Sony’s four-week PLAY 2014 event launched this week with the console debut of indie hit Rogue Legacy, a former PC-exclusive developed by Cellar Door Games and ported by Abstraction Games. Rogue Legacy released on Steam last year to rave reviews and, as a game that just felt right being played with a controller, its console release was inevitable.
Rogue Legacy is an action-platformer sporting a pixel aesthetic and a matching retro soundtrack. In it players are tasked with venturing into the labyrinthian Castle Hamson, the procedurally generated home to countless enemies, traps, and treasures. The game looks and plays similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but gamers looking to scratch that Metroidvania itch should look elsewhere as Rogue Legacy does not put that same emphasis on exploration.
Game controls can make or break a platformer and, thankfully, Rogue Legacy’s are exceptional. The controls are tight and responsive, and the action is frantic. Unlockable dash and double-jump upgrades offer unparalleled maneuverability. This is important because the game is highly skill-focused and also punishingly difficult. Survival hinges on the ability to deftly evade attacks and projectiles while dispatching numerous foes, but all is not lost if the hero dies in battle.
Death is an inevitability in Rogue Legacy. As in the Dark Souls series, death is to be expected; it also provides a learning opportunity, better preparing you for the next attempt. Death hardly ever feels cheap or undeserved, thanks to the incredibly responsive controls. And unlike most games, death in Rogue Legacy is permanent. The use of permadeath provides Rogue Legacy’s namesake; it is a mechanic that (along with the randomized procedural generation) was borrowed from the roguelike genre, and has earned this game the contentious label of “rogue-lite”, a sub-genre shared with The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky.
Once an adventurer dies in combat, the player is forced to make a choice. The deceased left behind three randomized heirs, only one of whom can be chosen to take up the family sword and serve as the hero of the next generation. The chosen heir receives all gold collected by their fallen parent as an inheritance. This windfall can be spent on a variety of upgrades, providing a system of advancement in a game where each character only lives once.
The advancement system of Rogue Legacy is divided into three parts, all of which affect the current and all future characters. Gold can be spent upgrading your manor home, providing character bonuses (+ HP/Attack/Gold Find) or unlocking new classes for future heirs. Gold can also be spent on the blacksmith, though most items require blueprints found within the castle. Runes are the final type of upgrade and are found in fairy chests within the castle. Fairy chests require certain requirements be met before it can be opened, such as killing all monsters in a room or reaching the chest without taking damage. Each piece of gear can hold one rune, which grants game-altering abilities like double-jump, dash, raising/lowering the difficulty scaling, or granting HP recovery. It is important to spend as much gold as possible between each run because you must forfeit the remainder to the gatekeeper, Charon, before entering the castle.
The randomization of heirs gives Rogue Legacy a sense of variety and unpredictability. Each heir is primarily defined by their class, such as Barbarian or Mage. Only a few of the 10 distinct classes are available at first. Each heir also typically has a trait which can augment gameplay. These traits range from the cosmetic (color-blindness, baldness) to the truly game-altering. Some traits exist as inverse pairs; a fat/skinny hero will be less/more affected by the knockback of enemies’ attacks, gigantism grants a larger hitbox and attack range, while its counterpart dwarfism has the opposite effect but also allows access to hidden dwarf-sized passages. There are about 35 unique traits in total which, coupled with the game’s 10 classes, allow for an incredible amount of variation between characters and ensure that each heir is somewhat unique and each playthrough feels fresh.
With that description of the central mechanics out of the way, it is simple enough to describe the game itself. The player’s goal is to travel through four areas of increasing difficulty, beginning with Castle Hamson, and defeat the boss of each in order to unlock the fifth and final boss. The bosses need not be killed in a single run, nor must they be killed in order. Due to the randomized nature of the castle it may be possible to locate a boss room within minutes of starting the game, but an hour or two of progression is required to have a realistic chance of defeating the first.
As a whole Rogue Legacy perfectly blends the roguelike elements of permadeath and procedurally generated content with the action-platformer genre to create an experience unlike any other that feels both familiar and innovative. There is a lot here for most gamers to enjoy, but Rogue Legacy is not for everyone. Anyone who cannot cope with the frustration of death or at least appreciate the permanent incremental gains from each run is not likely to enjoy this game. Casual gamers may also have trouble with Rogue Legacy, the game demands a high level of skill.
For those not put off by my disclaimers, there is a lot of content to enjoy. On top of roughly 15 hours of gameplay there is also a new game plus feature to extend the replayability. For completionists I would expect it to take many hours more than that to see 100% of what Rogue Legacy has to offer. For those who are up to the challenge: prepare for this game to chew you up and spit you out, and prepare to enjoy it.
Rogue Legacy is available now as a cross-buy title on PS3, PS4, and Vita, at the price of $16.99. The game includes all previously released updates for the PC version, including remixed boss battles.