I cannot remember why I began this quest, nor every warrior that gave his life quelling this curse. I can only recall that number: 112. That is how many kin I lost while plundering Rogue Legacy’s castle, how many children I sacrificed to the devilry within. Admittedly, the fortress holds more secrets than answers, but the game's influences are not easily forgotten. Another high-water mark for roguelikes everywhere, developer Cellar Door Games cunningly combines genetic progression and randomly assorted dungeons, then tops this side-scroller off with Metroidvania-flavored exploration. Although genre fans should appreciate how neatly these cross-title mash-ups work, the merciless difficulty may kill someone’s patience faster than his or her progeny.
So why did ancestor after ancestor enter Rogue Legacy’s stronghold knowing full well their deaths would surely come? Revenge? Sacrifice? A parallel narrative unfolds through self-aware journals that confess another man’s retribution. At first the author seems flustered. Maps looted off enemies don’t match his diagrams, and relatives' names slowly escape his memory. Eventually, his fortitude falters, and the very same fate awaits your lineage unless you slay four guardians protecting Castle Hamsom's throne. Only these beasts will free your offspring.
Tackling bosses without proper preparation would only disgrace your family name.
Even then, the first boss lies many levels ahead. When your current hero dies, you choose an heir from three candidates, each with his or her own class, magic, and physical traits – and all more than pixelated reskins. The Knave possesses high critical hit rates, the Miner increases one’s gold gain, and the Mage wields the largest mana pool. The advanced classes, however, really differentiate themselves through their individual skills. The Hokage (an upgraded Shinobi) teleports forward, escaping fatal strikes; the Barbarian King shouts “Fah Ru Dos,” knocking back enemies and projectiles; the Assassin (a well-trained Knave) briefly becomes impervious mist; and the Archmage cycles through three separate spells.
On that note, the spells fluctuate between generations, too. Throwing daggers pierce adversaries from long range, the flame barrier wards away hostiles with fireballs until your mana runs out, and the discus-like chakram returns after each toss. While you cannot predict what magic options your progeny inherit, specific spells benefit some classes better than others. The Lich King/Queen raise their max health with each beast slain, which players may convert into mana. Luckily, that includes magic kills. True to its word, “crow storm” wounds monsters off-screen, an effective means for extending life bars without jeopardizing one’s safety.
Your children also exhibit random physical traits that make combat easier, harder, and/or visually hilarious. Characters lacking their foot pulse will not trigger spike traps, dwarves may access secret areas their larger siblings cannot, and descendants inheriting coprolalia involuntarily swear when they take damage. As for more disorienting attributes, vertigo victims view their world flipped upside down, and dementia patients see enemies that aren't really there. It’s all brilliant – the way Cellar Door Games teach their audience, that is. The trait descriptions remain fairly obscure, meaning I frequently learned something new via actual play. If I had known Alzheimer's erased a hero’s mental map, I would have disowned Sir Useless III.
Nostalgic warriors view their surroundings through sepia filters.
It goes without saying that each warrior prizes different tactics, but above all, Rogue Legacy prides restraint over reckless spelunking. (Fifteen hours drilled that lesson into me.) The game revamps Castle Hamsom's architecture once you die – some rooms contain crates, other levels drop you into spike pits. Most areas, however, conceal knights, wolves, phantoms, turrets, floating skulls, and mimic chests guarding their exits, so discovering when you should retreat and when you should take charge becomes paramount. Patience does pay off here, because steadily growing stronger while picking apart creatures that would turn wimps into red smears pleased me more than any roguelike before.
Of course, you will die exploring the castle. It’s inevitable. If you cannot accept that, you will never enjoy Rogue Legacy, though the game does treat permadeath differently from most roguelikes. Losing my character, my stats, and my save irks me something fierce – it equals lost time I cannot get back. In Rogue Legacy, I did not feel that burden. As you dispatch furniture, the gold you earn pays for upgrades that persist from one generation to the next.
Players must buy everything. Strength, armor, health, and mana costs increase after every purchase, and additional classes devour wallets. Also, the castle gatekeeper seizes any unspent money when you leave camp, which I curiously appreciate. I considered what improvements I needed before unlocking them, and established mindsets for my next hero. Sometimes I would venture forth seeking weapon blueprints, sometimes I would amass gold instead, chancing encounters that would waste priceless health.
Stopping time can be an invaluable platforming tool.
I should mention, Rogue Legacy does show some consistency. While the environment locations never change, the Architect locks down the prior fortress layout, the Blacksmith builds new gear from blueprints, and the Enchantress sells treasured runes that unlock double jumps, sprinting, flight, and more. It’s from these abilities that more play styles – more experimentation – arise. For example, balance runes siphon health and mana from every enemy killed, a useless statistic against boss characters.
As the game's weakest element, the bosses prove nothing more than larger variations upon already existing enemies. In this case, you will see reskinned knights, phantoms, floating skulls, and so on, who wear their novelty out when grinding upgrades becomes necessary. However, every boss had been smooth sailing, with each guardian favoring skill over skill points, before the head honcho. He remains grossly infuriating. His arcane prowess pushes overpowered, and his irregular attack patterns could shatter anyone's composure. For the last two hours, I cleared dungeons again, praying my gathered gold would help me survive our battle ten more seconds. I may have murdered several fighters intentionally, too.
Does that make me the monster? While Rogue Legacy is not for the weak-kneed, epileptic, or the pregnant (I may be joking about the last one), the aggravating finale does not ruin one of the better rougelikes available. The game still has kinks – some enemies get stuck in/on the world’s geometry, and their attacks may connect outside your hitbox – but Cellar Door Games never stopped surprising me. That certainly counts for something.
Publisher: Cellar Door Games
Developer: Cellar Door Games
Release Date: June 27, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)