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Wot I Think: Rogue Legacy

Talkin' 'bout my generations

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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