Thursday, 4 July 2013

Rogue Legacy

On the face of it Rogue Legacy is nothing unusual.  It uses 8 bit graphics and sound to create a Castlevania-like platformer - not exactly revolutionary.  However, where this game differs from the norm is in the way it treats the player's family after their (almost) inevitable demise.  Yeah.  I said family.  Because in Rogue Legacy you don't just control one character, you control a dynasty.  A really messed-up dynasty (of hypochondriacs), at that.
There are two quite distinct parts to the game.  The first is a randomly generated platformer set in a castle (or forest or whatever). You jump about, kill monsters, open chests and meet a good selection of grisly ends.  However, what determines your abilities in this bit is how much of the other part you have unlocked.  And this, in turn, is determined by how much gold you earn with your dungeon-crawling exploits.  Each part feeds off, whilst also sustaining, the other - they're symbiotic, if you want to be all technical about it.
It's like Zen.... man...
However, none of this fancy stuff really matters if the game itself is rubbish.  It's all very well having an appreciation of novel structure but that isn't going to make things fun on its own.  So it's lucky that the action is pretty solid.  You explore a randomly generated castle (initially, with other areas coming later), and try to get as much gold as you can before dying.  You can run (sword held aloft and probably screaming "charge!"), jump, cast a spell or use a class-specific power (like negating damage or issuing a Skyrim-inspired shout), and there are, of course, the usual selection of nasty monsters arrayed against you.  There are chests to open, which contain a fair amount of loot, challenges to complete (to get even more loot) and bosses to kill (to get... well you can probably guess).  There's a good variety of rooms and obstacles to overcome and plenty of snap decisions have to be made on just what exactly is the best way of clearing a path.  Action is often quite frenetic, with the screen sometimes resembling a bullet-hell shooter and, certainly at the start, you will not last long.  It's all extremely reminiscent of Castlevania or Ghosts and Goblins, but this is no bad thing.

Now I'm sure that some of you are thinking "Hang on.  This game has 'Rogue' in its title and the levels are randomly generated.  This is (yet another) roguelike isn't it? And, correct me if I'm wrong, but death is usually permanent in a roguelike - so what's all this nonsense about families and loot?".  Right, well I'm glad you asked because you've led me perfectly into the next bit of the game.  The clever thing about Rogue Legacy is that, when you die, your son or daughter takes over your quest.  They get all of your earnings and all of your equipment and then they charge back into the fray.  And when they die the process continues with their offspring.  God, that's quite depressing actually isn't it?  Endless generations sent off to their inevitable destruction, all for an ultimately pointless goal.  Like the First World War, but with flying jawas.
Look!  A flying jawa!
Anyway, this is how it works.   Every time your character is killed you are presented with a choice of three different successors.  Each of these will be randomly given one of the classes you have unlocked and up to two of the game's extremely varied traits.  These range from the useful (ADHD, which means you move faster) through the mediocre (dwarfism, harder to hit but also less range with your sword) to the game-breakingly awful (vertigo, everything is upside down and back to front).  There are plenty in there just for laughs (IBS turns your character into a walking whoopee cushion) but the selection is wide enough to make each play through feel unique.

And the different classes also feel quite distinct, at least once the first few have been unlocked.  The early options are a bit uninspired, simply varying the attack power or the amount of hit points available, but later on they start to introduce different abilities which really influence how the player approaches the game.  Some character types are also clearly more powerful than others and the different combinations of class and trait can force you to make some difficult decisions about who to pick.  Is it better to have a miner with ADHD?  Or a Lich King with vertigo?  

Once you've chosen your character you are taken to the mansion, which you can now improve with the gold from your previous sortie into the castle.  The first person you employ is a blacksmith who uses blueprints found in the dungeon to create new equipment.  Once he has been installed then you can hire an Enchantress, who uses runes (again found in the dungeon) to add different powers to that equipment, or an Architect who can stop the castle regenerating - for a price.  Employing either of these opens up further options, new and improved classes or better stats and abilities, and paying for these creates new opportunities and so on and so forth.  Eventually the whole mansion has been unlocked and your characters are sufficiently strong to complete the game.
Now a lot of recent roguelikes have addressed the issue of progress in a genre where, traditionally, the player is forced to completely restart when they die. FTL had unlockable ships and ToME goes down a similar route with unlockable classes, races and everything else.  However, Rogue Legacy builds the entire game around this.  There is absolutely no chance of completing your quest with the starting character.  So, realistically, you will just be collecting gold in order to improve your manor for a long while.  On the other hand each character you create will have a better chance of getting further, which means it is almost impossible to resist having just one more go.  This is the kind of game where you think about going to bed at midnight and then suddenly it's 2am.

It isn't a roguelike in a traditional sense, death is a way of improving your chances not an end to them, but changing the structure of the game in this way is a really interesting twist.  You are now levelling up outside of any progress towards your stated goal.  In fact progress in the game only affects your character once they die and it passes on to their progeny.  This influences how you approach each run and can make you almost welcome death as it allows you to unlock another round of goodies.  I'm not sure I can think of another game that makes 'failure' as integral as this does and so it is laudable just for that alone.
There are, of course, things that could be done better.  To start with, some of the classes seem a bit redundant.  I'm yet to find a use for the mage, who doesn't do enough damage or have enough hit points to make them viable, or the miner, who gets a great bonus to the amount of gold they find but never lasts long enough to really use it.  And I have also noticed that because you lose (most) of your money when you go back into the castle and because the cost of most improvements go up exponentially, it is difficult to pursue a coherent build strategy.  You end up increasing most attributes by a small amount, rather than concentrating on one particular style - and this results in a pretty generalised bunch of heroes.

However, probably my main worry is that as you progress through the game the rewards become further and further apart.  The player has to spend longer in the castle in order to get enough gold to pay for the increasingly expensive improvements and so dying becomes more and more of a pain - despite the chance of actually completing anything remaining almost as remote as ever.  I suppose that this is unavoidable and the regular discovery of new classes does keep the player interested in progressing, but it is certainly something to be aware of.
So, bearing this in mind, does it all work?  Well, yes it does.  It's not massively complicated, and the action is solid, rather than spectacular, but the way that each part of the game depends on the other is a great idea and very well done.  It's original, it's quirky and it can be frustrating, but it's also a lot of fun; and, as I said above, it's the kind of game where the urge to have "just one more go" is really difficult to resist.   I'm not sure it will change your life - but it might just improve it a little bit.

Rogue Legacy is available on Steam and Good Old Games for about £12.

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