Gameplay: Rogue Legacy is an homage to two traditions of games at once: roguelikes, where levels are randomly generated and character death is permanent (no reloading saved games after a Game Over); and the brand of sidescrolling action-RPGs exemplified by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its successors. You jump, double-jump, dash, swing swords, and throw spells while exploring a procedurally generated castle full of traps and hostile critters, breaking furniture to find loot, and clinging to your meager reserve of health points as long as you can… for when you run out, you’re toast, and need to start the castle all over again.
It’s much more than a mashup, however. Rogue Legacy adopts the innovations of Roguelikes such as Shiren the Wanderer, where achievements managed on one run of the castle (such as unlocking new equipment or defeating a boss) carry through to your next attempt, even if the layout is reshuffled and the monsters respawned. The conceit is that each hero who dies assaulting the castle leaves behind successors, new generations of explorers sworn to take up the quest where others have failed.
As if that weren’t ingenious enough, the game keeps things fresh by letting you pick from three randomized children each generation, who sport character classes with strengths and weaknesses, as well as odd “traits” that may have aesthetic (like “nostalgic,” which turns the game sepia-toned) or game-mechanical (like “dextrocardia”, which switches the values of your health and magic pools) effects. Additional flourishes like an ever-growing hall of family portraits contribute to the feeling that you’re carrying on an actual, well, legacy, not rewinding time and trying again.
Aesthetics: The look and feel of Rogue Legacy are perhaps its least notable parts. It’s a pleasant 16-bit-like style, with pixely sprites, chiptune music, and palette-swapped enemies and equipment. “Retro” is a popular style right now, and RL follows the fad without any substantial missteps. Character classes are differentiated by minor but evocative embellishments: mages have beards (even the ladies, ha), spellswords’ blades don’t appear until they swing, and so forth. It does get rather samey after a while, though. I would particularly have liked to see some weapon other than a sword for my heroes at some point, for instance.
Difficulty FAQtor: I didn’t need any walkthroughs or YouTube trainers to finish the game in 22 hours, and that figure appears to be close to average based on the global Steam achievement stats: “play for 20 hours” is a slightly less common achievement than “beat the final boss”. The game is hard, but it’s one of the fairest difficult games I’ve played. Despite the randomness, it was extraordinarily rare for me to feel I died or took damage in a way that couldn’t have been avoided with better skill. And there’s an appreciable amount of strategy in how you spend the gold you amass each run, what equipment you use, and which classes and traits you select. Like Persona 3, it’s possible to grind your way to victory, but smart play makes grind less necessary and speeds up what grind you choose to do; unlike Persona 3, even if you do choose the grind route, the gameplay involved in doing so remains entertaining.
Ism Factor: Mixed. There’s actually quite a lot of interesting things to be said about RL, here, so I’m going to break it down a bit!
Gender and Orientation: RL does admirably on these. You almost always have the option of choosing either a male or a female character, and that choice in itself doesn’t have any gameplay effect. The female sprites have pretty traditional gender signifiers (a pink ribbon atop the helmet, and subtly rounded chest armor), but aren’t in any way sexualized or demeaned. And RL, unlike most games, at least acknowledges the existence of sexual orientations: “gay” is one of the random traits a character can have, and there’s no caricaturing or stereotyping involved in it.
Race: Here, however, RL falls utterly flat. Every single character is white. Heroes, NPCs, storyline characters in cutscenes, you name it. You could put forth the flimsy argument that, well, it’s a single family line we’re looking at, so of course they’ll have similar skin tones. But the history you build can easily last millennia: my own playthrough was 145 generations. Maintaining utter racial homogeneity for that length of time (or perhaps worse, disqualifying any dark-skinned child from taking up the quest) would take a ruthless white supremacy that’d make modern hate groups look integrationist by comparison.
Ableism: You could write a whole paper here. I’m not well-versed in this corner of intersectional feminism, so whatever I say is probably even more silly gum-flapping than usual; take that as you may. But… wow. First off, I have to give the game props for the fact that in it, not every hero is utterly able-bodied and neurotypical. Typically, a game hero is the designer’s Platonic ideal of an athlete, and almost every villain you see is “insane”. In RL, though, heroes typically quest while dealing with a handful of physical or mental afflictions, and the antagonists of the piece seem troubled, but not mentally ill or accused of being such. There’s something cool about playing a dyslexic hero, happening upon a page of a prior adventurer’s journal, and straining–both player and character–to understand the ensuing array of letter-jumbled words.
But there’s something uncomfortable about the way these disabilities are represented. My fiancee was unsettled when, looking over my shoulder, she saw I was playing a character with “Alzheimer’s.” She, rightly I think, dreads the day when she or someone she cares about starts to suffer from the disease; it’s a horrific way for a life to end, and it runs in both of our families. In game, it just makes your character unable to remember the castle layout, disabling your full-screen map. It’s a vast trivialization of the condition, and that doesn’t feel right. Conditions like dwarfism, in the real world, have an array of physical and social consequences to them, and people with those conditions bond over them to form support networks and entire subcultures. Is it right to appropriate that, with an inaccurate depiction no less, for our amusement at seeing a downscaled sprite leap around like a flea and squeeze into tiny passages? I don’t think so.
RL could have done this just a bit differently and been less problematic, I’d conjecture. “Forgetful” instead of “Alzheimer’s,” “Tiny” instead of “Dwarfism,” “Flatulent” instead of “IBS,” and so on. It would lose a tiny sliver of the humor factor (which is in any case a punching-down sort of humor, able folks chuckling at things they don’t have to deal with), for a substantial improvement in its Ism Factor.
Enjoyment Rating: 5/5. I played it, loved it, found it novel and entertaining at almost every moment. It took an effort of will to stop myself from playing and playing all the way to the finish of a New Game+. Highly recommended despite its handful of problematic elements!