*Note: I have never played the original PC version of Rogue Legacy, which came out last year. As such, this review will not discuss the differences between that version and these new releases. If you’re wondering how these Playstation releases compare to the original check these reviews out.*
At first glance, Rogue Legacy looks like a very simple game, so much so that you’d be forgiven for seeing it and never giving it a second thought. It’s a sidescroller presented in the retro sprite style that has been all the rage for several years now. Catch it in motion and you’ll see straightforward, Castlevania style 2D swordplay against all manner of classic ghouls, zombies, and skeletons. However, while it is by no means a complex game, Rogue Legacy hides a subtle layer of depth beneath its unremarkable exterior.
Appropriately named, Rogue Legacy is a roguelike. If you know what that is, then you probably already have an inkling of what this game is like. If not, click here. The game casts you as a medieval adventurer, and your goal is to enter a castle and rescue your father, the king. It seems simple, and it is. However here’s the thing: you’re not going to save your father, you’re going to die. The game is tough as nails, but it’s all part of the formula. Upon death, you’re presented with three offspring of the recently deceased character. You choose the one you want and charge back into the fray to succeed where your predecessor failed. But you won’t succeed. You’ll die again. And again. And again.
That probably sounds absolutely awful to a decent segment of the gaming population, but I would implore them to read on and understand what makes this game work. Each time you enter the castle, the game randomly generates the layout of the whole map. You’ll never play the same map twice, which helps keep the experience fresh. There is a nice wrinkle in the form of the architect. He’s an early unlockable that allows you to “lock down” the layout of the map, at the cost of 40% of your earnings on the next run. So if you’re trying to tackle a boss or you just liked the layout you were handed on the previous run, you’ll have the option to keep it the same, as long as you’re willing to take a pay cut.
The map is divided into four sections, and you can enter each right from the beginning. They’re meant to be played in a certain order though, and the enemies in the later sections will make incredibly short work of you early on. Instead you’ll want to stay in the first section and hone your skills and improve your character. This is done by collecting gold. Gold is hidden in structures, dropped by slain enemies, and mostly stuffed inside of treasure chests. The core of the Rogue Legacy experience is essentially the process of fighting your way through the castle, collecting as much gold as you can until you’re killed.
Of course, the game gives you a lot of ways to spend your spoils. After each death, you’ll visit your manor. It’s here that you’ll spend whatever gold you earned on the previous run. At first the options are limited, but as you purchase more upgrades, more become available, which in turn unlock more options, and so on. By the time all the categories are open, there’s a healthy number of attributes on which to spend money. There’s basic stuff like HP/MP increases, and magic and sword damage upgrades. There are also more specific categories, like how much damage the downstike attack does, and how much health and magic you get from food and potions. Overall it’s a nice upgrade system, which lets you improve however you see fit.
Among the upgrades are two one time purchases that add a blacksmith and an enchantress to your manor. The blacksmith can craft new weapons and armor with varying attributes, and the enchantress lets you use magical runes to imbue yourself with abilities like flight, double jumps, and vampirism. You’ll need to find blueprints and runes in chests first, but as you do, you’ll have even more ways to customize your characters. You’re given the chance before each foray into the castle to stop by one or both vendors to buy stuff and/or change up what you’ve got equipped in order to suit how you’d like to play. There are five categories for each vendor, and the more blueprints and runes you find, the more choices you”ll have. I loved how many ways I could tailor my character to fit a certain play style. The fact that gold gets passed down to each heir to buy upgrades and buy new equipment is what allows a game that has copious amounts of player death to avoid becoming too frustrating, and to instead feature a strong sense of progression.
The heir system is the final piece of the Rogue Legacy puzzle. As I mentioned before, after each death, the offspring of the freshly felled adventurer take up the mantle and the begin the quest anew. There’s a cool twist on this mechanic though. You’ll get to choose between three randomly generated heirs, each with their own abilities and traits that change the gameplay in interesting ways. Each character belongs to a class that comes with its own attributes, and more classes can be unlocked and upgraded with the gold you earn. Beyond that, each one will have random genetic quirks that can range from goofy and ineffectual – having Irritable Bowel Syndrome will cause a cloud of flatulence to follow you – to the very impactful – playing as a character with vertigo will flip the whole game upside down. There are a variety of traits, and they’re randomly applied to each character, resulting in nearly endless combinations. You may end up with a dyslexic dwarf mage that throws subweapons backwards but can fit into passages that circumvent danger and lead to hidden treasures. You might get a glaucoma stricken knight that can’t see very far but can cycle between various subweapons. Or you might just get a bald guy. The point is, the heir system is integral to what makes Rogue Legacy work.
The random levels and the heir system come together to create Rogue Legacy‘s magic. The randomness of both systems is what keeps the game fresh and fun despite what amounts to a fairly small and straightforward experience. I love the game because it maintains a harsh difficulty level without ever losing a strong sense of progression and satisfaction. Your success on each run into the castle will often vary wildly based on all the variables in play, but you’ll generally come away with something valuable most of the time. Even if it’s just a little bit of gold, or a blueprint for new armor, you’ll rarely feel like you’re getting nowhere. As I mentioned before, each area is open from the beginning, so you’ll dictate your own pace. It’s fun to run into a new area, or face a boss before you’re ready, get destroyed, and then come back later and overcome what once seemed impossible.
The fact that the game is open from the beginning means that it’s hard to give a good estimate on how much time it takes to beat. Skilled players who won’t need to level up as much will progress much faster than those who take their time upgrading. I can say that I beat the game – that’s beating all four area bosses and then the final boss – after about twenty-seven hours. I was at level 196 when I finished, though I’m sure I could have done it a lower level. Truth is, I was enjoying myself, and enjoying the process of becoming stronger. I didn’t mess with areas before I was ready, and I took on the bosses only when I felt capable of doing so. Don’t get me wrong though: new areas and boss fights were still plenty challenging, even at my advanced levels. The point is that you can tackle the game at your own speed and that’s a very good thing.
The game also features what I understand to be unlimited New Game+’s. From what I’ve read, the game essentially never ends, and just keeps scaling the enemies up and increasing the rewards you reap, both monetarily and otherwise. I jumped into a new game plus to check it out and played for a good two hours, leveling up to 209 and reaching the second area of the map. It’s the same game again yes, but the tougher enemies and more lucrative treasures made it still quite fun. I have to move on to other titles, but I absolutely see myself picking this back up from time to have some fun and make progress. Basically, if Rogue Legacy is really your bag, you can pretty much play it forever. I can’t speak to what it’ll be like after a half dozen playthroughs, but I imagine it will be fun for those still thirsting for more.
Make no mistake: Rogue Legacy is a grindy game. If that’s not your thing, then steer way clear. I’m typically not a fan of grinding, but I think Rogue Legacy makes it work. All I know is that I was definitely having fun. There’s no way I would have logged over thirty hours with the game if I wasn’t enjoying myself. The game manages to take a really simple gameplay loop – play, die, upgrade, repeat – and make it fun and addictive. I haven’t gotten a case of “just one more try” syndrome this bad since Spelunky. Like that game, Rogue Legacy is a testament to how awesome and compelling simplicity can be when injected with randomness. It’s surely not for everyone, but if you possess a love of Castlevania-style gameplay, and you’re up for a fierce challenge, you will absolutely fall in love with this game.
*played on a Playstation 3*