The idea of exploring an outmoded castle feeds into the difficulty that usually accompanies the theme. These are the adventures of the unaligned, the underdogs, fighting through a place in which they don’t belong. Simon Belmont railed against an ancient evil in Castlevania through a series of brutally structured challenges and against all odds. Games like Super Metroid are not as gothic but in two dimensions and from the wary comforts of map-based exploration are unmistakably enclosed and thematically castle-like.
Rogue Legacy uses the roguelike’s procedural generation formula to become a culmination of those adventures, extrapolating the unprepared adventurer from his own history and forcing him and his descendants to live and die infinitely and unloved in the catacombs of their chosen genre.
It’s less like your common roguelike since it takes a cue from Metroid to give your avatar its own scaling strength, which directly influences which challenges you can overcome. A chest containing a tantalizing rune, which provides a permanent ability upgrade, may only be recoverable with the help of another ability. Cunning platforming challenges test your wits and reflexes by combining room-to-room exploration with an unrelenting focus on combat. There are no real respites in Rogue Legacy, in which even an atmospheric search through a murky room will be peppered with combat challenges and clever traps.
Each of these challenges is temporary: like all roguelikes, death resets the whole world. But for a fee, a man allows you to keep the castle from re-generating so that you can tackle a tough challenge until you beat it. This is telling both as responsive design and as the most glaring emergent limitation of Rogue Legacy, and roguelikes in general.
In a roguelike, the world changes when you die. Thus, the normal curve a player traverses acquiring skills and conquering challenges doesn’t exist. Spelunky and Downwell fix the problem by generating comparably difficult worlds and farming only the player’s strength in the pursuit of a better run. But in Rogue Legacy, certain challenges may be impossible at your current level, rendering death an inconsistent learning experience that threatens to turn the player against the game, to refuse to take responsibility for an inevitable death. The addition of character upgrades complicates matters further since the game is now no longer exclusively skill-based. The idea that you can freeze the castle, making the roguelike element “optional,” is a smart mitigation of a weak design. It both solves the weakness of the roguelike RPG and admits that such a weakness requires drastic design pains to solve.
The bosses in Rogue Legacy for instance are quite difficult, despite appearing generic (often taking the form of an oversized normal sprite). But since you can technically grind for upgrades, there is a definite “zone of probability” for your character to beat the boss at his current skill level. This is a problem common to RPGs and, like the ability to freeze and unfreeze the castle, sometimes robs Rogue Legacy of its genre’s main currency: achievement.
I talked about games that take place in an enclosing castle, with cautious map-based exploration and brutal enemy obstacles. One of the hallmarks of these games is thematically relevant: as your avatar is usually a person out of their element and ill-prepared, the player is also thrown into a situation beyond their means and forced to triumph with the skills they acquire along the way. The ability to grind eschews feelings of achievement in Rogue Legacy to feelings of deception, more like you outsmarted the game than necessarily conquered it. The map procedurally generating often seems like an excuse to modernize a structure that wanted for nothing as far back as Super Metroid. If Rogue Legacy did not contain the ability to freeze the castle, it would be unplayable since no challenge would be a learning experience. But the ability to do so also betrays the balance for which its inspirations are so famous.
What works in Rogue Legacy is surprisingly not visual style, which is usually a given even in poorly optimized indie games. By reproaching pixel art, the game settles for a flat look I’d expect from a game free to play. Even atmospheric rooms pale before their counterparts on the SNES. Despite overtones of demonism in Rogue Legacy, by lighting alone Spelunky feels scarier and more imposing.
And the central story mechanic of living each new life as a descendent with slightly different abilities adds nothing to the experience. Wisely, the developers do not make the different characters so different that each new life is a test of luck. I could imagine committing suicide as a weak character innumerable times, before chancing on one strong enough to face the boss. But as a result, most abilities, if they do not slightly augment or slightly detract from your ability to face the game’s challenges (both of which are frustrating) are just one-line gags, such as text being jumbled or the screen becoming sepia tone. Some rare traits, such as one that flips the castle upside down and another that makes objects in the distance blurry, are downright game-breaking.
What works in Rogue Legacy is just what has worked in the games that it idolizes. This is no sin: it plays to Castlevania almost as Axiom Verge played to Metroid, like a culmination of design intentions, theming, and smartly progressive nostalgia. Rather than aping an act, Rogue Legacy feels like the dream you might have after playing Castlevania for twelve hours in your pajamas. It feels like both a modern expansion and a childlike reduction of the formula. My criticisms are all secondary to its strengths: tight controls (on a controller), perfect combat, and diabolical fun.
It just so happens that its main conceit as a roguelike is its weak element. The formula of the genre is a delicate balancing act that Rogue Legacy does not conquer: it cleverly bypasses those limits with safeguards like the castle freeze and progressive avatar strength. This puts the player in power over the game’s design, lessening the feeling of achievement so critical to Castlevania. But it also accentuates the genre’s themes of lonesome, wary, and under-seasoned adventurers lost in a world of hurt and delighted to die, die, die again. I could criticize it all I want but after thirty addicting in-game hours, I’ve got to admit that even imbalanced and derivative, a fun game can always manage to be an anthem to itself.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org