Wot I Think: Rogue Legacy

By Adam Smith on June 27th, 2013 at 2:05 pm.

My Rogue Legacy ends in defeat. I’m close to discovering all of the castle’s secrets and I’ve slain fearsome bosses, each taking me one step closer to victory, but my much-pruned family tree has been reduced to kindling. As I peeled my eyes from the window in which so many generations had perished, I vowed to remember my last and most valiant relation – a giant lich queen with a vampiric sword and a fear of chickens.

I could continue and I will, because this is compelling gaming, but I haven’t won quite yet. It’s no surprise that Rogue Legacy killed my entire family to date. It is a roguelike after all, and one of their primary functions is to destroy all that you hold dear, whether it’s a particular handsome paladinous progeny or a level 60 character who is on the verge of ascension. Rogue Legacy dispatches characters with a swiftness that puts the invention of Monsieur Guillotine and the efficiency of Amazon Prime to shame. However, this is a generational roguelike, or rogue-lite as the site brilliantly states. As you travel toward a lonely demise, you will find treasure chests and scattered coinage, often hidden in torches, chairs or mushrooms, and every penny collected is available to your heir.

Like Spelunky, to which comparisons inevitably arise like mushrooms in a dedicated bachelor’s sock drawer, Rogue Legacy successfully combines short, randomised experiences with a larger challenge. Every death may be a drop of blood in the history of the quest but a character’s success, no matter how small, feeds back into the longer process. The basic goal is to explore a castle, whose architecture shifts, and its equally unstable surroundings. Each room is hand-designed but there are a great variety and repetition hasn’t become a problem for me after sixteen hours of play.

That’s not to say I don’t encounter the same rooms over and over again. I do, but it’s rare to have an entire run, even a long one, that doesn’t reveal something new, particularly as the four environments have their own designs and dangers, and in later expeditions it’s common to dash through the castle to a different destination. Besides, it’s always a pleasure to find certain rooms, knowing that you have the right skills to make passage a thing of simplicity, while others will make you curse and search for another way around.

Early characters die extremely quickly. They’re barely capable of stepping through the gates before they fall onto some spikes or lose a fight with a demonic portrait. It can be frustrating because the learning curve isn’t obvious – will victory only be found after a predetermined number of ancestors have died, their corpses stepping stones to the stars? Absolutely not. While unlocks are vital – particularly the enchanted runes that can be stacked to provide such wonders as quadruple jumps – the game is less about levelling up than learning enemy behaviours, patterns and the best use of your own spells and speed.

While death leads to unlocks, it’s only a glorious death that leads to more powerful classes, stat boosts, elegant equipment and new skills. Theoretically, a first generation hero could traverse many rooms, avoiding difficult encounters and ignoring the treasure hidden in certain challenge rooms, many of which require specific upgrades. Those challenge rooms are a fine microcosm for the larger game – they contain chests that can only be unlocked if the rules of the room are followed. This may be as simple as killing every enemy but the more devious ones require the player not to look at the chest, or not to jump or take damage. This makes spike-laden mazes into tense traps. But, as with the rest of the game, having a required ability is never enough – it must be used carefully and with skill.

As to how the game plays from room to room, it’s very much like one of the better Castlevanias, with similar spells/secondary weapons, and health and mana recharges hidden behind background objects. There’s less enemy variety than I would have liked, with later areas containing reskinned beasties, although many have new attack patterns, sometimes practically filling the screen and turning it into a bullet hell. I used keyboard controls for the first couple of hours and found them perfectly acceptable but later I switched to a 360 controller, mainly because I’d unlocked the dash skill and it felt right to have it on the triggers. Not coincidentally, I was suddenly dying much less often. Keyboard works fine but I find it awkward to go back.

That’s the game then. A smartly crafted platformer with randomly configured rooms and a clever sense of progression. I’ve completely missed out what I expected to be one of the most important parts of the game and that’s the character traits, which can empower, weaken or simply aim for the chuckle bone. I’ve found ‘vertigo’ to be the most unpleasant. It flips the entire screen upside down and there’s no good reason to choose a child with vertigo, unless they happen to also be a super-powered late-game lich. OCD is useful, providing a mana boost for every object broken. Since I smash every single thing I find anyway, it suits me just fine.

I’ve already noticed some people expressing concern about the reduction of actual human characteristics to jokes or in-game penalties, but I find the overall treatment so daft and good natured that I’ve been happy to choose descendants with traits just to see how they’ll manifest. I find that the joke is generally about how to reduce the complex nature of a trait such that it can be represented in the simple two dimensional world of the game, but that is to acknowledge the reductive nature of the implementation.

My biggest problem with the traits is that they seem to be completely random. As far as I can tell – and I’d love to be corrected – the three children available to choose from are randomly generated from the pool of unlocked classes. Traits and spells are simply a further element of randomness. I’d be far more interested if there was more sense of progression within the family tree, as well as in the shopping and upgrading aspects of the game. I’d also like to see more visual differences between the classes but, in fairness, new equipment is reflected on the sprite, even if it does often involve little more than a new lick of paint.

The traits, which seemed like the most interesting part of the game, end up being little more than a gimmick. There is the occasional tough choice, between a crappy class with reasonable traits or a classy class with one terrible drawback, but playing with in monochrome or with a sepia filter is only interesting once or twice. The base of the game shows an intelligent approach to design that isn’t quite reflected in the traits. The architect, who can lock the design of the castle and its surroundings in place, preventing the scenery from shifting, is a brilliant sleight of hand, allowing players to experiment, practice and delve deeper, but also punishing them with fewer rewards. Cellar Door make almost every system in the game do a lot of work to increase replayability, challenge and enjoyment, so it’s a shame that the traits are not similarly well-crafted.

Thankfully, the actual game behind the gimmick is excellent and the clever use of the generational system is in the levelling of the keep and the collection of new equipment, adding an engrossing system of progression with long-term goals on top of the immensely replayable randomised platformer. I doubt it’ll have quite the staying power of Spelunky because the procedural elements don’t lend themselves to the same sort of emergent disasters – no destructibility here. Rogue Legacy is much more a game of skill, of practice making perfect, and it manages to consistently reward almost every five minute session that I spend with it.

Rogue Legacy is out today – you can play the demo right now.

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61 Comments »

  1. Arametha says:

    Gosh I wanted to love this game so much. It sounded like exactly the kind of thing I would dig, but the bit of platforming in the demo where you have to hit a platform with your sword pointed downwards thoroughly frustrated because it was so wonky. Anyone else hit a wall there, or am I just bad at video games? (Note: both of these things could be true at the same time, I suppose)

    • Adam Smith says:

      That specific skill, the downward stab onto platforms, is the hardest thing I ever had to do in the game. When I find a room with those bastard things in, over a pit of spikes, I grimace. It’s much easier once you get the timing right though – doesn’t quite become second nature, but stops feeling clumsy.

      • Wedge says:

        What input device were you playing with? I used an arcade stick and had zero problems with timing the down attack, but lost all interest in the game when they told me the only way to dash would be using the left/right dash buttons, which was utterly daft for my setup. I’m assuming they didn’t add any more control options for dashing in the final version?

      • Warskull says:

        Try turning on the Quick Downthrust option (I think that is what it is called) in options. It makes it so you only have to press the down button to drop down platforms or to downthrust, instead of down+jump or down+attack respectively. I feel it makes a significant difference.

        Controller can be a factor too, I am using one with a good dpad. I could see it being a real challenge down thrusting precisely with a keyboard or analog stick.

    • aliksy says:

      Whenever I found those things in the demo I would try my best to find another route.

      • Fenix says:

        Same here. The worst room ever was the one with those things PLUS the fireball shooting walls. Urgh.

    • derbefrier says:

      yeah those are a bitch. I assume it gets easier with practice though. I hope it does anyway. I do plan on buying this as I had a blast in the demo. Between this and Unepic I will be in metriodvania heaven for the next few months.

    • golem09 says:

      I enjoyed them as a particularly challenging exploration option. You could mostly skip them, or try your luck.

    • lasikbear says:

      Once you can double jump and/or dash those rooms are a lot easier, you can usually just hit the first one and then jump and dash the rest of the way.

    • Tacroy says:

      They really need to make the downward attack easier to pull off, yeah – it’s basically impossible to pull off in combat, and does half damage anyway. The only plus side is that you can infinitely chain headstomps once you figure it out, which makes some (but not all) enemies trivial.

      Basically, the air-down attack needs to come out instantly and last at least half a second; right now, it takes like ten frames to activate after you ask for it, and lasts for a very short period of time. This makes hitting the platforms (or enemies) a lot harder than it needs to be.

    • dE says:

      If they ever get around to making that aspect better, I’ll be there and buy it instantly. But yes, the downward attack platforms are a frustrating excersice in combat against the input method. I ended up just taking the hit and rushing through those rooms, flipping a finger at those platforms. In the end, I left the demo alone because of that mechanic.

      In the odd chance the Devs read this: Please, please, please rework the downward attack to be more precise. I promise you a total of 1 sale if you do.

    • BTA says:

      I’m really confused, because I have had absolutely no problems pulling off this attack. I thought it might just be that I’m using a controller, but even using the keyboard is extremely easy. Of course, this isn’t in a fight, but it’s still a bit odd that so many people are having trouble with it in general.

    • Cyphran says:

      In the release version that I was playing today, they added a menu option that makes this motion a lot easier. It automatically does an attack when you press down. So if you are mid jump and press down it does both. Also, they added a hotkey that does it separate from down if you want it to exist in a different place in your head (I did). Defaults to ‘K’ for some reason, I moved it to ‘F’ near my left hand on the wasd section.

  2. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    It’s like learning to play the drums right handed and then trying to play a lefty drum set. You can do it but damn it goes against all muscle memory and is quite awkward.

  3. golem09 says:

    I liked the random traits in the demo a lot, because of that very narrow window of 3 heirs to choose from.
    But ultimately it’s more for fun, and I enjoy that.
    This game could have been one of those mediocre neoretro titles with horrible controls and zero inspiration, but playing the demo I was constantly pleasently surprised. The game desig is very tight and focussed, and in a different direction than anything it could be argued to imitate.
    I’m very, very eagerly awaiting this release.

  4. lowprices says:

    Trust me, Adam, vertigo is rubbish outside the game too. The game itself looks interesting though, and I may give it a punt.

  5. granderojo says:

    I don’t normally play demos but I sunk 10 hours into this one. At some point I had to force myself to stop playing because the game would be out in a few days. Probably my favourite releases of the year so far.

  6. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Fun fact: In real life, vertigo doesn’t actually turn your perspective upside-down.

    • trjp says:

      Nor is fear of heights – which about 80% of the population seem to think it is (blame Hitchcock)…

      • jonahcutter says:

        Of course not.

        The condition you’re referring to is actually known as High Anxiety.

        • Aaax says:

          Gentlemen, I believe you are trying to imply Acrophobia.

          • solidsquid says:

            That’s fear of acrobats isn’t it? Like coulrophobia is fear of clowns?

          • Aaax says:

            If it’s as you say, how would you name a person with terrible fear of entering Acropolis of Athens?

          • The Random One says:

            Acropolophobia.

        • zbeeblebrox says:

          Haha! Such a great, unappreciated parody

          • RedViv says:

            I appreciated it already for the title. And then the airport walk happens.

    • wu wei says:

      I don’t know about that; when Madeleine ended up being Judy pretending to be Madeleine who was already dead at that time, woah, mind blown!

    • alexheretic says:

      True… hey wait that wasn’t fun!

  7. trjp says:

    I tried to like this game SO much but I bounced-off the demo hard.

    There are issues with the 360 controller which I’m told are fixed in the final game (adding deadzone settings etc.) and I realise it’s not the best controller for the game either but I just don’t play games like this with a keyboard.

    I also hated the system whereby you MUST spend your earned gold each generation or lose it – because many times you’ll simply not have enough to buy anything (so you wasted your time – basically)

    I also found the game frustratingly hard in places – the random generation will often create impossible rooms – it throws you against bosses HOURS before you’ve a hope of killing them etc. etc.

    The ‘extra weapons’ you get early-on are also SHIT – which usually leaves you as a guy with a sword fighting enemies with guns – which fire bullets which pass through solid objects that you cannot pass (and which some of your projectile skills bounce-off too) – which is just fucking stupid.

    When you add the traits which vary from amusing to childish via ‘just plain crap’ – I gave-up on it.

    It had some lovely ideas but the execution is meh – try the demo first for god’s sake.

    • golem09 says:

      The gold spending system is actually my favourite thing about the whole game, and being able to meet advanced bosses is something I really like. And those projectile enemies are hard, yes, but you also get pretty good special attacks.
      If I could breeze through everything the game throws at my in my first try, I would be pretty disappointed.

    • Zikron says:

      It sounds like you are not a fan of rogue-likes. If the game was easy and could be beaten early on I would have no interest in the game. When FTL first came out I beat it in one of my first play throughs, and I was filled with disappointment. That killed the game for me, not sure if I got extremely lucky or if the games patches have made it harder but have had a harder time beating it recently.

      I play rogue-likes when I want a challenge and know going in that I have a very small chance at winning and that winning is going to take some luck whether it is in an easy level design or good item drops. At the same time if I find a game that has a good story challenging that turns me off as it gets in the way of me enjoying the story.

      I love the gold mechanic because it forces the player to do well, and you will be rewarded not just play over and over again dying quickly. I can see how this can frustrate some players and perhaps it should be an option to make the game more accessible but it should not be removed completely.

      Your point about it taking hours before having a hope of killing a boss is flat out wrong. There are plenty of people that have gotten through the demo in their first play through with no upgrades/equipment etc.

      • trjp says:

        I think you’re conflating the rogue genre (perma death – no savepoints) and the need for a game to be nails hard (which is Ghosts and Goblins country).

        This game trades on both – problem is it lacks the precision and polish of G&G and it RELIES on some carry-over (gold/upgrades) which a Rogue game wouldn’t have.

        By doing something new (which is good) it has to stand-up for itself – and I just don’t think it does.

        Your assertion about it not being too hard “because people have beaten it” is just plain stupid – I mean there’s a guy in the US who can, theoretically, run forever – it doesn’t mean we’re going to scrap every car, bus and train does it? Well – unless this game was only made for those people (I wonder with indies – sometimes I think games ARE made just for ‘those sort of people’) :)

        • golem09 says:

          “By doing something new (which is good) it has to stand-up for itself – and I just don’t think it does.”

          And I think it does it better than any other Roguelite since Binding of Isaac
          I’ve yet to find a single flaw with the game (The xbox 360 controller stuff doesn’t count for me, since I play it with my SNES pad anyway)

          • trjp says:

            So the idea that you can get stuck in a “enter castle, get some loot, die, don’t have enough to upgrade, lose money, enter castle” loop isn’t a flaw then? :)

            The whole “taking your money” thing is a difficulty curve decision – if you’d limited the take (or removed it) then players who aren’t so good could still progress – abeit more slowly.

            As it is tho, many people will bounce-off castle after castle, making little progress and not even earning towards that.

            The other thing I’m not sold on is the Architect concept – the idea of locking-down the castle so you can explore it/retry stuff is nice but it cripples your income so it’s only useful to guard against making a mistake – it doesn’t help people who are learning the game at all.

            e.g. the game hasn’t been played by a ‘new player’ in a long time – the dev team have made a game for themselves, with their experience of the game set-into the difficulty curve. It’s a classic mistake…

          • thebigJ_A says:

            I’d say it’s not a flaw, because if you’re even half decent at platformers, you shouldn’t get caught in that ‘loop’, and the mechanic is fundamental to the gameplay. It’s like Dark Souls. Death isn’t a fail state, it’s a learning experience. Even if you didn’t earn enough gold to do anything, you got a bit better yourself. Besides, if you didn’t get enough gold to upgrade anything, you weren’t alive very long at all, so you didn’t waste much time.

            You only need a few hundred gold for the basic upgrades, which you can get in a couple of rooms as even a starting character, and each upgrade, if chosen wisely according to playstyle, makes you more survivable. You last longer, so you make more gold, so you last longer, so you make more gold…. THAT’S the ‘loop’.

            Early on, you should *know* you’re weak. Avoid the harder looking rooms till you have some abilities and such to make them easier.

            And you’re ‘new player’ comment’s just silly. Virtually everyone talking about the game is new to it right now, and few of them are mentioning your issue. I suspect you got frustrated earlier than most people would. Might I suggest picking barbarian early on? You have more health, and there’s little differentiation between classes at the very very beginning otherwise, so it’ll help.

          • HothMonster says:

            @trjp

            Balance is much betting the full game then it was in the demo. I think they jammed a lot of things into the demo that they pulled out to later areas just to show off some stuff.

            It’s not really that hard to make enough for at least one upgrade every time you enter. The doorguard keeps you from being able to just run in without a care dying over and over and stacking up money.

            I think the point of the architect is to practice boss runs. You can rush back the boss room, learn the fight a little better, die and then go in normal when you actually plan to win.

            But to each his own. I played about 5 hours yesterday and made steady progress throughout and more importantly had a ton of fun doing so.

        • Zikron says:

          Your comparison actually made me LOL because it was so outrageous.

          Regardless of your inability to make logical, insightful comparisons, the ability to buy upgrades with gold is a mechanic in place to help players. It is a great mechanic because as you work towards that goal you are gaining experience and becoming better at the game. The game forces you to since you lose all gold entering the castle, if you fail to improve you will hit a wall where you can not accumulate enough gold to purchase the upgrade you are seeking.

          Loving the game so far, really wish there was Steam Cloud support so I could easily play the game at work or from home.

        • maximiZe says:

          git gud

    • PikaBot says:

      If you don’t want to fight the bosses early…don’t? You can just not walk through the boss door, in the demo at least.

      • thebigJ_A says:

        Maybe he’s not used to metroidvanias?

        Hint: you can go wherever you want, and also NOT go wherever you want, at least until you feel capable of taking on harder challenges.

        Don’t go in the boss rooms if you aren’t ready to fight a boss. Obviously.

  8. HothMonster says:

    Can’t wait for the full build to release. Not getting much work done today.

  9. Turkey says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like the thing that keeps it from having the staying power that Binding or Spelunky have is the loot/upgrade system. You never really get that addictive instant restart feeling, cause you have to go through all the menus and walk through a couple of screens every time you die.

    It sounds kinda nitpicky, but it gets a bit repetative after a while.

    • PikaBot says:

      I actually feel the opposite. Because I have to go back into the game and select an heir in order to spend all that sweet loot I just earned, I am far more likely to get sucked into ‘just one more run’.

      • Turkey says:

        I see where you’re coming from. I guess I’m just not a ‘loot’ guy.

        I’ll still check out the full game.

        • golem09 says:

          Well, it’s not loot, it’s just gold. And the exciting thing is, that it’s not accumulated gold from all your playthroughs, but only the gold of your last run.
          But I see where you’re coming from, I loved it in Isaac that I beat the last boss with the same character and stats as in my very first run of the game.

  10. fredcadete says:

    Remember to buy it in the developer’s website, people! Same price as Steam, and you get a DRM-free download AND a Steam key.

  11. pupsikaso says:

    What the arse happened between the demo and the release? In the demo I could bind the keys to whatever (numpad keys, the insert-home-pageup/down keys, etc). I preordered the game and now when I downloaded the released version I can’t bind those keys! Wtf, seriously….
    I hope Humble Bundle does refunds…

  12. Hypocee says:

    I’m delighted to see roguelike[like] elements finally starting to reinvade absolutely everything. I’m so very sad to see launch game elements infect anything at all. We like a game that’s expressly and carefully designed to waste hours and hours of our time before we can play it? What year is this? Two steps forward, one step back I guess.

    • QualityJeverage says:

      What do you mean? I guess we have different definitions of “wasted time”? Are you just not a fan of progression?

    • Hypocee says:

      Request review of apparently spam-binned reply here, sorry for the inconvenience.

  13. Philotic Symmetrist says:

    While I’m one of those strange people who thinks games like Binding of Isaac, Spelunky and FTL should be included in the definition of roguelike, or at least action roguelike/ platformer roguelike for BoI and Spelunky (I think the tile-based and turn-based parts should be additional adjectives rather than part of the basic definition, like RTS vs Turn-based Strategy) I’m not sure Rogue Legacy should even be called a roguelike-like. There seems to be just too much progress that is retained; unless things change dramatically later on (or have changed since the demo), all levelling and equipment is permanent and bosses stay defeated so the only thing ‘perma’ about the death is what [non-boss] enemies have been defeated and knowledge of the precise layout of that version of the castle?

    I’m not saying that it needs to be more rogue-like, but I would like it if the term roguelike was ‘officially’ expanded and calling Rogue Legacy a roguelike seems like it would be proof to any purists that we’re going overboard with calling practically everything a roguelike these days.

  14. jingies says:

    The down-attack-platforms are game breakingly bad, the sight of those ruins a run for me.

    A minor annoyance I was stuck with last night was a first room that required a higher jump than I was able to do (as a low level player). No other way round, suicide was only option. Ordinarily you would look for a way around, but when it’s the first room and you are stuck it’s pretty annoying.

  15. QualityJeverage says:

    I’m genuinely surprised by the reaction to the down-attack-platforms. Is it a keyboard thing that makes them so hard for some people?

    I’m using a 360 pad, and I haven’t had any problem with those platforms whatsoever, from the very beginning. Not trying to be boastful here, I’m really just curious what seems to make them impossibly hard for other people.

  16. merc-ai says:

    Bought it yesterday, the game is fun. But sadly it’s mostly skill-based, so in-game progression is limited by your skill. This means that if you’re not a skilled player, you’re screwed and will waste a lot of time.

    The combined mechanics of “+10gp price increase on all upgrades after any upgrade is done” and “give away all gold gained on previous run” mean that in few hours you’ll hit a cap. When you do, the game will become mostly frustration and time waste.

    I’d recommend it to those who feel skilled at jumping / dodging / platforming / timing attacks. For people without superior reflexes, just skip the game or wait until sale.

    • jrodman says:

      After I hit this wall, I selected to just use the Cheat Engine to give myself a few hundred thousand gold.
      At this point the game was more fun and I played it through.

  17. Cronstintein says:

    Regarding the down-platforms. If you’re using a controller stick it can help if you increase the dead zone in the options. At least on my 360 controller it made a HUGE improvement on my ability to pogo on enemies and use those platforms.

  18. tvan900 says:

    I had a great time playing this game. About level 130 now, but looking for similar indie platfformer titles. Anyone have any good suggestions?