The rogue-like genre has become very popular lately with titles such as Spelunky HD, The Binding of Isaac and FTL: Faster Than Light earning large and dedicated fanbases for their tough difficulty and endless replayability. Does Rogue Legacy have what it takes to earn a place among the greats? Let’s find out.
Rogue Legacy has been described by its developers at Cellar Door Games as “A genealogical Rogue-”Lite””, which is a much catchier description than my suggestion of “Procedurally-generated, Metroidvania, RPG with brilliant graphics and music“, but for the sake of this review we’ll go through exactly what my description means.
But first, we need a summary. Rogue Legacy is a side-scrolling platformer rogue-like in which you play as an adventurer exploring a haunted castle with the hopes of earning money and fame and ultimately taking over the throne and claiming the castle as your own. Unfortunately for the adventurer, you will die. A lot. If you die, your character will be archived for their heroic duties and one of their children will step up to the challenge of avenging them.
This happens for every character who dies, and as the children each have different classes, spells and traits, each one is a little bit unique. The main goal of the game is to defeat the castle’s four main bosses and get to the mysterious large golden doors which taunt you whenever you begin a new run. Once a boss has been defeated, it will stay dead for every other character, so your goal will ultimately be spread over several generations of children.
As you’re unlikely to be able to defeat a boss with your first characters, it is important to level up your skills and earn new classes and abilities through the massive skill tree presented at the start of each run, as soon as you’ve selected your character. The money earned from the previous run will be given to your new character, who can spend it to level up skills or buy armour or runes from unlockable vendors. The mysterious keeper of the castle, Charon, will present you with a toll fee whenever you wish to enter the castle which will cost you (at first) 100% of your gold, meaning every run is important and you won’t be able to eventually afford something just by earning 10 gold per character.
The game is played as a fast-paced action-platformer where combat and precision platforming take important roles. The controls are simple, but the fights can still get your heart racing as you attempt to dodge attacks and go in for the kill. There are also elements of bullet hell games in rooms with several projectile-firing enemies. You can choose to play either with a keyboard or a controller, with the latter being my personal choice. As this is a fast-paced platformer, the keyboard is tough to use, but some people do prefer it.
Procedural generation is a very important part of the rogue-like genre, allowing each playthrough to be unique and remain fun even after hundreds of hours playing the game. This is especially important in Rogue Legacy as you’ll be dying a lot, and every time you enter the castle, the room styles and layouts will be completely different.
Rogue Legacy’s take on level generation produces a castle made up of four zones, each made up of several rooms. For the most part these rooms have been hand-crafted by the developers, but some factors such as enemy types and loot drops are randomly selected. This makes every playthrough exciting as you never know what wonders or horrors could be waiting in the next room.
Each of your children are also procedurally generated, meaning that you’ll have a varied selection of classes, spells and traits whenever you need to choose a character out of the three choices you’re given for each run. Each class is significantly different from one another and so your choice of character usually relies on your preferred class.
Traits are a huge part of the game as they can, quite literally, turn a run upside-down. These are passive boons and banes of which each character can have up to two for any run. Some offer good things, such as the P.A.D. trait’s immunity to spike traps, and some offer bad things, such as the Colour Blind trait, which makes the screen black & white. It is fun to play with every trait at least once, but after a few runs you’ll know which ones you prefer to go with, and you’re likely to completely avoid characters with traits such as Vertigo and Farsightedness.
It’s a Metroidvania
Progression is a huge part of what makes Rogue Legacy such a joy to play. You’ll start out as a weak warrior who will die in a few hits, but as you earn gold and level up your stats, you’ll become noticably stronger and earn brilliant new skills. As the game levels are randomly selected, it is not a metroidvania in the traditional style, but as you earn new abilities you’ll find yourself taking opportunities you wouldn’t have taken at the start of the game, so the spirit of a metroidvania game is definitely there.
Ultimately, Rogue Legacy is a game about exploration. I’m being extremely careful not to give much about the abilities away within this review as I feel the sense of discovery is something that makes the game truly special. While loot and gold can be found in chests, you can also find a special type of chest called a Fairy Chest. These chests present you with a challenge that must be completed in order to reap the rewards, but if you fail the challenge, the chest will be permantently locked for the rest of the run.
From these chests you can earn runes which can be attached to your various armour pieces, allowing up to 5 runes to be equipped at once. Each rune has a different ability and they can all be stacked to make their abilities even better. One example of this is the Vault Rune, which allows you to perform an air jump. Placing this rune on all of your armour pieces would allow you to jump in the air 5 times before landing. Some runes are more useful than others, but they can all be used to the advantage of certain classes.
It’s an RPG
Rogue Legacy adopts many RPG mechanics which really help to give it a sense of progression. First and foremost of these is the skill tree, but the loot system also adds a great RPG element to the game. As you open chests, you have the opportunity to earn new armour and weapon styles, each of which have different stats and abilities. Once you have unlocked a style through finding a blueprint, you can purchase the armour from the blacksmith found before entering the castle, and then that armour can be worn by any of your character after that point. There are several styles to unlock for your sword, helmet, chest armour, limb armour and cape.
The classes work as they would in many other RPGs. Each class has unique positive and negative points. At the start of the game you’re able to play as a Barbarian, Mage, Paladin and Knave with more classes unlockable through the skill tree. Each of these classes can be upgraded to make them even more unique by granting them a special ability which can be activated with the skill button (Y on an Xbox 360 controller). These abilities can be very useful, such as the Barbarian’s ability to destroy projectiles with a Skyrim-styled shout and the Mage’s ability to cycle between 3 different spells.
To ensure that the game still has replay value once you’ve completed the main story, you are able to play New Game +, in which you’ll keep all of your armour, rune and skill tree progress and be tasked with defeating all of the bosses again. Once you completed that? New Game ++. Then New Game +++. Then New Game ++++… You get the idea. Each time you start a New Game + game, the difficulty is cranked up, and so the more you complete the game, the harder it will get. It is not known exactly how many times you can play through the story whilst keeping your progress, but I’ve seen people playing on New Game +14 with no signs of stopping.
It has Brilliant Art & Music
As I sit here writing this review, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for the game. This is a soundtrack that I come back to whenever I want to listen to game music and the tracks are included in my gaming playlist which features songs from Grant Kirkhope, the Legend of Zelda Series and the wonderful VVVVVV soundtrack among others. The music is just brilliant and the composers Tettix and A Shell in the Pit have done a great job of making music that fits in with the game.
Then we come to the art. Pixel art is sometimes risky because when it’s done wrong, it can look hideous. Fortunately, artist Glauber Kotaki knows what he’s doing, and the game is absolutely beautiful, featuring some of the best pixel art I’ve seen in a while. Characters are styalized and animate fluidly and the environments are filled with varied, yet suitable colours and tones.
I have barely scratched the surface of Rogue Legacy within this review because it is a game that deserves to be explored. I haven’t even mentioned Booyan’s game rooms or the many mini-bosses, and there’s plenty more I’ve kept secret to ensure that players who decide to buy the game can have a similar experience to the one I had.
This game is an exampe of what small indie studios are capable of. It went through the tough process that is Steam Greenlight in order to earn a place on Steam, and now that it’s there, I can’t recommend it enough. Cellar Door Games & co should be extremely proud of what they have created in Rogue Legacy; a game that easily takes a spot amongst the rogue-like greats.