Monday, July 01, 2013

Rogue Legacy

After storming the castle for thousands of years my clan of brave adventures finally started to make headway, at first slowly eeking their way a little further into the foreboding structure, killing the occasional spirit or disembodied eyeball, only to meet an untimely end at the hands of a more powerful denizen of that dreadful place.
Review By Jeff Nash

After storming the castle for thousands of years my clan of brave adventures finally started to make headway, at first slowly eeking their way a little further into the foreboding structure, killing the occasional spirit or disembodied eyeball, only to meet an untimely end at the hands of a more powerful denizen of that dreadful place. As time wore on, and future progeny had the mantle of responsibility for furthering the family cause thrust upon them progress was finally made. Bosses fell before their swords, treasures were discovered, and slowly the path to victory appeared before them.

This is the tale that has unfolded before me while playing Rogue Legacy, a roguelike action RPG hybrid from the folks at Cellar Door Games. It's one of the most addicting games I've come across all year, constantly tempting me to have one more run at the castle before turning in. Maybe I'll be able to make it a little further into Maya this time, perhaps I'll score some nice armor blueprints or a useful enchantment rune, or, if nothing else, I'll be able to avenge the death of the last patriarch of the family, Sir Useless III, whose chronic case of irritable bowel syndrome ultimately proved his undoing.

By having future generations pick up where their parents left off, Rogue Legacy very cleverly addresses one of the core aspects of roguelikes: your characters die a lot. Instead of it just feeling like a tried and true game mechanic that has been central to the genre for decades, suddenly there's a bit more meaning and narrative surrounding the adventure. It's not just generic warrior number 37 of whom I feel about as much connection to as a red shirt in Star Trek. I know that warrior is destined to die. When and where, I have no idea, but it will happen and I'm left with an apathetic acceptance of this. With this game, that isn't really the case. As simple as it may be, each new character one plays as is the offspring of the previous one and it adds this extra context that changes the way I view them. They actually matter to me to some extent. Sir Jeffrey II barely made it three rooms before dying, here's hoping Lady Stephanie proves far more capable than her idiot father.

While there will be copious amounts of keeling over by these heroes, things get better as their children get stronger. As you go through the game there are no lack of opportunities to find gold which can be spent on a talent tree after selecting your next offspring upon dying. Here all sorts of stats can be improved, character classes and abilities unlocked, and helpful NPCs made available. Once players start to unlock all of these, they'll quickly feel their characters getting stronger and become more able to push further into the castle. It's a very well laid out progression system that dangles just enough tasty carrots in front of the player that they'll likely find themselves saying, "Okay, just one more run" far more than they may like.

This is further helped along by various blueprints and enchantment runes that can be found in the castle, giving players access to better, specialized gear and magical augmentations that will make them even more formidable in their adventures. Between these, and the aforementioned talent tree there is a lot of ways by which one can improve and tailor their character so to better tackle the game.

All of this isn't to say that the game magically becomes a cakewalk after boosting one's stats and finding a bunch of fancy new gear, though. Rogue Legacy is still very much a skill-based game. In comparison to other roguelikes that can be heavily turn-based and bombard players with random dice roll events, the action in this game is centered around platforming, twitch-based gameplay. While players are often times at the mercy of the RNG gods in these sort of games, that isn't the case here. Since the action unfolds in such a platform-y fashion success and failure rests far more on the player's shoulders. Beating enemies and bosses requires players to learn their tells and attack patterns, then going in for the kill once they have a handle on it, unlike other roguelikes where things can be going swimmingly then all of a sudden everything takes a turn for the worse because the game suddenly decided to throw a bunch of terrible things at you all at once. It's a really nice shift in approach taking away some of this RNG.

With that I can see some people not being keen on the high level of difficulty in the game. Monsters will happily stomp your heroes one generation after the next, and it's entirely possible early on that players will barely make it a few minutes in on a given run and die, being forced to try again. For some this could be a turn off, while others will likely relish it. I'd hardly consider this game Dark Souls hard, but it will push you. The thing is that it doesn't feel cheap. It just takes time to learn how to deal with the enemies, and possibly some gold runs to strengthen your character. That's why it's important not to lose sight that this is a roguelike at its core. Dying is just part of the game.

Besides the whole dying a lot thing, the other central feature of roguelikes is randomly generated levels, and Rogue Legacy has that in spades. Every time a hero dies and his heir takes over, the layout of the castle changes. Rooms are shifted around, and the paths to bosses are completely different. One couldn't be blamed for wanting to draw comparisons to Spelunky because of this. Even with the randomness that is going on, there are still some basic aspects of the castle layout that remain the same. There are specific worlds within it that are always in the same general area when storming the fortress: the forest is to the right, Maya to the top, and the underworld to the bottom. This never changes. Moreover there are rooms that remain the same every time they show up on a playthrough, and it's how they are connected and where they are precisely that will change. Nonetheless, there's always ample opportunity for exploration during each run. It's actually somewhat reminiscent of a randomly generated Symphony of the Night in terms of traversing the place.

While the game will usually create a new random layout for everything on each playthrough, it also has an interesting feature that allows players to lock down the castle. This is done by unlocking a mad architect that has a contraption that will lock the castle layout to your previous run before dying. It comes at a cost of 30% of the gold you collect on your next run, but it's an incredibly useful feature. Let's say you want to start killing the major gatekeeper bosses without having to explore the castle constantly. Just lock it down, and it becomes a lot faster to complete this. It's also a life saver if you happened to be really close to getting some new treasure and want to have another go at it instead of giving up and just dealing with a new randomly generated castle.

Just as the levels are created randomly, this also plays heavily into character selection. Each time players choose a new heir, three will be presented before them. You don't get to custom build your characters. All you can do is roll with the punches. There's a wide variety of character classes in the mix, especially after unlocking more advanced ones ranging from paladins to barbarians to liches to arch mages and a slew of others. Moreover, they will have a number of traits assigned to them, some useful, some detrimental, and others just silly. Some of the useful ones include not setting off spike traps or being able to run really fast, negative traits can range from taking massive pushback when struck to vertigo, arguably the most disorienting trait in the game since the screen goes upside down when playing this sort of character. The silly traits can be things like "nostalgic" or irritable bowel syndrome, as alluded to earlier. However, other traits I could see being downright offensive to some people. These include things like dyslexia, tourettes, and ADHD. The game does try to address them in a very simplified, silly way that made me chuckle a little more than I probably should have, but I can still see the more easily offended having a problem with this.

My big problem with the characters, though, is that I just don't have as much control as I would like when picking an heir. I like agonizing over traits and stats, but this just isn't present in Rogue Legacy. Picking a character for my next run could include a hokage with gigantism, a nostalgic paladin with tourettes, and an assassin with two left hands and dyslexia. What if I wanted to play as a lich with ADHD? Well, too bad, I'll just have to hope someone like that becomes available on a future playthrough. Moreover, it's really hard to tell the character classes apart. While the visuals do a decent job bringing a retro throwback style to the table, certainly better than a lot of other recent efforts I've come across, the heroes look strikingly similar. In order to tell them apart, one needs to pay very close to their helmets for stuff like bandanas or lamps, mages can be spotted by their beards, liches have pale skin, that sort of thing. Meanwhile they all wear plate armor and a cape, making them looks awfully samey. Personally, I don't remember seeing a lot of mages, liches not named Arthus, or shinobis running around in full plate gear. They always struck me as the cloth-wearing sorts, yet here everyone looks more or less the same, which is disappointing.

In the end, Rogue Legacy is great. It's gobbled up a large amount of my time with untold more hours likely to be consumed in the days and weeks to come. The game really does a great job of enticing players to keep trying, making it a little further into the castle's depths. Whether it's a gold run, the promise of treasure, being hellbent on revenge after dying to a boss, or just the thrill of tearing through hordes of enemies with a dyslexic barbarian king suffering from tourettes, this game is a joy to play, and you'd do well to check it out.




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