June 19, 2015 7:30 AM | Joel Couture
As I fight off spiders with rocks, watching as my torchlight flickers and sputters out, I wonder why I didn't just do my boss' chores back home. Sure, delivering the mail into a crypt sounds exciting, but only because there are a whole lot more dangers in those tombs that can (and will) take your life. Courier of the Crypts has toned its challenge down since the last time I played it, being much more forgiving now that it's out on Steam Early Access. Does that mean it's easy? Not even close. I hope that package is worth it to someone down in those pits, as I spilled a lot of blood trying to get it there.
The catacombs of Courier of the Crypts demand a lot from budding postal workers. You need speed, brains, courage, and reflexes in equal amounts. For starters, you're running your deliveries on a bit of a time limit. Most of the crypts are pitch black, so you can only see with a lit torch. Torches burn out, though, so you'll have to find fuel sources as you work your way through the depths, and these are short in supply. There were enough in this version that I could get through with some time to spare, but not a lot. You'll still want to move along quickly in order to finish the level on time. Because shadows will kill you if your torch ever fully runs out. I mean, trying to see in the dark is hard, but it's the least of your problems if it burns out.
You can help yourself out by dousing your torch's light to save fuel. The trouble there is that you can't see when it's out, and monsters suddenly become very interested in you when it's dark. A lit torch makes the twisting, top-down passages much easier to see, so although there are a few light sources, most of the time you'll need that torch on to find your way. Even if the area is well-lit, monsters often shy away from you and ignore you when your torch is burning, so you'll want to keep it going when spiders and slimes are scuttling about. Still, when fuel starts to dwindle, do you risk taking the hits or trying to navigate in the dark? Once that torch runs out of fuel entirely, you have mere seconds before some awful beasts find you and end your run. The most recent patch added checkpoints that will make death a little easier to swallow, but you still don't really want to die, do you?
You can fight the monsters off with weapons to get rid of them, but your arsenal is finite as well. You can throw rocks, which you find in piles of three, but almost every monster takes at least three hits to kill. It's far better to use the torch to avoid them so you don't run out, and also so you can save some to break down the piles of junk that often hide access to side areas and secret treasures. So, you'll want to use them sparingly, which means carefully switching your torch on and off at the right times. But running out of fuel will kill you, so you may need to just fight things for a bit, but then you'll miss out on secrets that could refill your torch and ammo supplies. You have to constantly consider your options, balancing your need to search the crypt with your need to continue drawing breath.
It's also hard to make these decisions while navigating a maze filled with traps that you often can't see. Since you can only see in a small circle around you even with the torch lit, that means listening for the sounds of fired arrows, spiked traps, and acid-spitting tentacles. So, when you hear metal scraping somewhere nearby, you need to slow down and look around. So, you're listening for traps, monsters are on your tail, and your torch (the only thing that lets you see) is burning down. Often, I found this made me rush, typically to my death. The game does everything it can to fill you with a pressing urgency, giving you finite combat options and a dwindling light source, and then asks you to slow down and approach things carefully. It creates a great back-and-forth as you play, one that adds a lot of tension to what looks like a simple game.
If you think you can avoid any particular hard spots, you can't. Courier of the Crypts is a maze of items and mechanisms that need to be found to get through, and part of the game is figuring out where you need to go and what you need to do there. So, the whole time you're dodging traps and monsters while keeping your torch lit, you're trying to get through a maze that requires specific solutions and paths to complete. The game's puzzles aren't overly complicated, but they do require you to take some dangerous paths while juggling some tight inventory concerns. Again, the game gives you a lot to think about and then does everything it can to make it difficult to concentrate on anything besides your immediate dangers.
At least death means another chance to search the dungeon for goodies. There are a lot of hidden treasures in the game, and these are buried deep. I found two or three out of fifteen to twenty hidden areas on my first run at the game, and still haven't even come close to finding them all. These treasure troves contain mountains of items to help you get through, but they're so well hidden you'll often die in your search. Finding even one can tip things in your favor, though, and also makes exploring the dungeons a treat. I felt really satisfied any time I found some hidden loot, knowing how hard I worked to locate it. Still, I often died many times poking at bare walls hoping to find those rooms, but they did provide ample reasons to keep trying this build over and over again.
Still, I'm not sure what some of the treasure is going to be used for, yet. The game has gold lying around in most of these secret rooms, but I have no idea what it's used for as the game doesn't appear to have any shops yet. The game's hub map didn't show any, either, so beyond being a means of calculating a score for your playthrough, gold is still a bit useless. The items are handy, but without any real reason to grab gold, I started skipping treasures as part of my regular runs. I may want to go back for that money in the future, but it's pretty useless right now. At least there were lots of useful items in each hiding spot.
The visuals switch between cute and creepy with ease. I never get tired of looking at the main character's tuft of hair, even as the silly-looking guy died to tiny spiders again. There weren't many enemies yet, only spiders and slimes, but they both had different combat behaviors that made them interesting. The game gains some tension from its lighting, with various levels of brightness and colored lights shining on the decaying halls. These lights would reveal open coffins, broken walls, and other neat little pieces of set dressing that looked so much more menacing in the dim light. The main character looks a little goofy, but there's nothing silly about the poorly-lit halls he's wandering in.
Sound helps strengthen the reality of the crypt. When a stone door opens, you can hear it scrape against the walls. Doors creak loud. Spikes slice up through the floor, whining against steel grates. Spiders hiss in the dark, and break apart with a dry, sickening snap when smashed with rocks. Special attention was given to all of the sound effects, and they really add weight to the game's puzzles, creatures, and mechanisms. The tiny sprites and miniature skulls on everything seem laughable, but when you hear a door slide down, stone grating against stone as it opens a new, blackened path for you to travel, you feel a little bit more like you're there. It sounds real. It sounds dangerous.
It's still much easier than the last build, too. I played a previous version months ago that, while fun, was viciously difficult. More items seem to have been added, and certain bosses got a lot easier to take down. It's still a challenging game with a lot of secrets, but its developer has softened some of the blows to make the difficulty a bit more approachable. Checkpoints have also been added to the game, although using one means you lose a percentage of your accumulated gold when you respawn. I still don't know what gold's used for, though, so it's not such a bad thing. You'll still need multiple runs to win most maps, but it's much more possible than it used to be.
Courier of the Crypts is looking strong after a few stages, balancing out its vicious difficulty while still demanding players play smart and count their items. I enjoyed the tension of lighting and dousing my torch - the fear of what was coming after me in my self-imposed darkness. That it still has tons of secrets after my time with it only makes me want to come back to it more, hoping that I'll eventually find all of the hidden riches the crypt has to offer.
Maybe I am glad I didn't decide to do the old man's chores after all.
Courier of the Crypts is available for $11.99 on Steam Early Access. For more information on the game and Emberheart Games, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, Google +, and Twitter.