Roguelikes have taken on several forms since their inception with Rogue’s release in 1980. Some are truly like Rogue — Nethack and DoomRL immediately come to mind — while others have taken on elements uncharacteristic of the progenitor, such as action and rhythm. Lately, a seemingly endless barrage of roguelites have hit the electronic shelves, otherwise known as “coffee break” roguelikes. These shorter versions of the addictive genre borrow core elements, like permadeath and randomized dungeons, but lack the depth that truly makes the genre shine. Does Rogue Wizards offer gloves and cockatrice to slap enemies with, or does it rely on fireballs and “T” formation ice spells to thwart uninspired recolors of foes?
A roguelite in almost the truest sense, Rogue Wizards’ story mode took me about 13 hours to complete, with about an hour of that managing inventory, needlessly upgrading shops, and bathroom breaks. Story mode can be played on normal or hard mode, the latter of which features permadeath. Normal mode allows players to respawn in town with all equipment and levels retained — one only needs to re-enter the dungeon next in line and start over. Diehard roguelike fans may be tempted to throw themselves at hard mode, but they may find “gauntlet” mode a better fit wherein players can spawn a new character and delve into an endless dungeon to see how far they can get; death, of course, is permanent. Gauntlet is essentially story mode without the shops and story.
I recommend roguelike veterans stay away from story’s hard mode because Rogue Wizards simply doesn’t have enough meat to warrant starting all over for the rather lackluster story. Rogue Wizards’ story mode is satisfying for its 10ish hour excursion, but not worth restarting after five hours. If the writing were stronger, or the plot less cliché, I’d even still hesitate to recommend hard mode due to the inclusion of gauntlet mode, but the ho-hum story sure doesn’t motivate.
The standard furnishings are here: upgradeable shops, loot, rarity system, a town that upgrades with each story-based dungeon completed, pets, and turn-based combat on a square grid. Each world has a theme, which dictates what kinds of enemies a player will face. Dungeons have three or four kinds of enemies in them, which isn’t tremendous variety, but what makes matters worse is that some of those enemies have different names and aren’t even recolored. This means that a gryphon might be a guardian who has different abilities, but the only way you will know is if you hover your cursor over it. This is a mild trifle, and I’d complain if only the colors were different, but at least that would offer a visual cue; the current system is needlessly cumbersome and confusing. Although most enemies behave differently, the kinds of attacks and abilities don’t awe, aside from one character who will blind the screen with each successive attack. Some might find this attack annoying, but I appreciated the creativity.
Players have an arsenal of weapons available from almost the beginning, with standard bows or ricocheting chakrams, as well as standard swords or sweeping axes. In a more complex title, this variety, though nothing new, would add depth and tough decision making, but Rogue Wizards’ world is so simple to master that each weapon seems arbitrary and more a matter of taste. The spells don’t add much else, either. While each of six families of spells offers three different spells that genuinely behave uniquely, players will likely find four families that they like and stick to them. Each level gained grants three or four spell points that can be plugged wherever one wants, but in order to avoid obscurity, players will likely commit to a few spells that fit their style — again, the lack of difficulty makes this decision feel arbitrary.
Each boss is a recolored wizard of a particular element that behaves almost entirely the same as its brethren: he has two or three actions per turn of yours that includes a ranged damaging spell, a smack of the staff, teleportation, or summoning units. Repeat ad nauseam. The final battle and close to the game don’t feel much different, making the whole affair anticlimactic both in terms of gaming and narrative tension. At least the final wizard looks cool.
Rogue Wizards’ smooth animations and colorful world immediately draw one’s eye. While not visually complex, the world just pops — in a mobile sort of way. Non-playable characters look like they were constructed after designers or friends and pets are cute, justifying their presence just enough as they don’t offer much in combat besides fodder. The sounds add dopamine, but the music is forgettable and inconsequential. Unfortunately, the controls are clunky and result in misclicks throughout, which makes me worry about its future as a mobile game. Isometric and three-dimensional at the same time, Rogue Wizards’ character models sometimes block loot or shrines, wasting valuable actions on an undesired selection or movement. Fortunately, due to its ease, these missteps are rarely as catastrophic as the future of this world — assuming you can’t save it.
Essentially, the protagonist finds himself thrown into a magical uprising as upper and lower-class denizens of an oligarchy-ruled world threatens civilization as a single wizard corrupts elemental mages and accumulates ultimate power. That last sentence sounds like a summary, but that is almost entirely the game. As the protagonist scours elemental worlds, he finds human companions who want to fight against this would-be ruler, all while random scrolls found in each dungeon offer exposition into an informant’s findings. Although the content is regurgitated, redundant slop, the actual quality of writing creates a dull stinging in the back of one’s head. At one second, a character is blatantly talking about getting with another character — which is never referenced again — and the next the protagonist opens up to someone randomly about how his life doesn’t mean anything. And that’s it. We never hear about it again, until the ending when he calls himself a nobody. No reasoning, no insightful backstory, and no slideshow cinematic offering graphical representations of his life as a starving thief. Did I mention Rogue Wizards will eventually be available on smart devices?
Perhaps this is where I’ve faltered: my expectations. Rogue Wizards has released recently on PC and Mac, but will be released for iOS and Android during the second quarter of 2017 — or so it’s projected. After completing the game on PC, I wonder if my expectations would be tempered if I had played it on my phone. I could easily see this game serving as adequate filler as I wait for a ride or sit in an airport. Though, that wouldn’t change my score at all, because Rogue Wizards feels like just that: filler.
Being an avid fan of roguelikes, I enjoyed my stint, but if I am to set aside my bias, I’m not sure I can recommend this to anyone but the most devoted to the genre. Am I glad I played this title? A bit, but I also acknowledge that my time would have likely been better spent on a title with a fuller narrative or deeper roguelike elements with hidden goodies. I suppose this is what gaming pessimists would call a timesink, but I see this as Spellbind Studios’ first game, and an admirable one at that. The foundations of something greater are here — it’s pleasant to look at and has adequate pacing. Perhaps this serves as an indication of what the developer is capable of so that they have the confidence to plunge into something more complex. Or maybe it’ll be a hit on smart devices and they’ll keep making mobile games. As it is, I can’t recommend this game unless you just have to get a roguelike fix, without what makes roguelikes grand.