I love roguelikes, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of my favorite games of all time. So the promise of these two things coming together to form Rogue Legacy was an appealing prospect, to say the least.
Developer Cellar Door Games describes Rogue Legacy as a "roguelite" -- meaning that it features simplified, streamlined game mechanics designed to get you up and running quickly, and your typical play session is a matter of minutes at most, particularly early in the game. This makes for an entertaining, fast-paced experience in which you shouldn't get too attached to your character because, well, they're going to die. Soon.
Rogue Legacy begins with an interactive introduction-cum-tutorial that teaches you the basic controls -- keyboard or gamepad, with full 360 controller support -- while setting the stage for the game. Once this initial scenario is done with, you enter the game proper by taking on the role of a new, fresh-faced level 1 hero. After charging through a Castlevania-style forest, you'll enter the castle proper, which is randomly-generated each time you play, but which always contains four distinct areas. It's your goal to make it through the castle, uncover the truth of what happened in the intro and kick some serious butt along the way.
To be honest, the actual context of what you're doing in the castle is eminently forgettable, but this game makes it abundantly clear up-front that it's not about in-depth storytelling -- it's about the emergent narrative that comes from navigating a series of rather idiosyncratic, often flatulent heroes through a randomly-generated environment, and how quickly they reach a sticky end.
Unlike most roguelikes, death isn't the end of your game. You keep any gold your hero acquired in your last run, which can be spent on expanding your family manor. The manor doubles as a form of skill tree, with the construction of new wings allowing access to new character classes and upgraded versions of the basic ones, while existing rooms allow improvements to your heroes' base statistics -- there's no levelling up during the exploration gameplay. You can also unlock access to various shops that sell equipment and runes to improve heroes' capabilities, and even an architect who will "fix" the castle's layout from your previous playthrough if you found it particularly fun or profitable. There's only one restriction: you can't "bank" gold, since a character named Charon (whom the developer describes as a "dick" -- an opinion with which I concur) snatches up all your remaining money before you enter the castle.
Once you've dealt with your family's administrative duties, Rogue Legacy's big twist comes in: each new character you play is a descendant of the previous. This means they inherit the equipment, stats and unlocked abilities of their parent, but won't necessarily be the same class, and they'll also have one or more genetic traits. There is a wide array of these traits available, and some have a greater impact on gameplay than others. For example, a hero with gigantism is considerably larger than the normal sprite size, making it a good choice for melee characters, while a character with near-sightedness only sees the things near him in detail; everything else on screen is blurred. Other traits have more subtle effects; for example, a hypochondriac character constantly exaggerates how much they've been hurt by displaying damage popups that are considerably higher than they really are, while a character who is unable to feel pain has no hit point readout at all.
Rogue Legacy makes light of a number of real-life conditions through these traits -- for example, a dyslexic hero can't read properly, meaning all in-game text is garbled into barely-recognizable gibberish -- but at no point does it feel like it's being malicious or ableist. Rather, it's poking light-hearted and gentle fun at these things, and in fact makes a very strong point that it's eminently possible to overcome one's own difficulties or even take advantage of them in some cases. It also points out that many people have traits and characteristics that are simply completely irrelevant to their ability to perform a particular job -- there's no aesthetic or mechanical factors that distinguish a gay hero from their heterosexual counterparts, for example; they're just gay.
The genetic system is not particularly complex in its implementation, and in fact to call it a "genetic" system is probably a bit of a stretch. Rather, with each new generation, you're given a choice of three heroes to choose from, each of whom has a randomly defined combination of class, traits and Castlevania-style "spell" to use. You can't "breed out" undesirable genetic traits by always picking the children with the most advantages, and indeed sometimes it's a case of picking the lesser of three evils rather than the "best" character. As Teddy Lee from the developer said in our recent interview, this was a deliberate decision on the developer's part -- the team didn't want players gaming the system and subverting the challenges that the traits provided. Besides, it's rather fun seeing the impact the various traits have on gameplay -- not to mention dealing with the interesting scenarios and emergent stories that certain combinations throw up.
The basic gameplay of Rogue Legacy is straightforward and enjoyable. The controls are responsive for the most part, particularly with an Xbox 360 controller, though the mid-air "down attack" move can sometimes be difficult to perform accurately -- and given that some platforms require that you use this move on them for them to become solid enough to stand on, this can occasionally lead to some unintentional mishaps. The controls can be tweaked to your liking, however -- joystick sensitivity can be adjusted, and the aforementioned "down attack" can be configured to require only a pull down on the stick rather than the button-and-stick combo required by default. It's rare that you'll find yourself actively fighting the controls rather than the game's challenges, in short, and later in the game the various "runes" give you access to helpful special abilities such as double jump, many of which can mitigate the potential difficulties the early game's heroes may have navigating the environment.
Where Rogue Legacy shines is in how it gradually introduces new concepts to you without feeling the need to burden you with condescending tutorials. The first time you come across a "Fairy Chest," for example, there's no pop-up tutorial explaining that you need to fulfil the immensely difficult on-screen objective to get access to the container's bounty; it's simply made immediately obvious. This pattern continues throughout the whole game; it's easy to understand, intuitive and just plain fun to play.
The only area where the game falls down a little is a side-effect of its randomly-generated nature: sometimes the game creates levels where it's literally impossible to reach a treasure, defeat an enemy or successfully fulfil a Fairy Chest's objectives. Once or twice during review I also found myself outside the game map after using a teleporter -- the review copy was apparently not the release version, however, so hopefully issues like this will be resolved by the time the final version becomes available.
These issues actually don't have as massive an impact on the game experience as you might think, however, since your average hero's life is no more than three or four minutes, tops. If something goes wrong, it's a simple matter of quitting the game and starting again from the entrance, or just deliberately dying and regenerating the castle in the process. It's not ideal, no, but at least there are failsafes present in the game if bad things do happen; there's no real penalty for death, unlike many other roguelikes.
On the whole, then, Rogue Legacy is a charming but cheeky, accessible, fun and brutally difficult homage to both the roguelike and Metroidvania genres. Its attractive pixel art has a distinctive, appealing look to it, and the soundtrack combines elements of retro and modern sounds to create something that is both nostalgic and contemporary at the same time. It's not the deepest, most complex game you'll ever play, but nor is it trying to be; it's simply trying to entertain you for a few minutes at a time. And on that note, it succeeds admirably.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: The character designs have a lot of, well, character, though the animation is simple and the background art is relatively unremarkable.
- Music: Unobtrusive, catchy and atmospheric, the music is a good complement to the game's dungeon-crawling platform gameplay.
- Interface: Everything in the game is clearly laid out and easy to understand, whether you're playing with keyboard or controller. I particularly liked the way the game's skill tree is represented as building your family manor.
- Lasting Appeal: The game gradually grows in complexity over time, but it's still a pretty straightforward platform hack-and-slash at heart. If you plan on "beating" it, it'll certainly keep you busy for quite a while, but this is more a game to dip into now and then rather than playing as your "main" game.
The Windows PC review copy of this game was provided to USgamer by Cellar Door Games, and was a "99.5% final" version.