Rogue Legacy PlayStation Vita Review: Rogue Rage

The popular metroguevania hack-em-up looks great on Vita, but its underlying flaws still peek through.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

I feel like I should enjoy Rogue Legacy a lot more than I do.

The game checks all the right boxes for me: It combines non-linear Castlevania-style platforming with procedurally generated stage layouts. It makes use of a visual style that makes it look like some TurboGrafx-16 game that time forgot. The music rocks, it has RPG-like progression mechanics, and best of all it now runs on PlayStation Vita, where it looks phenomenal.

And yet, something about Rogue Legacy just doesn't quite gel for me. The concept certain seems sound. It's a close relative of Spelunky, a game that could best be described as "delightful." On paper, in fact, Rogue Legacy reads like the swords-and-sorcery version of Spelunky. You control a fragile hero who loses every shred of hard-earned progress upon death, leaving the game's crusade to be taken up by that warrior's descendants. And, as in Spelunky, certain factors external to the protagonist carry on beyond death: The bosses you've defeated, the levels you've unlocked for your family manor, the equipment you've purchased.

Did you know the earliest demo build of Rogue Legacy used Castlevania placeholder sprites? Oh... you don't seem surprised.

In theory, you can blunder through the game haplessly over and over again until you win through sheer blunt force from all the level-ups you've purchased. In practice, it's not so easy; you build skills by unlocking them with the cash you earn from each foray into the ever-changing castle, and you can't accumulate cash from generation to generation (at least not without making a hefty investment first). You can lock down a castle's design in order to keep the layout stable from one attempt to the next, but in doing so you forfeit 40% of your earnings — and on top of that, all the chests you've opened remain plundered in future generations.

It's a pretty smart approach, honestly. Rogue Legacy forces you to make tradeoffs at nearly every turn. Do you work on exploring a fixed castle layout in exchange for the currency you need to advance your persistent skills and equipment? Or do you allow the castle to warp and change, forcing you to start anew at mapping it out each time you die and hoping for a lucky layout? Do you go after the high-risk "fairy chests"? Do you equip the rune that allows you to double-jump, or do you reduce your mobility in favor of a cash multiplier?

Yet the sheer mutability of the game also serves as the source of its biggest frustration: Everything in Rogue Legacy changes whenever you die, including your protagonist. You can carry over equipment and stat boosts, and you can opt to lock down the layout of the castle, but each time you die you're forced to choose your next avatar from a random lottery of three characters with wildly different attributes. So far as I can tell (after assuming the mantle of millennia worth of dead heroes), the game will never generate a character exactly like the one who just died, especially once you open up advanced classes like Lich and Dragon and expand the pool of options. Each new character typically offers a randomly selected class, a random assortment of quirks (some defects, others perks, depending on your needs and play style), and a random choice of secondary weapon.

By the way, this game wants you to die.

No two heroes are alike, which sounds like a cool benefit and definitely stands as one of Rogue Legacy's more unique traits. In practice, though, I find it undermines the fundamental consistency of the game. I suspect the idea behind hero randomization was to front-load the potential for the good or bad set of circumstances that affect players in standard roguelikes; since Rogue Legacy is meant to be played in a matter of minutes rather than over the course of weeks, and equipment is purchased permanently as you go along, building the whims of fate into the fundamental character build makes a certain amount of sense. But it means your skills and sometimes even your control set up changes from session to session, and there's nothing more frustrating than lucking into a character whose traits fit your play style perfectly only to die and find yourself forced go a dozen generations of ill-fitting choices before having the opportunity to play as a similar character. It's a brave design choice, but brave doesn't always mean successful.

Even then, I don't think I'd mind these constant upheavals if the castle layouts themselves weren't so wildly inconsistent. The game world endlessly rearranges itself into various random configurations of different room layouts that, to some degree, have been predefined. But not all of these rooms are particularly well designed, and there's no sense of progression — you can end up with a castle front-loaded with insanely nasty challenge rooms early in the game, with the interior sections sometimes consisting of multiple screens of low to zero threat. Sometimes you'll even enter a room and immediately be struck by an enemy or trap that spawns right at the door, slamming you with unavoidable damage in a game where every single hit represents a massive setback. The reality is that many of Rogue Legacy's rooms don't abide by the same sense of fairness and consideration as the classic games that inspired it; if some of these layouts had showed up in a legitimate Castlevania game, Konami would have found its collective self ridden out on a rail.

So many things to unlock. Better get to grinding...

Taken individually, all the different factors that comprise Rogue Legacy's design would be ingredients for a brilliant game. Piled together into a single work, they don't work quite as smoothly as I'd like. Again, the shadow of Spelunky looms large over this adventure; Spelunky works because of the remarkable restraint its design demonstrates. At heart, it's a methodical, slow-paced game with a fairly limited set of rules — and yet it puts those elements to use with marvelous skill, resulting in a game that nevertheless manages to be tense, pulse-pounding, and wildly unpredictable in its outcomes.

Rogue Legacy takes more of a kitchen-sink approach, with the emphasis weighing in on experimentation and breadth of content than on refinement. You can see it in everything from the unpolished stage layouts to the way the controls feel ever-so-slightly off. And that's not necessarily terrible; at their GDC panel this spring, Rogue Legacy's creators openly stated that they took precisely that approach by choice as a matter of practicality. They're a small studio with limited time and money. Cellar Door Games set out to create a messy, unpredictable creation, and that's precisely what they ended up with.

And despite my frustrations with Rogue Legacy, I actually like it quite a bit. Again, I feel like I should like it more than I do, but nevertheless it's a lot of fun, and maddeningly addictive. The entire time I've been writing this review, my mind has been drifting back to the game and contemplating strategies for my next foray into the castle. Ultimately, though, Rogue Legacy lacks the essential hallmark of a truly great roguelike: When I die, I rarely feel like it was my fault rather than due to a quirk of an unlucky roll or a bad room arrangement or simply the slightly loose controls.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Visuals: Rogue Legacy definitely falls into that "trying to look 8-bit, but not particularly concerned with accuracy" rubric. But it works.
  • Sound: Appropriately old-school music and effects, and not much more.
  • Interface: Simple and clean, though the controls lack the crisp precision of the game's inspirations.
  • Lasting appeal: Once it sinks its hooks into you, you'll be caught for a very long time — it's a huge, difficult game, and its New Game + is even deadlier.

Fun but flawed, Rogue Legacy falls somewhat short of its lofty aspirations. But you can't fault the developers for aiming high. It's a worthy attempt at marrying a lot of ideas together, and I'm fully confident that the developers will pull it off with their next venture. In the meantime, there's plenty of fun to be had here — and it makes a great fit for the Vita platform, too.

3.5 /5

Rogue Legacy PlayStation Vita Review: Rogue Rage Jeremy Parish The popular metroguevania hack-em-up looks great on Vita, but its underlying flaws still peek through. 2014-07-31T01:30:00-04:00 3.5 5

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for touchofkiel #1 touchofkiel 4 years ago
    Interesting take. Haven't played it yet - been holding out specifically for this version - and I've played Spelunky to death (ho ho ho) and I'm ready for a similar game on Vita, flaws be damned. Regardless, great read.
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  • Avatar for Royfe #2 Royfe 4 years ago
    I had exactly the same expectations going into the game, as the roguelike genre is definitely one of my favorites, but my feelings were that, far from having too much randomness, the game lacked any type of meaningful diversity in possible approaches.

    In a good roguelike you can achieve success in dozens of different ways depending on what the RNG throws at you. In rogue legacy, regardless of which class you take or what layout you get, you'll always play through the game with effectively the same mechanical style. This makes it a great game for the first 10 hours, but makes it quickly become boring after that.

    If the game would have given me the opportunity to make more meaningful choices with regards to my play style instead of forcing me to build my characters as bundles of stats I would have enjoyed it much more.
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  • Avatar for orient #3 orient 4 years ago
    Visuals are really important to me in 2D action games, and I just can't stomach Rogue Legacy's haphazard blend of 8-bit and 16-bit art, with high-res stuff thrown over the top. Compared to a game with a cohesive art direction (Shovel Knight for example), this just looks downright tacky.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #4 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    Rogue Legacy is an amazing concept that is marred by substandard execution. The art design is rather bland, with mediocre areas that tend to all look the same. The enemy design is amatuerish, and there's an over abundance of pallette swapped enemies and lazily drawn sprites. There isn't really a good sense of progression, with later areas being too similar too early areas, just with more damaging enemies that fire more projectiles. The soundtrack is decent, but wears out it's welcome pretty quickly (it's not even close to as good as Spelunky's stellar soundtrack.)

    But still, Rogue Legacy manages to be a pretty good game, just because the core gameplay concepts are so fresh. I'd love to see this game remade in the hands of better game designers, and with more polished art... it could be something truly special.
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  • Avatar for BeeZee #5 BeeZee 4 years ago
    I feel the same way. I think Rogue Legacy has a great concept, and it's addictive in a Skinner Box kind of way, but it's not really very good. It's just too haphazard and amateurish.

    I think the most disappointing thing is how little it does with its random levels. The layouts may be random on a technicality, but functionally, the game has such a limited vocabulary that they all play the same. In a game like Spelunky, giving the player the jetpack early, blocking a route with a difficult enemy, or making the player play a level in total darkness dramatically changes the nature of the game; the little things work together to create a huge difference. In Rogue Legacy, the randomness doesn't matter. Most treasure doesn't matter because you can't use it until the next run. Bosses don't matter because you only have to kill them once for every time you beat the game in its entirety. Enemies never feel random because the game draws from such a limited pool that you see all of them every run. It doesn't matter if a room is randomly made to be a flat hallway or a vertical platform fest for the same reason. And since the overall layout of the world is static, it's all moot. The only things that change have no meaningful effect on gameplay. It's the worst of both worlds: the levels feel too similar for the randomization to be effective, and they feel too poorly-constructed to work on their own merits.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #6 Kadrom 4 years ago
    I put this game in the same category as Binding of Isaac (which I am also eagerly awaiting the Vita version for), in that at first you find the random element to be too haphazard and unfair, but the more you play and begin to understand the rules of the world, the behaviors of the enemies, etc., the more comfortable you become with the game throwing curveballs at you.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #7 SigurdVolsung 4 years ago
    I actually disagree with you Jeremy. However, you still made your opinion respectful of the game so I'm fine with it. I just disagree. I loved the game enough on PC to buy it again for my Vita/PS4 and have the chance to play it again on different devices. I have already max leveled one of my lines on PC through several New Game+ adventures and unlocked all the recipes and armor and everything. So I am really into this game. While some elements of it may hearken to Shovel Knight and the like, I played this game more like Demon/Dark Souls. And I relished the experience, a very long experience to be sure.
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  • Avatar for limbeckd #8 limbeckd 4 years ago
    I've really enjoyed Rogue Legacy on PC. I don't think it's any less fair than other the other big procedurally generated games these days (hello, dark levels in Spelunky!), and the lack of reliance on random item drops and shop inventories makes it more consistent than the others in my mind.

    Regarding the different characters, they're good for different things. I usually only run bosses with Paladins, Barbarians, and Spellslingers (I think that's the name), and if I play another class then I just farm chests.
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  • Avatar for erichoya #9 erichoya 4 years ago
    Are the screenshots that are shown from the Vita version? I suspect they are the PC version due to the use of "A" and "B" buttons in one shot.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #10 JohnnyBarnstorm 4 years ago
    I enjoyed the PC version enough that I'll get this on the go. Spelunky is the game I've put the most hours in over the past year, so it'll be nice to have something to switch with. The main problem with RL is the feeling that you have to grind good weapons, armour, and abilities for about ten hours before the game becomes remotely possible.
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  • Avatar for kingaelfric #11 kingaelfric 4 years ago
    With all due respect, I find the lack of love a bit odd. Let me preface this by saying I have played entirely on PC thus far. While by no means perfect, I have loved Rogue Legacy as the 2D "Metroidvania" roguelike that I've always wanted without knowing it. While the mutability can certainly leave you a bit at sea, and yes, challenges can be front-loaded to such a degree such that they feel unfair, these are standards of roguelikes; granted those tend to be turn-based affairs, but they can be just as unfriendly as Rogue Legacy. As someone noted earlier, it does take some upgrades before the game becomes really fun, but that's a few hours I should think for most. As I started to learn the procedural rules for creating the castle, I started to have fun with every hero--from the woeful ectomorphic paladin to the awesome giant ninja. Then again, I have never minded a bit of grinding--and that may be the real key to whether a person has fun with Rogue Legacy; grinding tolerance. Also, I still can't beat the bonus bosses--but that's another story.
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  • Avatar for scuffpuppies #12 scuffpuppies 4 years ago
    I agree. The 8bit retro look is very hip right now. I've lived through it once, and have absolutely no desire to go back and do it again. Edited 3 times. Last edited August 2014 by scuffpuppies
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  • Avatar for Spooky-Toast #13 Spooky-Toast 4 years ago
    Always value your opinions.

    I am really enjoying Legacy's minute-to-minute play style that fits my work schedule well, but I agree that the random elements are a little unrefined. Now that I've unlocked multiple classes, I feel less inclined to play, as the odds of getting my preferred class have dwindled.

    This principle is totally counter to the rest of the experience. This, coupled with the fact that a low earnings run is insufficient to purchase anything and is subsequently useless, makes the otherwise tantalizing randomness only frustrating.

    Still, I the visuals, exploration, and Castlevania-esc combat outshine the annoyances.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #14 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @scuffpuppies Actually, good retro is awesome. But very indies do it right (Shovel Knight being perhaps the single best example in ages). Rogue Legacy's graphics are a sloppy hodgepodge. Again, considering the limited resources it was created with, it's understandable, but I hope Cellar Doors' next venture is a lot more refined.
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