“Hey George, how many lives does it take to get to the throne room of Castle Hamson?”
“Let’s find out! One, two, three…
“…fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven…
My wife recently noted that I’ve shown a preference for roguelike games as of late, a pattern I hadn’t noticed before she mentioned it but one I can’t deny. Maybe it’s the fact that static level designs begging memorization are traded in for constantly fresh challenges of the same approximate level, maybe it’s because I’m a glutton for digital punishment, but there’s something about random level generation and a minimum of handholding that gets its hooks in me and refuses to let go. That’s precisely what Rogue Legacy is, and while it’s not the crowning achievement of its genre by any means it definitely has a few things to offer.
This game earns a few points for presentation right out the gate, not only for the cold open tutorial establishing both your basic control scheme and the story quickly and elegantly but for adding a bit of flavor to the genre’s hallmark high mortality rate I didn’t realize I wanted: continuity. The Legacy part of the title references the family that each and every character you’ll play as hails from. With each character death you have a choice of three potential heirs to take his or her place, each with their own set of nerfs and buffs. What’s more, these qualities manifest as various genetic traits, ranging from the mostly innocuous (Gay/Lesbian and Bald change some text and little else) to the absolutely insane (Vertigo forces you to play upside down). The family motif also carries over into the persistent skill tree, manifesting as an ancestral family keep that grows as you buy new abilities, and chests found in the castle occasionally yield runes or plans for new equipment to ensure a steady stream of more powerful heirlooms for your revolving door of sons and daughters to inherit.
That last bit didn’t really sit right with me at first, and while I grew accustomed to it and probably ended up leaning on it a bit too much with subsequent plays it still makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Classic sensibilities tell me that I should be using deaths as learning experiences to improve my raw skill and use that to surpass the growing challenges, but when it’s an entire facet of a game’s design to ensure that you’re literally mechanically superior with every spawn it almost starts feeling like encouragement to underperform if conditions aren’t ideal. Now, I’m not at all saying that the game is too easy; It’s with a fair amount of shame that I admit I’m over level 100 and still haven’t cleared the final boss, but I can’t call it a result of bad design because all the elements in play are 100% intentional. I suppose it’s because of bits like this that Cellar Door Games decided to label Rogue Legacy as “rogue-lite.”
The ability to delete your save and start from scratch or to just ignore the various upgrade options leaves the hard road wide open for you if that’s more your speed, and that’s ultimately a good thing because there’s some fun to be had past the mechanical side of the game. Between the set dressings and controls Rogue Legacy comes off as the unholy child of Symphony of the Night and Adventure of Link, a combination which sounds strange even as I write it but a functional and sensical one in practice that plays its references honestly. Beyond the veneer of tribute and cutesy pixel art, though, is a surprisingly dark narrative that’s very easy to miss; The sparse amount of story present in the game is presented through brief, text-only journal entries found sprinkled throughout the world, and if you’re the type to speed through speech windows or just pass right by optional bits you’d likely not even notice the Fountain of Youth motifs or wonder much about the implications of what will happen when you do finally make your way to the throne. It’s nothing potent enough to haunt you, but if you let your imagination run with it it’ll definitely shade the continuing stream of spawns differently.
Rogue Legacy isn’t the first roguelike platformer I’ve played – hell, it’s not even the first I’ve played this year – nor is it the best, but it does its job well enough to offer a moderate amount of entertainment with an infusion of morbidly humorous personality. Worth checking out if that sounds like your thing, but definitely skippable if you’re not immediately sold on the concept or if you’ve got other games queued up and waiting.