Player death is an important part of most videogames and has been for a long time. Every monster wants to kill you, and then you have to start again from scratch. A lot of games hold your hand, dust you down and sit you right back where you left off, as if nothing ever happened. Not so in Rogue Legacy, death is the most important thing. Death may start your game from scratch, but it also allows you to move on, to grow your dynasty and make them stronger. It’s also about killing things and trashing furniture for spare change, but that sounds far less impressive.
Rogue Legacy is a ‘Metroidvania’ game, a platformer where your character navigates a location, backtracking where necessary and trying to solve puzzles while on your way to a final boss. As you find out pretty quickly, Rogue Legacy is not as forgiving as those games were. Your first character runs, jumps, hacks monsters, loots gold and dies. You get to see images of everything you killed and are told to press A to move on.
And move on, you must. Instead of starting from scratch, you pick one of three children, but now there are different classes, traits and spells. The opening classes are all fairly limited and the spells are pretty basic. What really stands out are their traits, and I’ll get on to those shortly.
Once you’ve picked your character, you spend your dead parent’s gold on improving your home, then pay the rest to a grim gatekeeper to enter the monsters’ castle and start again. The interior of the castle will change each time, presenting procedurally-generated rooms filled with monsters and traps. You traverse the castle trying not to die and lasting as long as possible, delving deeper into the castle.
It sounds simple, and it pretty much is. The progression and the randomly-made characters make all the difference in each playthrough. Your home helps improve your chances with each successive generation. You can upgrade classes, add new ones, get stat bumps and even buy new equipment which will inevitably be passed on to your next of kin, and oh what glorious children you’ve had.
I said before that you have three children to choose from, but sometimes it’s less a choice of how you want to play your next life, more like having to pick which dysfunctional mess of a child won’t hinder you the most. Your first kid looks to be the most powerful, gigantism doubling his sprite size and his class is barbarian king, but he has vertigo and while you play as him the screen’s flipped upside down. Your next choice is skinny and easily knocked back, but he’s a mage with OCD and will gain mana for each piece of furniture he cleans away (destroys). The third is the weak knave, but his dyslexia jumbles any words you read as him around, and his nostalgia simply puts a sepia tone on the game until he’s dead. Do you play it safe with the knave or pick the mage and hope to hang back from any monsters? It’s a difficult choice.
Each trait could potentially add something minor, although bald or gay characters have no difference to play style. You might be blessed with no feeling in your feet and not set off pressure traps. You might be totally immune to pain though, and that means you can’t see your health bar. Gigantism makes your sprite tougher and taller while characters with dwarfism are able to slip through secret passages. Each combination of traits puts the game in a new light, along with the different layout and the incremental improvements.
The improvements is one of the ways they hook you. After dying, you ‘move on’ and you can only spend your rewards after starting a new life. Then you earn more money, die and want to upgrade again, so you press A and pick a new character.
The game adopts a fairly standard ‘retro’ look, with a simple enough style to the castle, better than the original Castlevania but worse than most outings. It’s cute, but the main feature is the way each character looks slightly different depending on their traits and gear. Even though this is a PC game, it feels best on a controller, just like the Metroidvania games of old.
Roguelike games have become increasingly popular of late and it’s great to see one which rewards you for all the time spent by allowing a form of character progression. It’s mitigated to a point by having you lose all your money before entering a castle and each purchased bonus makes all the others more expensive. As much as I have enjoyed the Binding of Isaac and FTL, Rogue Legacy is a game which cares about constant progression even in a roguelike game and lets you invest in dozens of generations of knights all on their doomed quest to conquer the castle.
Reviewed on PC; game was purchased by the reviewer
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