In the same vein as Hotline Miami and Super Meat Boy, Cellar Door Games’ Rogue Legacy is one of those PC indie games that shows up to the party practically unannounced and manages to blow everyone’s socks off. A game that takes cues from the storied history of roguelikes and Castlevania alike, the title stands as a fine example of independent game design outshining the creativity of some of the bigger guys.
The game takes place through a never-ending lineage of warriors looking to bring peace back to their kingdom. To do so, they must uncover the hidden secrets of a gigantic castle that changes its layout every time a new warrior steps inside. And through doing so, you are tasked with exploring the castle, beating the four main bosses, and taking out the final boss to ultimately beat the game. For whatever plot there is in the game outside of this, it all takes a backseat to the gameplay.
Though not quite traditional, the “rogue” in Rogue Legacy definitely isn’t for nothing. A challenging action role-playing platformer where the only gameplay takes place inside and around a castle, people who have played a classic Castlevania game before should feel a level of familiarity when traveling before the four main areas of the castle, killing baddies, and casting magic. And while this may not seem much like the turn-based Mystery Dungeon-type games some may associate the genre with, the game does earn its association through genre tropes like the fact that the castle has a randomized arrangement every single time and that death is permanent.
In saying that, I was extremely surprised by how much personality the design of these randomized castles actually had. As someone who generally finds most randomized design sterile, it was very pleasant to see rooms with platforming segments that felt organic, enemies that seemed strategically placed to provide a fair-yet-brutal challenge, and some fun one-off rooms like a sound test and a carnival game that I have seen once in my several hours and not at all since then. My only complaint with the randomized design is that some rooms are filled with brutal challenges that offer only a treasure-free dead end after beating them, but this is easily amended with a Metroid-like castle map that tells you immediately upon entry if there is any treasure available for grabbing.
As previously touched upon, you are never playing as one “main” character; instead, you play as one of the latest descendants in a long line of warriors who have challenged the castle and died at its hand. In other words, you can start as a knight, gather a little bit of money and die after about three minutes of exploring, and choose an offspring to succeed you, use that money to buy better equipment or stat buffs, and hope that your heir can last just a little bit longer and earn a few more spoils of victory before facing a similar death and starting the whole thing over again.
That’s not the only trick Rogue Legacy has up its sleeve, however. When you die in Rogue Legacy and have to choose a new successor to start a brand new journey in this never-consistent castle, you have three potential offspring to choose from. From different classes like Paladin or Assassin, choosing your next-of-kin is an all too important task. Depending on how you roll, you might like to use a fighter like the Barbarian Queen who has tons of health but doesn’t hit too hard, or you can pick a magic wielder who has more magic points to dish out spells for a longer period of time.
But on top of the myriad classes in the game (including some unlockable ones like Miners, who forfeit power and health for a greater competence at gathering gold), your equally randomized offspring have a series of secondary traits as well. Some of these traits, like dwarfism (which makes you a miniature warrior) and vertigo (which forces you to play upside down) have clear gameplay effects. Some other traits meanwhile, like colorblindness (which turns the game black and white for that run) and gay (which does absolutely nothing) offer minimal effects that manage to give these iterative warriors (you can run through hundreds by the time you beat it) their own unique level of personality.
As a title inspired by old platformers and even older PC RPGs, Rogue Legacy is a difficult game that gets dangerously close to frustrating at times. On top of one death meaning that you have to re-roll a character and start at the beginning of an almost totally new dungeon, the enemies are plentiful and as unforgiving as they come and most rooms practically bleed platforming hazards. As such, your time playing as the latest in the long line of warriors can be as brief as a few minutes long, and is so most of the time. It is occasionally annoying to need to start at the beginning of a castle and sometimes die making it to the boss you’re trying to beat, but this also contributes to the genuine, refreshing nature of how pure and unapologetic the design of Rogue Legacy actually is.
Of course, such a progressive system can only work if each generation is slightly better than the last, and in most ways that is true. As you go through the castle and earn gold through chests, breaking scenery, and defeating enemies, you can use this currency to purchase stat upgrades like better health and more energy to expend on magic, new classes to suit your style of play, souped up armor and weaponry to boost stats, new abilities like double-jumping, and even things to change the rules of the game like the ability to lock a castle down to keep it from re-randomizing after a defeat and the ability to keep a portion of your gold after a run instead of giving it all up to the gatekeeper (which always happens immediately after spending the cash earned from your previous run). It’s an extremely effective system that grants a level of freedom and power in this all too difficult game, but the system further excels at offering a clear level of progress that is controlled completely by how successful you are — even if its incremental nature is impossible to understate.
Rogue Legacy is a really good video game with creative design philosophy and an even more creative application of the ancient gameplay it’s inspired by. It’s very difficult and sometimes frustrating, but the level of care put in and rewarding nature of the combat makes this a game easy to recommend to any gamer with a will and a way to obtain it on Steam or elsewhere.