The term ‘Roguelike’ is an odd one – it gets increasingly less useful the more widely it’s used. In the old days, anyone in a position to encounter the word – generally by hanging out on niche gaming sites – was also in a position to be at least passingly familiar with Rogue itself. These days, though, as gaming has evolved and the lines between genres have blurred, with developers scavenging useful concepts from whatever game interests them, the term gets used, sans context, in a much more diverse group of settings.
The problem is unlike ‘real-time strategy,’ or ‘first-person shooter,’ ‘Roguelike’ as a term conveys almost no information on its own (given the association between ‘rogue’ and ‘thief’, it probably gives many players incorrect assumptions). There’s nothing about the term that would indicate when someone says a game has ‘Roguelike elements’, they mean it features Role Playing Game (another meaning-light term, since almost all games involve playing a role, but one that’s ubiquitous enough that pretty much everyone in gaming has an at least vague understanding of what it means) elements, a healthy amount of randomization, and permadeath (once the player character dies, they’re gone for good, with no in-game saves or reloading). And for many players, the term is even more specific, referring to a very specific breed of turn-based, minimal-graphic RPGs (like Nethack, and the original Rogue).
All of this is preamble: if we’re going to keep making exquisite Roguelike-esque games like Rogue Legacy, we’re going to need to come up with a more descriptive term for them.
The premise is fairly simple: explore a large, randomized castle full of monsters. Hit things with your sword or with magic spells. Use your platforming and action gaming skills to keep yourself alive for as long as possible, as you search for loot and the boss monsters who block the final door. And then die.
The Fine Art of Dying
Dying is where the game gets interesting since, in true Roguelike fashion, death in Rogue Legacy is permanent. It is not, however, the end of the game. Once your character dies, it’s time for one of their heirs to step forward and continue the quest (in a new iteration of the randomized castle, of course). You’re given three choices of heir, who can be from one of several unlockable classes. And each heir has traits.
These traits are a large part of the game’s appeal. Some of them are clearly ‘good’ (OCD, for instance, gives you an MP bonus for breaking things and ‘cleaning up’ the castle), and others are clearly ‘bad’ (like Alzheimer’s Disease, which removes the game’s map feature, since the player can’t remember where they’ve been). And several are neutral, having either no practical effect, or a mixture of positives and negatives. These traits give each of your heirs a distinct flavor which can liven up the occasional monotony of sending them to die, one after another, in the castle. Death can be honestly exciting, because it means you’ll be able to see a new set of traits, many of which are hilarious.
Which is good, because even if you’re an expert player you’re going to die a lot while playing Rogue Legacy. But, and this is important, the deaths are always fair. Each enemy and trap in the castle has some sort of ‘tell’ for their attacks that the player must learn if they’re going to stay alive. Even with that knowledge, though, the math is against you. The further you progress in the castle, the higher the level of the spawned enemies, and the more damage they’ll do when they hit you (and the more you’ll have to dish out to kill them). The end result is while you can prolong a given character’s life in Rogue Legacy through smart, careful play, you can’t keep it going forever.
No Level-Ups, Just Hand-Me-Downs
This is partly the consequence of one of the game’s stranger deviations from the Roguelike formula. During any given play session of Rogue Legacy, with very few exceptions, it is impossible for your character to get stronger. You may grab a better spell, or obtain a useful artifact, but for most of the game’s classes, they will never be more powerful than they were at the moment they entered the castle. There’s no experience system, no leveling up as you kill monsters. Consequently, the enemies get more and more powerful as you progress, while you stay at a static level until you’re killed. The only consolation is that your chosen heir will be more powerful than you are.
That’s because progression in Rogue Legacy is based on spending the money you earn by your runs into the castle to improve your manor. Doing so unlocks a variety of stackable stat bonuses and extra equipment, which will give your offspring the leg up you didn’t get. The castle-as-upgrade system, lifted from Cellar Door Games’ earlier Flash game Villainous, is a wonderful progression in its own right, with each new upgrade unlocking new portions of the manor, with their own upgrades, as you go. There’s a wonderful feeling of discovery as you add on new wings to your house and unlock new, exotic boosts. Your kid will be stronger, heartier, and smarter than you were, meaning they’ll get further into the castle, grab more loot, and be able to purchase more upgrades when they die.
Besides allaying the ‘one mistake and all progress is lost’ element that has always made Roguelikes so daunting for newcomers, the progression scheme serves another purpose. The neatest thing about this system is how it plays into the game’s plot and theme. The story, which largely plays out via books found as you explore the castle, is one of parents and children, and of how selfishness on the parent’s part dooms the life of the child. Thus, by building the mechanics around literally buying a better life for your kid, the player is presented as the opposite of the self-centered villains. The ONLY way to progress in Rogue Legacy is to work to make a better life for your kids, to sacrifice yourself to give them a chance to succeed. And it’s that sense of progression that truly makes the game stand out among the many ‘Roguelikes’ that flood the market today.