Where do they find the time to have all these kids?
Rogue Legacy is coined by the developments as a Rogue-lite. Whereas in typical Rogue games you’re expecting to lose everything when you die, in Rogue Legacy you just lose nearly everything. You get one chance to spend all of your money, and then your child must continue your quest in a new randomly generated dungeon, but with the upgrades you’ve bought in the past. Through this system, over tens of hours of gameplay and hundreds of dead ancestors, my level 64 knight is struggling to reach let alone defeat the third boss in the castle, despite being considerably upgraded with armour and abilities.
While the die-and-try-again cycle is fairly common in roguelikes, Rogue Legacy brings about a twist in genetics. Each child you take hold of has a collection of specific traits ranging from sexualities to disabilities. One might simply be a gay barbarian, not affecting your playstyle in the slightest; another might be a ninja who suffers from vertigo and you’ll have to play with an inverted screen for that life. On each life you get to choose between a few possible sons and daughters and while at the beginning you’ll be picking ridiculous characters for the comedy value (although the IBS trait is decidedly unfunny after the first ten seconds) later on you’ll simply be using the character select as a kind of fruit machine, hoping for certain combinations to allow you to progress.
One of the issues with the game is that the different traits aren’t balanced at all, with some (such as IBS) having no negative affect, some (such as vertigo) making the game almost unplayable, and others (such as having no foot pulse) making the game much easier. Similarly each character has their own spell to use and while they’re all moderately useful, one ability lets you stop time and wail on enemies making many encounters trivial. As with many games based on some kind of RNG, you quickly end up trying to game the system, using certain heroes just to grind out some upgrades before you get a character who is worthwhile allowing you to progress.
The game is tough, and never quite seems to end. After each playthrough you get a new-game+ with harder enemies but all of your upgrades intact. Sadly the enemies scale much faster than you do and some of their attacks get so fast you’d have to be some kind of savant to avoid them. Of course this difficulty is what keeps the game engaging and gives you a sense of accomplishment once you beat a boss, but too often your victories will come from luck or grinding up stats rather than from skill. Each time I came across a difficult boss I simply had to go through hero after hero, amassing upgrades to my weapons, magic and health until I could destroy the giant flaming skull without breaking a sweat.
This is a game where 10% of the players will savour the challenge and use their skills to beat bosses while dramatically underlevelled. The other 90% will be grinding their way through the castle, dying over and over as they do so. That’s not terribly compelling game design but then roguelikes have never been about accessibility.
Graphically the game has a charming slightly retro and pixelated look, appearing as something from the SNES era, but with shiny HD sprites instead. The different areas all look unique and distinct, and the enemies are lovingly designed in such a way that you can spot obvious tells and recognise their types even when blown up to monstrous proportions as sub-bosses or you face levelled-up versions in different areas.
It’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t a full-priced game, it’s an indie. For the money you easily get enough value to make it worth a purchase, and the mechanics and progression are tight enough to keep you trying for just one more turn well into the night. You unlock new classes and upgrades at the end of each life, with the upgrade tree being represented by a castle that you add turrets and halls to, and trees. Whenever I was starting to tire of repetitive, futile death I managed to unlock a new character style that allowed me to collect more gold or had an interesting ability, bringing me back for more. Armour is similarly varied, with one early set allowing you to take health from each enemy you kill, but also limiting your health pool severely to keep things interesting.
The random aspect of the castle is compelling to begin with, but you quickly begin to recognise certain rooms although the enemies within them are often different. Each enemy requires a slightly different tactic to defeat, so when you get a decent mix you need to be quick on your toes to try and juggle yourself out of harm’s way. Once you over-level an area though you can simply sprint through with your sword swinging and carve a path to wherever you need to go. Thankfully the game keeps the overall layout of the areas the same, so while the rooms may be completely different, the first area is always in the centre, with the second to the right, the third up above and the fourth down below. You’ll often find yourself making decisions about whether to go and grind out some gold in a lower level or go for the challenge of progression. If you like the layout of a castle, you can lock it for your next playthrough, but sadly this takes away 30% of your gold on that run and all of the chests remain looted.
Overall Rogue Legacy is an enjoyable roguelike romp that sadly outstays its welcome. Without a clear end point thanks to the treadmill nature of new game+, you’re likely to get bored before you feel like you’ve ‘finished it’. The grinding nature of progression is all too prevalent unless you’re some kind of platforming wizard (or are just better than I am).