Roguelikes are usually not for the casual gaming crowd and specifically not very forgiving even for seasoned gamers, but Cellar Door Games might just have the solution to all the destroyed keyboards and gamepads with their genealogical Rogue-“lite” Rogue Legacy.
Rogue Legacy (PC)
(Canada 2013, developer: Cellar Door Games, platform: PC)
A knight/sorcerer/[insert profession here of a fantasy type] (and his descendants) have to seek the secret behind the family curse, the only solution being hidden in a castle with many rooms, dangers and enemies to conquer.
Back to the roots and starting family life anew
The plot is simple and rather forgettable at first like most arcade games of the early 90ies, but there’s a meta-level of narration which makes it more interesting. The story is actually told in diary entries the player finds, and it is presented without cutscenes making progression seamless. The written pages of a former castle explorer are written in a tongue-in-cheek tone and even have a philosphical touch, questioning the genre’s conventions like the reason behind randomly-generated levels or the state of dying and being resurrected again and again. But other than that, one can just skip the whole texts and get on with looting and killing monsters. Unfortunately, the same holds true for the characters. Even with a neverending supply of classes and names, they don’t have their own stories to tell and are replaceable, making a connection for the player pointless, which might also have something to do with the general idea of genealogy.
The game emphasizes platforming and old-school sword-and-sorcery action which at first glance doesn’t make it any fresher than the Ghosts’n’Goblins titles which certainly had an influence on its harsh difficulty curve and presentation. But what makes it stand out from the crowd of other jump-and-slash games with a retro look is the way how the characters level up and have an impact on their next of kin. Thus, dying does not mean starting all over again with the same starting point attributes. Everything a character learned (like strength, skills, attack power etc.) is taken over by his or her children, but they can also be born with defects like color-blindness (turning the surroundings black and white), near-sightedness (everything becoming blurry in the distance) or even featuring oversized or undersized proportions.
Level up, and up the tree castle goes
As the family tree grows with different classes to choose from (mages, warriors, magicians etc.), the level-up tree in the form of a castle is also expanded. The more classes one unlocks, the more attributes one can change. Standard fare like having more mana, health, attack and magic power or defense is complemented by more specific skills like finding more loot or leaving more money at the gate keeper (read: death)’s feet. Each time one dies, the accumulated money earned by defeating foes, destroying barrels, vases etc. or opening treasure chests can be spent for adding points to certain attributes or unlocking more abilities. But when going into the castle again, the gold is lost forever, making it a game of risk and reward which is often quite frustrating, especially since levelling up costs more and more money while one dies again and again even on the first two floors, not to mention the level bosses which require a lot of hand-eye-coordination to master and even more luck.
Something which makes progression and levelling up a bit easier is the use of various runes which can be equipped to boost certain attributes or add new abilities like double-jumps or dashes among others. Deciding what weapons, shields or armour to buy is no easy feat either, as these have first to be made by a smith after finding the appropriate how-to scroll and making sure that the character has points added to the weight he can carry. So even if it becomes a bit easier to go through the different parts of the castle and find more money, there’s still an incredible amount of content to unlock and decisions to be made. This obviously has two positive effects: giving the player a lot of room for customization and experimentation while always providing something new in chests or after defeating foes. But it also means that the hard earned money becomes even more difficult to spend with the pressure of imminent death and leaving it at the castle’s entrance.
Old school all the way in gameplay and presentation
The level design is rather straight-forward without any puzzles, but a lot of fighting and jumping which also boils down to avoiding traps. The environments are varied, and so are the enemies, at least in their respective sections. The more one gains abilities and power, the easier it gets to breeze through, but it takes at least a couple of hours for just cleaning the first floor, making progression a bit tedious even with randomly-created screens. At certain points, the game also becomes unfair as well, especially with some enemies flying through walls, hiding behind portraits on the walls or throwing projectiles through them with the player barely able to avoid them. Boss encounters are big and visually nice to look at, but the difficulty to defeat them usually arises out of their long life meter and less about figuring out how to kill them, as it’s mainly a game of run-avoid-and-attack. Still it’s nice that the game saves progress in so far that already defeated bosses don’t appear again, unlike the rest of the enemy staff, while traversing levels is made a bit faster by a teleportation system.
Graphics and sound contribute to the retro look and capture the 16-bit era perfectly. Even if the chiptunes are not as catchy as the classics, they’re still good enough to bring back the good old memories of yesteryear. No voice acting is neglible with sound effects making up most part of the atmosphere, although the game never falls back on too many sound samples to overwhelm the player. Lovely drawn sprites and smooth animation round up the nice presentation, so do extra artwork and infos on Cellar Door Games’ past games which can be found in some rooms, complete with fun facts and anecdotes.
The new old genre, well done
Cellar Door Games brings back the fun of roguelikes to a more accessible level with their rogue-“lite” Rogue Legacy. Its presentation is great for retro fans and good enough for next-gen players to give it a go without pixelated eyesore, while the ambient music and sound effects are just as pleasing to the ear. The gameplay itself might seem rudimentary with its simple platforming and fighting elements, but the level-up system and especially the unique genealogy idea turn it into an experience unlike any other action-platformer with RPG elements.
Still despite it being termed a rogue-“lite”, the game is far from easy to complete, as the difficulty curve is rather steep and the options to customize one’s character are not easy to get around at first. But all in all, this is a very accomplished title which should be played by anyone who likes their games with a humorous and innovative twist.
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