By: Jason Waddell
I don’t have time for bullshit.
Games with superfluous filler to be disrespectful to me, the player. It didn’t used to be this way. Back in the day you found yourself in World 1 – 1 and ran to the right, and didn’t stop running. The industry has changed. 22 years after the release of Super Mario Bros. came Super Paper Mario, a game that effectively served as a bad marriage simulator: packed to the brim with vacuous dialogue and errands, and mostly devoid of action.
Thankfully, there’s one genre I can always count on to treat my time with the respect it deserves: roguelikes. For the unaware, the defining feature of a roguelike game is that the player is given only a single life. Lose it, and all progress is lost. Back to square one. Life after life, you gain literal experience: you learn more about the game’s systems, its tricks, and gradually you gain the skill to make deeper and deeper inroads into a game’s (typically) fiendishly-difficult dungeons.
Roguelike’s come in all shapes and sizes, and Rogue Legacy combines the typical roguelike construct (one life to live) with Metroidvania-style gameplay: platform based castle exploration. However, Rogue Legacy shakes up the formula with one very pivotal alteration: when you die, you don’t actually lose everything. After each life, you can spend whatever hard-earned coins you collected to purchase upgrades that will permanently affect all future heroes you send into the dungeon.
To reenter the castle, you must sacrifice all (or, after some upgrades, nearly all) of your gold to the castle’s Gatekeeper.
The result is that you must acquire a minimum threshold of gold during a run for that run to be of any use. If I need a 1200 coin upgrade, a run that yields 800 coins will be all for naught, as I have to surrender those coins to the gatekeeper before reentering the castle. Naturally, the upgrades become increasingly expensive, requiring increasingly successful runs to continue your purchasing progression.
Eventually you’ll encounter one of the castle’s five bosses…
…and you’ll get shitwrecked.
Your stats aren’t there. Bob and weave all you like, the bosses’ damage output will simply outclass yours. True, you may need more skill (and you will quite noticeably improve), but mostly you need more time. You need to grind. After the game’s honeymoon phase wears off (for me, somewhere around the 7 or 8 hour mark), you’ll start to see the grind for what it is. Each life becomes less about exploration and discovery, and more about putting in the time required to earn sufficient upgrades.
At their best, roguelikes offer an unparalleled emotional thrill. Runs of Binding of Isaac have me tensely teetering on the edge of my seat while holding on to that last life point. They capture my emotions, leave lasting impressions.
Runs of Rogue Legacy bleed into one another, and have me looking at my watch. Ultimately no single run is all that meaningful or emotionally satisfying. Just another stamp on the time sheet. Although skill affects the efficiency of your grind, the fundamental nature of the activity doesn’t change. It’s still a grind.
It’s a shame, because the game does a lot of things well. The gameplay is tight and skill-testing, and maneuvering your character is truly a joy once air dashes and double-jumps enter the mix.
Rogue Legacy does many things well, but leaves me yearning for a game where skill, not time, is the primary currency.
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