I can sum up Rogue Legacy in a single statement: “it’s Dark Souls for the SNES”. For those that get what I mean, you’re free to go now. I’m quite sure you can base your potential purchase of Rogue Legacy on that statement alone. For those who aren’t as clue-y about 90’s home entertainment consoles and unforgiving Japanese action RPG’s, stick around and I’ll go into some more detail. Rogue Legacy combines the aesthetics of the golden age of platformers (as well as the twitchy gameplay from some of the harder titles of the time) with the modern Dark Soulsian philosophy of failure as a form of progression. Each death, while being permanent for the character you are playing as and resetting your progress through the game’s castle, ultimately moves you closer to game’s final boss. Unless of course you’re just really bad at the game.
But even the most hopelessly inept gamer would keep coming back to Rogue Legacy for countless beatings. One of the game’s greatest strengths is the way it nails rewarding the player just enough to avoid every death becoming cause for a temper tantrum. Every death will mean a brand new castle to explore but your heir will inherit whatever gold your previous hero had at the moment of their untimely demise. This gold is used to upgrade the family manor, which results in a myriad of abilities becoming available to future offspring. There’s also bread and butter upgrades like increasing health and base damage. Although death hurts, especially after a particularly unproductive run, it’s mostly never in vain and the next time you start a game you’er just that much more more powerful.
Although there is the word “legacy” in the game’s title, along with the use of the word “heir” when you start a new game, there’s no depth whatsoever to genealogical progression. The array of birth defects and mutations that your sword swinging son or daughter could display are seemingly completely random. Each new game will give you the choice of one of three new offspring, each with a different combination of birth traits. These bear no resemblance or logical association to the past hero, the supposed parent of the new hero. Gamer’s hoping to finally use eugenics and selective breeding to their advantage in a platforming game will be sorely disappointed. As it stands, the randomized traits vary from being helpful (ADHD helping you move faster) to annoying (Ectomorph making you so skinny that enemy attacks send you flying) to pure novelty (Coprolalia resulting in a swearing hero). They’re not much more than a bit of window dressing but give the game some endearing personality. If I was left to breed my heroes a certain way I’m quite sure I would have ended up with hyperactive giants. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Crusader Kings style family tree simulator being tacked on to a sequel.
An aspect of the game that isn’t pure window dressing is the preordained class of each new-born hero. For a side scrolling action RPG-lite, there’s a commendable amount of classes to choose from. And while they may not be wildly different -all using a similar jumping, sword swinging and projectile casting formula- each is nuanced enough to feel interesting in its own right. You have the basics like a high HP barbarian or high MP mage but then there are things like the much more interesting Lich who starts with a very low total health, but each monster you kill will slightly increase that total. Then there’s the miner, who doesn’t have much health or magic, nor is very good at swinging his sword, but collects more gold than any other character. Each class fills a nice little play style niche that helps keep re-doing the same segments of castle fresh. Much more so than the novelty birth traits.
Every time you start a new game, or life as the case may be, a new castle is randomly generated. The basics of each castle are the same every time around though. There’s four areas, each with its own visual theme and enemies, overseen by a boss that each requires defeating to open a door housing the final boss. While the randomization of room elements and layouts is varied enough that I was never bored or felt Déjà vu while exploring, the enemies and hazards throughout all levels of the castle are incredibly similar. The likeness of the four bosses is even more uncanny, each essentially being a giant circle that floats around a large platform laced square room. The environmental challenges also don’t change much from area to area, only really offering a change of paint and the same traps that do more damage. The fundamental addictiveness of hitting things for gold to buy things to allow you hit things better for more gold is strong enough to prevent repetition becoming too much of a chore. This is also coupled with the short-burst-like way the game is played; I never played a single character for more than 10 minutes. This is far too short a time for any area to become a long slog even if I would be seeing it again in 9 minutes time.
Apart from the randomised and slightly novel “legacy” component of Rogue Legacy, it’s almost exactly the game I was assuming and hoping it would be. It’s also a game that made me reflect on the evolution of gamer’s tastes. If Rogue Legacy was actually released in the early 90’s on the SNES, how would it fare? Would it be heralded as a daring new form of platforming/ RPG cross over or be lambasted for using randomization and difficulty to disguise a lack of depth and content? Would gamer’s have “got” it back then, or do we need everything that ‘s happened up to this point (Super Mario World, Castlevania, Zelda, Diablo, Dark Souls, and the indie game renaissance) to appreciate it? Regardless, I dig it a lot and Rogue Legacy is getting 4/5 spooky castle courtyards.