Strictly speaking, this is blasphemy. Rogue Legacy takes the slot-machine nature of the roguelike platformer and grafts onto it a sprawling RPG progression tree. Start a new game, and to the right looms Castle Hamson: an intricate arrangement of halls, forests, misty towers and flame-filled dungeons that rearranges and repopulates itself each time you visit. To the left is your skill tree, represented as another castle, which grows steadily as you invest in it with gold looted from neighbouring halls. Roguelikes should pit your innate abilities against a mercurial algorithm, but here the stats are increasingly on your side.
You’re still at the mercy of chance, however, not least during character selection. After each permadeath, you pick your character’s successor from a selection of three. These new champions will inherit the equipment and skill upgrades you’ve purchased with past heroes, but they’ll throw in a few genetic traits of their own. So Lady Blair V might be a powerful Assassin with a useful flame spell, but she also suffers from gigantism.
There are enough character classes, traits and spells in Rogue Legacy that the select screen consistently throws up bizarre, genetically deficient heroes whose limitations seem cruelly ironic – the Archmage who fires spells backwards, the Barbarian with weak limbs – and as such, each run through the castle can feel novel even before the game scrambles the innards of its Gothic pile. This Metroidvania castle, comprising four distinct environments and a final boss designed to be tackled sequentially as you grow in power, manages to feel distinct each visit, yet is always arranged with vicious, enemy-dense hostility. Your basic abilities – a jump, a forward slash and a random spell – are flexible enough to weather whatever the game throws at you, but that doesn’t mean that, upon wandering into a spike-lined tunnel filled with flame-flinging mages, you wouldn’t be better off finding another route. The secret is finding goals to suit your current skillset: a weakling Spelunker with dwarfism would be better hunting for gold than tackling a boss.
Said gold can be invested in numerous upgrades. And these, unashamedly, are a crutch. They’re a way of ensuring that each new generation will be hardier, more mana-rich than the last, just as the equipment vendors outside the castle are there to let you offset your genetic limitations or heighten advantages. None of this will be to purists’ tastes, but these RPG systems mean each run can build towards a greater whole. Rogue Legacy offers the silly, slapstick cruelty of the best roguelikes, but twins it with something just as appealing: a tantalising hint of control over your fate.
Rogue Legacy is out now on Steam.