“You better pay this back,” said the bartender as I took the money from him. I left the bar in silence and went looking for some cocaine. It’s not often you get to play as an investment banker in a roguelike, and I am enjoying it. This one has the special ability to convince shopkeepers and bartenders to lend him money. I made great use of this skill in every bar or shop I came across. “You better pay this back,” each of my "investors" said to me. A couple of levels later, I was suffering withdrawal and trying to find a drug dealer for my fix when a gang of ninjas came out of nowhere and tried to assassinate me for being so deep in debt. “Phew,” I thought as I escaped their attacks and rounded a corner. Then I ran into the killer robot. He was also hunting me, and I’ll say this for him: he has much better aim.
Streets of Rogue is super. You’re a small hero of the Resistance, standing against the corrupt Mayor of a rotten futuristic city. You ascend into the tower-like metropolis level by randomly-generated level, taking on equally random missions and gaining new skills, items and fair-weather friends. It’s a roguelikelikelike, or whatever it is we’re now calling games that submerge you in roomy Binding of Isaac style randomness. There are drugs that turn you into a giant, bombs that blow doors off their hinges, cigarettes with which you can poison air filters, whiskey to drink for health (or use to bribe bouncers), boomboxes that make your enemies dance, and devices that hack the bullets out an enemy’s gun and into your own. It almost makes you wish Deus Ex was as imaginative with its approach to cyberpunky stealth and chaos.
There’s a great cast of characters to choose from. The investment banker starts with an obscene amount of money and the ability to identify any type of drug but, like I’ve said, he also has an addiction that will slowly drain his health if you don’t keep his nose powdered. There’s a Shapeshifter that can leap into people’s bodies but who is naked and thus provokes any policeman on sight. A doctor who can chloroform people from behind but who can’t use normal weapons because of being a “pacifist”. There are werewolves, gangsters, jocks, comedians. They all have their benefits and trade-offs, each of them makes you say “oh cool!” but then also “ah right.”
But none of it would matter at all if you didn’t get a big playground to mess around in. The roguish streets are not hostile by default. They are miniature city neighbourhoods, with bars, libraries, laboratories, flats, prisons, clinics, cafes, public toilets and other such places. You’re just a punter until you do something to piss people off. But obviously, you will piss a lot of people off. The game gives you two or three randomly-generated missions in each new level. Usually it’s just some variant of “kill these two suckers” or “rescue this bloke” or “retrieve item X from person Y” or “destroy this crate and loot its contents”. This form would feel limited but there are many ways you can go about each mission.
For example, my first ever task was to get a tooth from a slum dweller lying asleep in her own tiny boarding house room. I didn’t have any of the thief’s lockpicks or window cutters to sneak in, nor did I have the banker’s cash reserves to simply pay her to take out her own tooth and hand it over. I had to improvise as best as a fellow slum dweller could. I knocked on her locked door and when she answered I simply punched her until she fell over. It wasn’t my proudest moment (that was when I killed three scientists – but more on that later) but it got the job done. Into the elevator and onto the next level.
To make matters slightly more interesting, there are map-wide events that sometimes get sprung on you when entering a new area. It might be raining bombs, forcing you to stay on the move constantly. Or maybe a radiation wave strikes outdoors every 15 seconds, forcing you to dash from doorway to doorway throughout the whole level keeping out of the storm, so to speak. Or there might just be a killer robot with good aim hunting you down. This, along with the rest of the interweaving silliness and random quest goals, all comes together to create small, chaotic vignettes – moments when everything comes falling apart in the most disastrous and funny ways. Or moments when, even through the bedlam, you manage to Get The Job Done.
I once had to rescue a prisoner during a riot. The problem was he was stuck in cells of the local police station. Citizens were going mad, battering anything that moved and the police were battering right back. It was total anarchy and I somehow managed to warp through a wall using a special thief’s device, picklock the prison door and sneak us both out of there without any of the remaining guards noticing.
Another mission demanded I “neutralise” four scientists in a secure lab. I had a gun by this point and they all simply had fists and knives. But if I blooped in there with my teleporter and started shooting, they could easily bum rush me. Not to mention the security guard at the front desk who would definitely hear the commotion and come storming in firing bullets from his 9mm. I looked around for another solution. There were cages in one of the wings of the lab. Two gorillas were locked up. Hm. Hmmmmmm.
I warped in, right beside the ape and was relieved to find he wasn’t violent. I picked the lock to the first cage then ran over to the second. Within moments the gorillas had leaped into the lab proper and were tearing the scientists asunder, getting their bloodthirsty revenge for whatever experiments they must have been doing. The apes even killed the guard at the front desk, who had the bad idea to shoot at them. “Mission accomplished!” said the game. And then: “Character unlocked: Gorilla!”
The joy then lies in how all the small rules can combine to create mini-dramas. The personal politics between character classes drives much of the street-fighting and daftness that can occur, even without you having any hand in it. The blue gang members don’t like the purple gang members and will fight each other on sight. As a thief you will get told to leave any bar you enter because the owners find you suspect (and rightly so, dirt bag). Scientists hate gorillas, shirtless wrestlers won’t get served in shops.
The skills you earn between levels aren't as inventive, often giving you better critical hits or cheaper deals at a shop or stuff like that. But you do unlock more of these between deaths by earning the most futuristic of all crypto-currencies: chicken nuggets.
You hand these in at the Resistance HQ for new potential traits. The skill “Disturbing Facial Expressions” makes some people run away from you in combat. “Clumsiness Accepted” means people won’t mind if you break their things (normally, they really do not like this). “Bloody Mess” gibs everyone you kill, a call back to the Fallout trait. These are probably the most interesting of the bunch. The others, like getting more health from each chowed piece of food, feel dry in comparison to some of the wackier abilities and items.
Nevertheless, Streets of Rogue feels like a thing of destruction and detail. Small, dumb mishaps occur all the time. But so do moments of micro-heroism. Here’s some more examples of what happened in my very first life as a resistance man in rags.
- I once had to save a fellow resistance member, imprisoned in a trap-laden building. I carefully made my way through, dodging cameras, turrets, lasers, guards, and booby-trapped doors. I reached the cage and unlocked him, ready to lead my new friend back to the exit. On the way out, he walked into a flaming trap and was burned to death.
- I once hired a gang member to help me out with a heist. I led him to the lobby of the building and ordered him to attack the guard with the gun while I took care of the clerk with the key. “No way,” he said, “I’d get killed.” I ate a banana and threw the peel on the floor as I idly formulated a new plan. Then the clerk slipped on the banana peel and the guard with the gun became furious and started shooting at us both. We barely survived. At the end of the fight I told the gang member to follow me to the next area. “I don’t feel so good,” he said. “I’m leaving.” Fifty dollars well spent.
- I was once critically low on health. I wouldn’t be able to rob things by myself without very likely being killed. So I found a cloning machine and threw in my last $90 to make a female doppelgänger of myself. I gave her a gun with eleven bullets and ordered her to attack a goon as I stole whatever goodies where hiding in a nearby chest. She obliged, firing at the goon and leading him off the screen - an excellent distraction. I ran into the building, rummaged through the chest and found a measly 7 gold coins, just in time for a passing policeman to come in and shoot me in the back.
It’s a marvellous wee thing. I haven’t tried the co-op yet but I can imagine some of the disarray you might cause by combining the abilities of certain characters. But I did spend over an hour last night wandering around with the Hacker character, hacking television sets and refrigerators and security systems. Pumping gas into the buildings of my enemies and reprogramming slot machines to give me increased odds of winning. It’s satisfying to see a developer run with the idea of a “randomly generated micro Deus Ex” and pull it off so faithfully, while retaining its own sense of silliness.
Before I played this I dipped into two other games, each time intending to write about them for this column – Pamela and Hellion. Both are survival games and both were so undercooked that I stopped and put them on the back burner for now (Hellion was a crashing mess and Pamela took a full 15 minutes to load every time, before revealing a game-breaking menu bug). Streets of Rogue gave me a sense of physical relief – an early access game that is not only functional but a solid laugh from the moment it lands. The true joy here is that there is room for even more. More daft items, more maddening characters, more hackable machines. If the creativity keeps pace then the final release will be a small yet outstanding addition to the choose-your-own-accidental-death genre. But even now, at eleven quid (about 55 chicken nuggets) it feels worth it.
Streets of Rogue is on Steam early access for £10.99/$14.99. These impressions are based on build 1681923