[29 July 2013]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Rogue Legacy is a game about inheritance. It is a platformer that also doubles as a rogue-like. The rogue-like elements of the game are grounded on the idea of familial succession. Each character death means that the quest to find a cure for a dying king is passed on to the next generation. A new character is birthed to enter the halls of Castle Hamson to seek out a medicine to save the king (who absurdly seems to be dying for hundreds of years, since his ancestry just keeps at it generation after generation —but the game’s glib and often teasing tone hardly suggests that you should take any of the plot all that seriously anyway).
The result is a game that aesthetically and mechanically owes much of its inspiration to the SNES era of games with its 16-bit style graphics and the fact that its platforming is what many gamers refer to as “Nintendo hard” (it will also remind arcade era fans of Ghosts ‘n Goblins an awful lot). The addition of the rogue-like element to the game adds to the difficulty and also makes the idea of an extended quest fought hard over dozens and dozens of hours of perseverance and practice (as early Zelda and Mario games required) the central focus of the game.
Unlike mini-roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac or FTL because of the length of the game and the nature of building up your character on the backs of your ancestors successes and failures, the game is not about merely practicing enough to get good at surviving through to the end. Because all of the gold that one ancestor collects on a failed run through the dungeon is inherited by the next hero in your line, you more frequently set short term goals, like merely looting the castle well enough this time to build up an ancestral home that will best serve as the foundation of the family’s power base.
After loading up a new hero, you visit a screen featuring your family’s home in which you can make purchases that improve stats like hit points, attack and armor bonuses, and the like as well as new character classes and upgrades to previously purchased or owned character classes. This castle comes to represent not you, but inherited wealth and how the work of previous generations makes your life storming the castle over and over again just that much easier for successive generations.
I find the game’s antiquated model of old money’s benefits to a society’s future prosperity somewhat ironic in an era in which the previous generation just won’t die (sorry, Baby Boomers, but you won’t) or retire, leaving their wealth and money to successive generations to build on, to make life just a little bit easier for their children and grandchildren. Rogue Legacy‘s medieval setting, though, speaks to its fairly antique approach to the economics of inheritance rather nicely, though, and, again, after all, it is frequently more farcical than not.
Indeed one of the pleasures of the game is the “inherited” abilities that new heroes might possess, including near sightedness, far sightedness, hypochondria, a propensity towards flatulence, or even something like Tourette’s syndrome). These qualities, unlike the money accrued while dungeon delving, are not actually genes that you can pass on in a direct and deliberate way. They are apparently genes that just happen to exist in the family’s gene pool and each time that you die and have to pick a new hero, they may be arbitrarily assigned to one of your three new picks. Some of these traits effect gameplay in positive ways. Gigantism is not too bad a quality to have as it gives you a much longer reach when slashing with a sword. However, some are a pain in the neck. I don’t like being far sighted as the area around your character will be fuzzy and out of focus, making precise attacks and jumps a bit harder to perform.
Some of these traits are merely gags, though. As a hypochondriac myself, I kind of loved that trait, as each time a character is struck in the game a “-21HP” (for example) springs up on screen in green to let you know how hurt you are. If you are playing as a character with the hypochondriac trait, the game instead reports numbers like “-6781HP” (even though you actually took -21 damage). Again, as someone that has some very real tendencies toward hypochondria, I had to laugh. It’s funny because it is rather true.
Tramping through the dungeon over and over, finding and battling bosses in each of the four main sections of the game, and building up your family’s coffers over the long haul are all made fun and whimsical through the game’s often wicked sense of humor and through the simple, basic, but often quite challenging retro game play.
I have to admit that this is one of the few games that I have ever reviewed without fully completing before sitting down to write it up, but honestly, there is just so much game here. Taking your time, building up your family’s wealth and translating it into “easier dungeon-delving living” is the allure of the game and kind of its point. It is repetitious as hell, even though each dungeon run is different because Castle Hamson mysteriously randomly generates its layout each time it is explored (there is a way to “lock down” a layout that costs some gold as well if needed at times, though). Nevertheless, its repetition doesn’t matter in the same way that it doesn’t in games like Diablo or Infinity Blade. The game is all about the loot, the building of a lineage, and the power of old money invested well. The pleasure in Rogue Legacy is the play, not in completion.
After all, you have potentially hundreds of generations to get this game done. No big rush. Just that element, a rather well designed, often clever retro platformer intended to be played in short bursts at your leisure, is reason enough to recommend playing it.