I hate you.
You’re hard on me. You treat me like trash. I haven’t felt this mistreated since the psycho ex-girlfriend I couldn’t get rid of. Our relationship is a rollercoaster full of the highest peaks and the lowest valleys. Why do I allow you to do this to me?
It’s because I love you. It’s the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I can’t stop charging swordfirst into this castle, hoping that I’ll carve out some success. For every ten bad runs, there’s one good one. It’s a glimmer of hope that keeps me willingly coming back. It’s a gamble every time I leap into your arms. Will you preserve my illusion that you care for me by rewarding me with gold and items so that I may reclaim my family’s lost glory? Or will you give me the cold shoulder when I come crawling back from an embarrassing death with nothing to show for myself? What kind of game does this to a gamer?
This is the love/hate relationship that Cellar Door Games’ Rogue Legacy and I share. This rogue-lite that feels like the bizarre offspring of a Castlevania, Dark Souls, and Infinity Blade love triangle isn’t for the weak of heart. It is unabashedly hard. It punishes any misstep. And yet the reward for a good run is so satisfying. Just when I start to lose hope after consecutive games ending in early deaths, something clicks. I get farther than I ever had. I earn more gold than I ever had and I’m back in its clutches again.
On the surface, it seems like some wholesome version of Castlevania. The nostalgic cartoony 2D animation and 16-bit audio/visual style belie the complexity of Rogue Legacy. It eases me into the genealogical rogue-lite by letting me choose one of three randomly generated characters. Their classes give them special abilities or restrictions. Knights are balanced and don’t excel at anything. Mages have multiple spells at their disposal but is totally squishy. Barbarians are walking tanks and have shouts just like that expansive open-world RPG with dragons and stuff.
That sounds like something right up my alley, but what’s with these traits? My character is a female who likes females and suffers from alektorphobia. Why in the world would chickens scare a female barbarian tank with a sword? It doesn’t matter. My attachment to this character lasts not even five minutes. I’m sent back to the character select screen and I’m already on the next three descendants of my previous lesbian, chicken-fearing tank.
I steel myself for another run, but this time I get to upgrade some skills at my manor. Why am I upgrading a manor when I am trying to win back my family’s castle? I don’t know, but a quick upgrade of health and I’m ready to rock with my male knave that can only see in black and white because he’s colorblind.
This is the process Rogue Legacy forces me through, over and over and over. Some runs I get farther into the randomized castle, but don’t necessarily earn much gold. Other runs I make a killing by getting lucky with chests. And then there are the runs where I’m doomed from the start. Spike traps, swarming enemies, and larger than life bosses can make my current hero nothing more than a blip on the family tree. The enemies scale in difficulty the higher level I get and the further I go into my run.
I keep coming back for more because no matter how bad I seem at this game, gaining levels and making enough money to buy one upgrade on the next run is progression. That’s where Rogue Legacy excels and differentiates itself from the traditional roguelike game. It doesn’t just kick me back to the beginning with nothing to show for my efforts. Money earned goes towards upgrading attributes, buying gear and runes found, or unlocking classes. That’s the reward for failure. Spend it all though, because reentry to the castle will cost you the leftover gold.
I’ll try the Miner. He’s got shit for health, but he has a bonus percentage to gold. It’s really hard to get around with vertigo. Everything is upside down and backwards!
New armor, weapons, and runes can be found in chests spread throughout the castle. There are items that will bestow special abilities to the hero. With the right runes, I can double jump, fly, or leech health with every kill. The trick is finding and equipping the right combination. Things like weight or how an item might lower or raise defense or health play into those choices.
That’s it. I’m going in with a dyslexic Shinobi that suffers from I.B.S. Every time I jump I fart and whatever I read looks jumbled. Even though I don’t crit, I do more damage and I’m faster than the other classes.
It strings me along, tightening its grip on me, much in the way Dark Souls did, only less oppressive. It might take dozens of “children” in the lineage to get to a level high enough with class and gear good enough to defeat a boss. I just need to keep plugging away. Good intentions of doing a couple of quick runs that may last ten minutes end up being marathon three hour sessions. I have to force myself to peel away from it and go to bed so that I may recharge for the next day.
Even though it openly preys on my obsessive compulsive tendencies, there’s more under the hood of Rogue Legacy to appreciate. I’m a 2D connoisseur. I’ll always have an affinity for those old school Capcom games or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Rogue Legacy’s character designs are as fun as their traits are humorous. The castle and enemies are rather simplistic, but the enormity of the game is difficult to grasp considering how short so many runs early on will be.
The story is told through a minimalist point of view. Journals are randomly found that describe the thoughts of a previous family member in their adventures. There’s just enough to keep things interesting and light-hearted. Too much exposition might bog Rogue Legacy down, turning it into something else entirely.
The music is very old school midi-like. It is so catchy that I find myself humming tunes throughout the day as I obsess over future runs at Castle Harmon. Though I will admit, it does get a little old hearing the same theme over and over because I’m stuck in the same beginning area for the most part. There is a random jukebox room that you can listen to the soundtrack on, but once you leave the room, its back to that same old theme. There is a downloadable soundtrack available on Cellar Door Games’ website.
One of my favorite parts of Rogue Legacy is the carnival mini-games. This completely random clown challenges me to popping balloons with axes or hitting targets with knives. If I manage to beat his challenge, I get a bonus. It’s not as easy as it sounds and he only gives one chance.
Each area has a boss hidden in a room that you might stumble upon right away. The end goal is to defeat all of the bosses to beat the game. It can be done. There is even a new game plus. My family tree would likely be a family forest by the time I got to a new game plus. But that’s okay because after hundreds, maybe thousands of playthroughs, the game will still be as maddeningly fun as those first few runs were.
Cellar Door Games struck a nerve with Rogue Legacy. It is an itch that I just can’t scratch enough. It chews me up and spits me out repeatedly and I love it for that. It is a bargain for the $15 price. It supports controllers, which is the better choice than keyboard and mouse by a mile. I’ll easily surpass any amount of hours spent on the leading contestants for game of the year.
I’m not even sure how I managed to get this review done considering how hard it is to pull myself away from the game. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare to rush back into that castle and I expect to collect more money and kill more enemies this time.
A copy of Rogue Legacy on the PC was purchased by the reviewer for purposes of this review.