Ninety-six deaths. 96. Ninety-six children fighting evil over the generations. That’s the number reported back to me when I finally beat the last boss of Rogue Legacy, but it never really felt like that. Some of those deaths came in rapid succession; I’d enter a room, see a really nasty enemy or trap, and die horribly. Other times, those deaths came as a result of running through the castle collecting coins and treasure to upgrade my bloodline to almost superhuman levels. On several occasions, however, these meetings with The Reaper came as a result of having the wrong character type at the wrong time. Rogue Legacy is a game about risk, chance, and a little bit of luck. It harkens back to the days when Simon Belmont could only take four hits before succumbing to sweet oblivion, or when Arthur’s armor burst off his body upon simply touching a defiled zombie. Modern conventions and some wacky characteristics keep Rogue Legacy feeling fresh despite its old-school charm, though these sources of intrigue can prove a bit frustrating at times.
Following a short prologue and introduction to death, Rogue Legacy tasks you with exploring a castle with four distinct areas, dispatching bosses as you proceed towards the ultimate goal of defeating the final evil locked behind a gold door. There’s a little bit of story told in journal entries scattered about the environment, but mostly this is a tale about killing monsters and gathering loot, and the game is better for it. We didn’t need much explanation back in the NES days other than, “Dracula has risen, now go kill him good!” With the recent glut of cutscenes and dialogue in today’s big-budget AAA world, Rogue Legacy comes across as a breath of fresh air with its focused and directed nature. “Explore the castle, get stuff, and power up” are reasons enough to scour the corridors of this huge deathtrap.
Rogue Legacy takes advantage of a distinct 16-bit graphical palette that adds to its old-school charm. Your on-screen avatars are pixelated and slightly deformed, holding his/her sword awkwardly as they run through the castle on short, stubby legs. Giant skeletons, headless horses, robed mages, and various other nefarious creatures attempt to halt your progress with colorful attacks and old-timey patterns requiring a great deal of memorization. Rogue Legacy isn’t going to blow anyone away with amazingly intricate environments. You have a castle area, a forest area, and dungeon-y areas. Familiar almost to a fault, you’d be forgiven in thinking that this game is quant and simple… until you actually play it and get your ass handed to you.
I died on the second room on my first castle run. This was my first real death, and there were many (…many) more before I finally started to get my bearings and understand the mechanics at play. Enemies hit hard and fast, barely giving you any time to figure them out before they fill the screen with large area-based attacks ranging from fireballs to ice blasts and everything in-between. Controlling your character feels almost too precise and tight for this type of game. You can easily change direction mid-jump, and you’ll probably overcorrect and hurt yourself if you grew up with the Belmonts. Within an hour, though, the controls feel great and really open you up to pulling off some intense maneuvers and stunts, though the downward strike necessary for some traversal mechanics never feels quite right.
I didn’t really understand Rogue Legacy when I first started playing and grew frustrated quickly as a result. Dying so early without any real progress felt odd, and I was rolling my eyes with some of the “gotcha” moments with spike traps and large enemies hitting me immediately after a screen transition. Death, however, reveals the wonderfully modern conventions of RL that make it stand out amongst a sea of “old-school” games released during this massive indie boom in the industry. Every time you die, you select a new character from a list of three, and then you get the opportunity to spend your ancestor’s hard-earned loot on upgrades for your family. These range from the ability to lock the randomly designed castle into its previous incarnation to new character classes and stat boosts. Better still, Rogue Legacy incentivizes you to spend all of that money because you go back down to zero upon reentering the castle. Leveling your family yields huge results that fundamentally changes the way you play the game and perceive death. Dying results in initial disappointment, followed by the joy of selecting skills and stats, and then finally a return to the castle to find more loot. It’s truly wicked game design, provoking you to play just one more character before turning the game off. You’re almost always unlocking new pieces of gear or abilities, and you even get to tailor your play style with runes and special skills. Maybe you like to focus on double jumping, or perhaps you want to lower the level of your enemies but receive reduced rewards as a result. Rogue Legacy feels deeply personal and meticulously constructed, never coming across as a tedious affair.
Character selection quickly becomes the driving force when you venture into the castle. The classes all perform differently and most are best suited for certain situations. The speedy, hard-hitting ninja makes regular enemies feel like a joke, but he is probably too squishy for some of the more terrifying bosses. The miner gets a huge boost to gold pickups, making him an essential part of your family’s economy. Still, some classes feel a bit useless if you haven’t invested enough of your family’s fortune into their chosen stat. My mages felt horribly underpowered, making some runs more frustrating than others. This becomes truly detrimental when trying to tackle one of the game’s bosses. I waited nearly six generations before finally getting a paladin capable of taking out the last boss, which proved more aggravating than exhilarating. Sure, I was able to power level a bit, but I wanted to get something done, and it’s hard to break from that line of thought when you die waiting to accomplish a goal. This was the one time Rogue Legacy frustrated me, but that comes with the randomization of both the castle and your family tree.
Nearly every selected character brings along some kind of trait to liven up the gameplay a bit. One guy might be colorblind, leading to a black and white screen, while another character may have irritable bowel syndrome, resulting in a great deal of fart noises coming from your speakers. Usually, these traits provide little more than entertainment and a bit of individual flavor for each excursion, but they can sometimes prove beneficial or outright disastrous to your forward momentum. I was never a fan of getting characters who are giant, for example, as this made them an easy target for some of the nasty projectile attacks enemies like to spam.
Rogue Legacy makes a lot of really smart decisions to keep it feeling fresh while maintaining some pretty old-school game design. “Hard but fair” usually comes to mind whenever you finally fall victim to the onslaught, but randomness brings both variety and some frustration to the proceedings. You have to go with the flow and understand that maybe you won’t get the right class for a given situation, that some people just aren’t meant to vanquish evil. Some of your offspring may be simple cannon fodder, while others are little more than accountants looking to build up your future heroes. Death is almost a reward in a way, and perhaps more designers should look to keep things fresh and interesting even when the dreaded “Game Over” finally appears on screen.