Wot I Think: Rogue Islands

Rogue Islands

Roguelikes and roguelikelikes are not my thing. I get bored, I get frustrated, I absolutely hate the idea of starting all over again when I’ve finally had a good run and it goes sour, I hate Spelunky’s bats, I hate FTL’s fights and I would happily push Don’t Starve’s bees into a volcano. However, after making a video of the game last week, I have spent 15 entirely voluntary hours of my weekend in Rogue Islands [official site], a roguelikelike where you roam across a set of Minecrafty-looking procedural island levels deactivating demon portals and walloping hell bats. Here’s why:

… but first some blather to explain what the game actually is. As per the official game info: “Developed by two of the world’s top FPS specialists, Kiaran Ritchie (Bioware) and Jane Whittaker (developer of the multi million selling Alien Vs Predator and Goldeneye N64 iconic FPS games), Rogue Islands takes the first person shooter to a whole new level of action!”

What that translates to is a story about a gnome wizard called Motwort who hops and blasts his way around islands. There are objectives on each which are generally about finding a location and then climbing to the top of a thing and interacting with whatever’s at the top. Inhabiting the islands are various types of enemy and hazard as well as collectible resources. There’s a story underpinning this activity – something about spirit trees???? – but I’ll admit that that’s the part I didn’t engage with at all. I’m fine with Motwort as a lore-less avatar.

Rogue Islands

I started playing the game on the easiest mode. It’s called “explorer” and you take less damage and can craft nightmares easily. Nightmares are bonus respawns which you can make using one of the resources on the islands, and you can store two of them at a time in explorer mode. That means you still need to remember to replenish them to avoid permadeath but you can build in a buffer of respawns to help you out and guard against lost progress.

In the early levels you’re in the Florid Vale biomes which are these chunky land masses, kind of like basic forest biomes. The procedural generation adds caves and bays and hills to explore and the whole thing is infested with skeletons which you can take on by strafing while shooting your magical peashooter. Explorer mode meant I had enough leeway to do a lot of learning in each playthrough, even before I figured out how to craft my own nightmares. I fumbled shots against skeletons, strafed into poisonous bushes and ended up on the far side of the island away from my boat at nighttime when ghasts descend and try to suck out your life force in the manner of some kind of Harry Potter dementor.

I think in most roguelikes and roguelikelikes you’d get killed by that stuff and dumped back at the start which is a big part of what I find dispiriting. Rogue Islands gave me more space to learn and to try things out without having to repeat myself in a way I don’t find rewarding.

Rogue Islands

I also liked being on the islands and mapping out the space in my head. Sometimes I’d head straight for the objective, but more often I’d enjoy pottering about, clearing areas of enemies and shooting my mana blasts at walls to mine out gem shards and blocks to boost my mana for a whole day cycle before heading back to the boat and hiding til morning for more resource gathering.

I find that sense of clearing an area until I feel like I’ve had my fill really satisfying. The game kind of rewards that in the sense that you get a score sheet when you leave an island to tell you how many diamond shards of the total you managed to pick up or how many enemies you left un-walloped, but it only gives you that info after you’ve decided to leave so it’s not the same nagging sense of completionism I get when I’m actively trying to 100% a task and the game is showing me there’s one single thing left to find.

Killing enemies yields spirit dust and that’s the main material you need in the game. Pretty much everything except food must be combined with spirit dust to become a more useful resource. Gem shards combine with dust to become gems. Gems combine with dust to become imbued gems and those are the things you need to diversify and empower your spell arsenal.

Rogue Islands

You start off with the aforementioned magical peashooter which allows you to pick at enemies from afar. I spent a long time not deviating from that because I always have this background concern that spells or weapons are about to become massively overcomplicated. I love a straightforward shooty option so I just upgraded the peashooter a bunch and enjoyed pinging things from afar.

Then I put some emeralds into the earth magic slots. I admit I then ignored that slot for ages, but eventually I remembered it existed and suddenly there was a) an uptick in the damage I was inflicting with each hit and b) these things are homing missiles! That was rather satisfying and also made wandering round the worlds a bit easier. After all, I didn’t have to rely on pinpoint accuracy, I could just aim in a vague direction. A second spell let me summon a cloud of wasps that would harass other creatures on my behalf, augmenting my damage further.

Rogue Islands

Fire power came a lot later as the associated rubies are the scarcer resource, especially early on, but that was another massive shift. It’s a sort of autotargetted fire stream which roasts enemies, absolutely obliterating their healthbars. I felt a bit overpowered with that until I realised how easy it was to set my surroundings and myself on fire.

These are relatively simple systems, and I expect some people will find them unsatisfying or easy to master, but they really suit how I want to play in this game, with fighting being a thing I need to do but not something that’s a real slog, more that it’s an activity and could kill you if you get too complacent.

I also just really like being in the worlds. The Florid Vale is this pastoral idyll (plus killer skeletons and demon skulls), but it’s chill, it’s pretty and you get large land masses to navigate meaning less danger from the gnome-eating fish which live in the water. Later in the game you get desert worlds with sheer drops and mangroves with twisted roots that are easy to fall off and thus strafing is no longer your best friend.

Rogue Islands

Houses you find in the levels sometimes contain treasures as well as gem shards and the like. I got something to boost my strength last playthrough and an amulet which gave me poison resistance. The poison resistance was possibly a little overpowered as it let me be more careless with some enemies and hazards but, as with most things, I quite liked that here because it was another thing which gave me more space to learn in a single playthrough. That said it did feel far too easy to defeat the final boss when I reached that.

I’m not sure that’s a bad thing because it meant I instantly started a new save on the next difficulty up. It isn’t the hardest difficulty as you still have the nightmare buffer craft system to avoid permadeath but you’re only allowed to carry one with you so you can come a cropper more easily. I’ve noticed that my resources are a little scarcer so I’m needing to make choices about where I send my reserves of spirit dust instead of just upgrading everything. I’m also having a more meaningful relationship with the food items in the game. Some give you a bit of health back, others refill your mana, one makes you invisible to ghasts, another means you take no fall damage… In explorer mode that didn’t matter but in this medium difficulty it has started to.

Rogue Islands

I’m wondering whether I’ll ever make it to the real permadeath mode – the one with no buffers. I’d like to and that’s a new feeling. I think the furthest I got with roguelikes and roguelikelikes before was enjoying the energy and joy of Crypt of the Necrodancer and thus being drawn back to it for the experience rather than ever getting any further into the game itself. This one is pottering and scenery as well as some cute monsters and the space to learn stuff in an environment I prefer, or in larger chunks than those games tend to allow per playthrough. I also take a LOT of screenshots when I’m wandering about.

Rogue Islands won’t be for everyone, but I thought it would be useful to explain why it’s for me!

Rogue Islands is out now for Windows, and is available via Steam for £14.99.


  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Looks a bit like a prettier, slightly-more-driven minecraft mod.

    Sorta Thaumcraft by way of Magicka, with a layover in Ziggurat?

    Anyway, looks neat. I like that permadeath is possible but avoidable, that’s a nice idea.

  2. dontnormally says:

    Maybe I missed it in the article, but: What’s the progression like? The hook for many who enjoy roguelikes is the unlocks and upgrades between playthroughs.

    Even if it doesn’t do that, I think you have to mention it if writing about roguelikes.

    • chiablo says:

      A true rogue-like would have no progression, since Rogue has none. One could argue that the presence of progression should prevent a game from being labeled as such… but now days everything is a rogue-like whether we want it or not.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Well, it’s “Rogue-like” not just “Rogue”. It doesn’t have to be identical.

        But yeah, nowadays “roguelike” basically just means “has permadeath and some amount of random generation”, which is a little dumb. But that’s how industry terms go. Remember when every FPS was a Doom clone?

        • KDR_11k says:

          We call those modern “permadeath and random levels” games roguelites or roguelikelikes. Roguelikes, the old genre, still exist and get retail releases e.g. with the Mystery Dungeon series so we shouldn’t throw that distinction away just yet.

          • Premium User Badge

            Drib says:

            I think RPS might call them that. In general, people just call them Roguelike without having ever played Rogue.

            … Not that I’ve played Rogue. ASCII Nethack is about as far back as my roguelike knowledge goes.

            Anyway, vague terminology is common. No way to avoid it, them’s the breaks.

          • dkfgo says:

            There is a Berlin Interpretation after all.

          • Phasma Felis says:

            “In general, people just call them Roguelike without having ever played Rogue.”

            That’s true! Those people are WRONG.

            I do love Roguelites, but they really aren’t the same genre as Roguelikes. It’d be like calling Half-Life a platformer.

      • TricycleThief says:

        Just call it RougeSouls

  3. KDR_11k says:

    Sometimes I wonder what these games really gain from the permadeath beyond a chance to show off the random generation. Same for A Robot Named Fight, without the permadeath the game wouldn’t be negatively impacted but it’s turning a lot of people away.

    • Rane2k says:

      I can´t tell you why others enjoy this, but for me, it is the fact that it separates the games into session-size chunks.
      I like the idea of sitting down, playing “a run” and ending it in the same sitting.

      This worked for me in Rogue Knight, 20XX, Steredenn and Binding Of Isaac.

      It´s also bit like old school games such as (old) Mario and Sonic titles, where you know you can sit down and play through the entire game in one sitting.

      Another aspect is that the power curve of a character/ship/party ramps up from zero to endgame levels within a short amount of time. I enjoy that.

    • April March says:

      I find it a bit disingenious to say that permadeath exists to show off random generation. They are two parts to the same kind of game. Permadeath without random generation results in a boring game where you have to play the exact same thing over and over until you succeed. Random generation without permadeath is effectively just a game with worse level design if you play it only once. (Though a randomly generated game that was designed to end in a single sitting would be interesting. Though that’s just Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space, which I didn’t like because it was too short.)

      • KDR_11k says:

        The Diablo series (and its clones) has random generation without permadeath (well, you can enable Hardcore mode but that’s optional).

    • dkfgo says:

      Permadeath is about giving the player the feeling that he actually has something to lose. When you invest hours (maybe days, depending on the game) into a run, every move matters.

      You’re probably not a roguelike player, but maybe you have played Diablo, and maybe you really played it, I know I did. So, the things is, after thousands of hours of nihilistic dungeon crawling, things get boring. You face another boss, and then you die, so what? You just hop on the portal, you get back, you beat the boss this time, you get the loot, you repeat it forever. You have figured out the game, dying is just another step, you know? It becomes dull. Then you find out about hardcore mode, and now dying means you lose hours, days, months of progress. Now you have you heart beating fast whenever something you dont know moves at the corner of the screen. Every encounter is like facing the Butcher for the first time.

      • KDR_11k says:

        I’m not the kind of person who enables hardcore mode, it makes me feel like I should only play the game when I’m in peak condition, otherwise I risk my run for no reason.

        Either way, there are some games where permadeath is a key aspect of the game and others where it feels tacked on. While e.g. Isaac is a game about working with what it gives you and Rogue Legacy explicitly requires you to die there are other games that don’t feel high stakes enough or have complex loot systems that don’t warrant the time investment to optimize for a short run.

        Also a game with permadeath always enabled tends to somewhat lower the stakes of each encounter (unless it’s Spelunky which is of course happy to instakill you at any time), fights can be much tougher when a mistake sends the player back to a checkpoint instead of having to redo the entire game.

        • dkfgo says:

          I dont know about Isaac, but you see, true permadeath (in the traditional roguelike sense) means permanent loss of progress. If you retain any kind of progress, like in Rogue Legacy, its not really permadeath (and thats one of the reasons Rogue Legacy is not a roguelike, not that it really matters, it doesnt have to be).

          For roguelike players, death must be painful and a real threat, otherwise it sort of loses its appeal. They embrace losing as an integral part of the experience. Its cliché at this point, but its true nonetheless, losing can be fun!

          If you die and all you can think is about lost progress, or how unfair it is, the genre is definitelly not for you. The point of roguelikes is that instead of grinding for XP on your character you’re grinding for knowledge about the game systems. Its essentially about learning, so every time you die it may seem like you lost progress, but if you arent playing it blindly, you are actually making progress, you just learned how something kills you and now you can antecipate it next time (of course, with the twist that next time the situation could be completely different except for the thing that killed you, then you have to use your wits to compensate).

          If the game systems arent deep enough though, or if the game is just too easy, permadeath can be meaningless too. Its not like permadeath is a secret recipe for making games good.

  4. Vacuum Boogie says:

    Very engaging WIT, thank you.

  5. stringerdell says:

    Grabbed it after watching Pip’s video the other day, its a treat so far. Really pretty generated levels & satisfying combat

  6. Ejia says:

    So when you’re essentially crafting extra lives I suppose that makes it revival as opposed to survival crafting?

  7. genoforprez says:

    The complaints in the entire first paragraph prove that Pippa’s opinions are the most trustworthy opinions and you should trust everything she says.

  8. LaKriz says:

    Bought this gem today after sitting on the fence for some days now. First run lastet around 1.5 hours and it was a treat. Great game with a good difficulty to waste away some hours. I especially liked the fast paced combat and the movement speed, which reminded me a lot of some classic FPS, the devs got this just right. Thank you very much Pippa for this Wot I Think, which swayed me to finally get into this fun!