In Rogue Legacy, players take on the role of a child from a rapidly increasing genealogy of deceased. The game starts simple enough with a lone hero setting out to the mysterious Castle Hamson to find a cure for the king who was recently attacked by an assassin. This hero has set out in advance of his other siblings who also seek the cure and the glory of saving the king.
Suffice it to say, things don’t go well for the first guy. Not so great for the second one either. Only a few constants are in place: the children of the deceased hero always pick up arms to avenge their mother or father, the castle’s structure always changes, and some evil secret is lurking in the walls. Considering Rogue Legacy’s focus and entertainment comes from the gameplay, it isn’t too much of a surprise that it has a sparse plot. But it still has a couple of moments that make it worthwhile. Unfolding over the course of 25 journal entries and a few bits of dialog, the tone becomes increasingly creepy resulting in a couple clever shocks by game’s end. More than anything, it’s a nice, unobtrusive way to supplement the gameplay.
So what would happen if your offspring left off where you died? What if they were a little bit stronger and had a bit more experience? This is the core of Rogue Legacy. Players start out the game with one severely low level hero fighting against some very challenging enemies. Death should be expected within the first few minutes. From there it is straight back to the title and heir selection screen. At the beginning of each new game the player can choose from three different heirs of their previous hero. Each heir has a class, a couple traits and a spell. One child might be a gay assassin that is moderately weak but has a high chance of inflicting critical damage; and they might also be a colorblind giant with Irritable Bowel Syndrome that farts after every few jumps. Maybe it’s better to pick the dwarf barbarian king with high health and nearsightedness.
Many of these traits sound silly – and they are – but they provide humor and some nice little visual quirks to the game. But when some are coupled with different classes they can change a person’s play style dramatically. Over the course of the game, new classes are unlocked and players will be forced to adapt in situations where their preferred class might not be available. It’s a great system that ensures variety and strategy so the player never gets exhausted from grinding.
The primary method of getting stronger and progressively better in Rogue Legacy is collecting coins. Coins are used to buy equipment, use upgrade runes and are the only way of leveling up. Investing money into the player’s manor will initially grant things like max health, armor and attack upgrades, class upgrades and a smithy. As more upgrades are purchased, more stuff becomes available to buy but it also gets more expensive. A fully upgraded character can be powerful yet massively expensive and time consuming. Balancing the risks and rewards of what to upgrade is a nice little metagame in itself.
Despite all the preparation, it often does little to prepare for the castle. Not only does Charon, the shrouded gatekeeper, take all money leftover before entering, but the castle is completely randomized. This means each playthrough will be different. In this way Rogue Legacy is similar to other roguelikes such as Don’t Starve, FTL: Faster Than Light or The Binding of Isaac. Like these games, success is sometimes derived from pure luck. One playthrough might result in a series of difficult rooms and meager drops while another feels like a breeze. However, even when the castle puts you through the grinder it’s fun and suspenseful. A huge variety of enemies with harder variations means that there’s a bevy of strategies to learn. Some rooms might be polluted with spikes or akin to bullet hell shooters but they can be conquered. Strategy and some damn good upgrades will just make it easier.
By no means is Rogue Legacy an easy game. There will be certain times some choice four letter words will be spewed out. In light of that, it never feels unfair. Besting a pain in the ass boss or enemy feels wonderful. Maybe a simple sword and spell don’t seem like the right tools, but with practice they are deadly. And it goes without saying that the New Game Plus feature is a beast.
Graphics & Sound
Developer Cellar Door Games has crafted a desolate homage to 16-bit platformers and hack-and-slash games. Supernatural beings and evil knights are uniquely fleshed out and each presents a small handful of move sets that are flashy and thoughtful. What’s even better than the overall aesthetic are the other little touches that Cellar Door added to the product. Having a character with something like nearsightedness, tunnel vision or a sepia-toned flair for nostalgia occasionally affects gameplay but more often than not is just a fun quirk to experience for a few rounds. Then there’s dyslexia which scrambles text, vertigo that flips the player upside down and a few others worth discovering.
Only a few tracks govern the music of the game. The four sections of the castle have different themes. While they might be repetitive when listened to by themselves, they fit the tone and are actually quite solid. But nothing beats the music from the opening and closing moments of the game. They were gold.
Rogue Legacy culminates in a wonderfully fun and clever game. The whole concept of living as descendants of a previously playable character could have fallen apart if it was overthought too much. Instead it becomes a fun mechanic that makes each new life a little different. Hell, it even borders on the philosophical after diving further into the story. Simple controls make it even easier to grasp the concepts and the difficulty. Sometimes it’s easy to put a game down after spending so long analyzing and playing it. But even when it became necessary to stop playing, the desire to experience the short and tragic life and death of another heir takes hold. There’s a kingdom to save! Plus a castle to fully upgrade. And a few more pluses to add to that New Game. Where did the time go?