I’ve spent a little time trying to understand roguelikes–I used to think about “games that hate you” a lot, I liked Dungeons of Dredmor, and Caves of Qud is always on top of my “to play” pile even though I rarely get around to it. At the same time, I’ve never really stuck with any of the roguelikes that I’ve tried, and I have a hard time actually working through the trial and error necessary to become really good at those games. I gave Dark Souls my ten hours, understood what was going on, and decided that I would never play it again.
Rogue Legacy is a roguelike, so I saw that it was released and promptly ignored it because of the reasons above.
Then I was bored one night a week or so ago and watched a stream where Phil Kollar, Austin Walker, and Janine Hawkins played and talked over the game. It looked like a good time. It looked easy. I bought it on an impulse.
Then I spent the next week playing it during every free moment.
It has been a long time since any game has gotten its hooks into my like Rogue Legacy has. Honestly, it makes zero sense why I would want to play this game. I hate metroidvanias, I generally dislike randomly generated levels, and I’m just generally not very good at games. Rogue Legacy is twitchy and requires some skill to play well. I don’t have any of those skills innately, and I’ve never really developed them to any significant amount.
We’re an odd match, but when I got into it, I got into it. I would play character after character, but I always did it wrong. I refused to use magic most of the time when you are very plainly supposed to use magic to beef yourself up. I beat all of the bosses by brute forcing my way through with the hit point loaded Barbarian Queen instead of finessing my way through with skill. I didn’t buy equipment for a significant portion of the game, spending all of my money on skill points despite the game actively telling me over and over again that I was doing it wrong.
So why did I like it? Rogue Legacy allowed me to do these things. It allowed me to basically stumble my way through a skill-based game, where most of them would have shut me out almost immediately. Following the model of what I call “games that hate you,” most roguelikes actively make you become more skillful by R. Lee Ermeying you into a wonderful machine that swims in game mechanics, and you end up loving the game for turning you into some weird little success organism. Rogue Legacy doesn’t do that. There isn’t much of a punishment for failing–the worst thing that happens to you is that all the money that you collected during the previous life is taken away from you, forcing you to spend what you can before giving up the rest.
So that’s why Rogue Legacy is unique, I think, in its position as a very small indie pixely game roguelike action metroidvania with RPG elements (good lord). We’re finally cracking this weird retrofiction where we equate the pure mechanics of early 1990s games–platforming, limited range attacks, Metroid-y maps, super difficulty–with all the trappings that came along with them (namely opaque ass systems). Now we’re lifting, softening, and then plugging them back in. All of this isn’t very clear, and I would have a hard time “proving” any of it, but it is definitely something that I feel coming out of the nostalgia-powered indie scene.
I’ll tack this on: Rogue Legacy is about generation after generation of a family who go into a castle only to be killed by the beings that live there. It is a meditation on predestination, much like every other game that feels the need to comment on why the hell a character would do these strange progressive tasks that we’re forced to do in games. I think that story is interesting, but it definitely didn’t hit me as significant or profound, and the entire narrative trope of the “final boss” left me confused as to why I was supposed to care. The game is about playing the game over and over again. I get it. So what?
ALSO: There are randomized traits that your character can have. These are things like dyslexia (all the text in the game is jumbled) or baldness (your character is bald.) One of these traits is “gay,” which has no effect on the game as far as I can tell. I’m very much uncomfortable with the addition of this trait–while 90% of the traits are genetic factors that are medicalized as disorders (dwarfism, hypergonadism), being “gay” (which is used for men and women) is both more complex than this and is definitely not a medical disorder or even a medical condition. It bothered me throughout the game, and ruins an overall great experience for what amounts to either a bad joke or an inclusive effort that reads really problematically (I can see a world in which the developers included the trait that has no effect on the game to make the point that having having non-heterosexual desire doesn’t make a person fundamentally different from heterosexuals in any way.) In any case, it gave me pause every time I saw it, and it only bothered me more as the game when on.
So those are my complex and diffracted thoughts about Rogue Legacy.
I liked the game, you can go buy it.