‘City of Brass’ Brings ‘BioShock’ Talent to a Cursed Arabian City

Chris Stead
Games Xbox
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When BioShock meets a randomly generated Prince of Persia, you end up with the addictive, Australian-developed City of Brass.

You never quite know what to expect when you leap through the gates of the City of Brass. Actually, that’s a half truth. You know to expect an angry, violent, kamikaze cast of skeletal bad dudes, who will charge at you on sight. You can be sure that any step made around the environment without first checking your surroundings will end up in the merciless beating of a booby trap.

And should you survive the above, you’re well aware of the bountiful loot you’ll collect. Lots and lots of loot. But you don’t know what order to expect them in. That’s what we’re really enjoying about City of Brass.

A skeleton warrior stands in front of a large door

During our time with this endlessly replayable game, we’ve died a lot. Death comes quick in the City of Brass if you’re not sharp of mind and quick of finger. But it’s smart enough to quickly throw you back into the action. Each playthrough gets you a little deeper, teaches you a new trick, offers up a new strategy, or allows you to experiment in a new way with a power-up.

It’s a gameplay loop we’ve seen before, if not dressed before in Arabian clothing, and when it’s done right, it’s addictive in all the right ways.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

A First-Person Roguelite

City of Brass is a first-person, dungeon-crawling, roguelike. The setting invokes experiences like Aladdin and Prince of Persia, transporting you into the deep, strong colours of the Middle Eastern desert. Here a long lost city slowly withers under the heart and the sand. Once a grand metropolis, the greed of its citizens overwhelmed the population, incurring a genie’s curse and damning the lot of them.

However, their vast riches remain, inspiring intrepid treasure hunters such as yourself – thieves in truth – to brave its malevolence for a chance to get deep into the city’s centre. If you can make it, not only is there something truly valuable to be found, but perhaps even a means of reversing the genie’s curse and returning the City of Brass to its original glory.

We’re intrigued by the possibilities of this end game, but despite the evocative preamble, this isn’t a story-driven experience. It’s all about the gameplay. Armed with little more than a whip and a blade, you leap into the city streets starting at the outskirts, faced each time by a procedurally generated run through that always plays different, even if you get the impression it’s just puzzling together familiar areas in new ways.

Get through the outskirts of the City of Brass and you get through level 1, making it deeper into the city. However, making it to the exit is easier said than done.

An Exciting Gameplay Loop

As mentioned, the damned come in many different, skeletal forms, and their random placement means they can appear in hordes, behind doors and hiding in bizarre nooks and crannies. Once they’ve identified your presence, they come at you like mindless zombies, hell bent on protecting their riches.

This can work to your advantage, allowing you to lure them into traps, or attracting them to an area where you can safely hug the high ground and pick them off as they grovel below.

Developer Uppercut Games, who comes out of Canberra, Australia, is made up of ex-2K Australia developers who worked on the BioShock series. It’s a history the studio is making no effort to hide. (And why would you? BioShock is brilliant!) Despite the Arabian setting, the manic sounds of these damned and the way they wander the environment immediately recalls the underwater tubes of Rapture.

A skeleton warrior winds up an attack

Elsewhere, the genie shopkeepers that pop up from the environment in neon glory do so in such a fashion you’ll be waiting on the voice of Andrew Ryan to boom out of your speakers. These genie shops allow you to buy power-ups for your weapons or your defence, allowing you to manipulate the environment – like turning off traps – and buy precious hearts to top up your health.

Each run-through sets you back to a bank balance of zero, so acquiring the funds to buy these items requires loot. It’s everywhere in the city streets – the citizens must have been showering in the stuff before the apocalypse – so you can quickly amass a small fortune. However, given that your high score is a product of the loot procured before your death, you want to be thrifty about the way you spend it.

Thankfully your trusty whip, always attached to your left hand, can grab loot that is out of reach and reel it back into your purse as a frog might pull in a fly. The whip is an unusual weapon, but a vital tool in not only securing passage through the City of Brass, but in separating the game from likeminded titles. Outside of nabbing loot, it can be used to grab parts of the environment so you can swing to different areas, or out of trouble if you’re getting swarmed.

But it’s in combat that it proves its true value. Whipping a foe, whether they be charging you or oblivious to your presence, can have a multitude of effects. Get them in the head and you can stun them, allowing you to leap in for an easy hit. Hit their legs you can trip them. Their hand and you can disarm them.

Depending on the class of foe, and how many are coming at you at once, thinking about this and combining it with your scimitar slashes, shoves and slide kicks is vital to success.

Playing Under Pressure

Which brings us to the final, yet unrevealed gameplay feature that brings City of Brass’ many gameplay flourishes together into something truly addictive. You only have a set amount of time to complete a level. Fail, and a fireball of death homes in on your location and vanquishes you instantly.

In a game where you can’t mindlessly run through the stage Doom-style due to the risk of running over upwardly thrusting spikes or some other booby trap, and where you need to explore for loot to buy the power-ups you need, the presence of a timer – just eight minutes when you begin – creates a pressure cooker environment.

Strategy becomes everything. Too much time spent with any one gameplay element at the cost of ignoring another – such as looking for loot, luring enemies into traps, shopping at a genie – will doom you to be damned.

The presence of blessing or burdens – modifiers you can apply to the game world to help alter the difficulty – does give you a chance to manipulate the terms of play and keep that frustration/reward dynamic set to your own personal requirements. We’ve still got to get deeper into this city – no easy task – and see how the traps, enemies, environments, and power-ups grow to keep up your desire to press on.

This will be what helps take this game from good to great. Uppercut Games is certainly a developer making a name for itself, following innovative work on titles like EPOCH and Submerged. And our initial reaction to City of Brass is that Uppercut Games has a real winner on its hands.

You can grab it on PC, PS4, or Xbox One.

Chris Stead
A veteran journalist with 22 years of experience writing about video games for the world's biggest publications. The true journey began as a kid of the eighties, feasting on Mario, Star Wars, Goonies, Alex Kidd, California Games and more. The bones may ache a little more, but the passion remains!