an enviably attractive prospect. Boasting a visual veneer that looks every bit like an actual 16-bit effort and not like contemporary title using a current engine to look older than it is, Iron Crypticle looks like a game out of time in the best way. The modest number of animation frames, coupled with the charming sprite designs of the many monsters that fill it subterranean arenas, lend the whole experience an authentically retro presentation that we really haven’t seen outside of Shovel Knight until now.
As far as chinks in the armour of Iron Crypticle go, there are only a couple of note. Though the game does a fine job in visually replicating the top down shooters of yore, the sound effects, particularly from the main player character when damage is suffered, could do with a little work as they sound a touch weak and less than spectacular for the most part. Arguably more crucial however, is the absence of online co-op. Of course, though a large part of Iron Crypticle’s heritage lay in couch-bound, local multiplayer sessions, it would still be a real boon to be able to plumb the depths of its dungeons with other players online – especially as it isn’t always pragmatic to arrange local multiplayer sessions exactly when you might want to.
Despite possessing the merest fraction of the fanfare that heralded the arrival of genre stablemates such as Nex Machina and Enter the Gungeon, Iron Crypticle nonetheless proves itself the equal of those superlative efforts.
With twin-stick shooters experiencing quite the resurgence of late, Iron Crypticle arguably stands at the forefront of that newfound charge; proudly trumpeting itself with superb design, great controls and a profound affection for one of the oldest and most beloved genres in gaming that bleeds through every aspect of its creation.
Oh, and I still don’t know what an Iron Crypticle is.