How Rogue Legacy Fixes the Metroidvania Genre

I’m going to level with you, people: I’ve been playing way too much Rogue Legacy. I played it until I got so powerful that I could blaze through the areas I knew, and then I powered through the tougher areas, and played until I could blaze through those, and on through to the end, on through New Game + and New Game +2.

And I haven’t really been playing so much because of the randomized character traits, which I discussed back when I played an early build of the game. They’re not usually the game-changers you might imagine.

In strictly mechanical terms, a lot of the traits simply conceal information, and then cleverly they tie those limitations to the real-world conditions they’re supposed to depict. An inability to feel pain means a blank HP bar. Alzheimer’s means not knowing where your character is on the map. Hypochondria means seeing preposterous four-digit numbers instead of the actual amounts of damage that your enemies have dealt you.

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Other traits—being abnormally large or abnormally small, say—have both positives and negatives, and are primarily about suiting certain situations or play styles. Other traits are purely cosmetic.

One trait is literally nothing more than a fart joke, which had me sort of rolling my eyes—until I happened to have it the first time I faced the game’s final boss. There I was, tooting my way through the otherwise somber silence. That was pretty funny. I’m not made of stone.

But the real point of the traits is to intermittently make usually-unappealing classes more appealing, and usually-irresistible ones immanently resistible. And that’s key, because forcing me to play different classes forced me to pursue different goals at different times. If you gave me a Hokage with the Time Stop spell (a combination that has since been nerfed out of existence), I could bring you the head of any boss in the game. For a long and profitable run throughout the castle grounds, it had to be the King or Queen of the Barbarians or the Liches.

Of course, now I’m a force of nature regardless of my class, but again, that’s because I’ve played a lot, and what’s kept me playing is something far less flashy than the randomized heroes.

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For me, the notion of a procedural Matroidvania is hook enouh. Rogue Legacy’s castle rearranges itself every time you enter (unless you pay to keep it static) and—in the same way that Spelunky encourages strategic thinking in addition to accurate jumping and The Binding of Isaac revels in the persistent mysteries and daunting scale that characterized Zelda before it became enmeshed in condescending swaddlingRogue Legacy fixes the Metroidvania genre in one fell swoop, by eliminating all the goddamn backtracking.

Backtracking can be powerful when it’s done the way Antichamber did it, with the player encountering apparently unsolvable problems early and often, and then suddenly and thrillingly discovering the proper tools. But Metroidvanias tend to use backtracking in far less enticing ways, having you keep a dutiful mental checklist of the doors that obviously require the level three gun to open, but never forcing you to scratch your head and never offering a single eureka.

Rogue Legacy takes that tropey 2D exploration and makes it renewable, twitchy, brisk, and hectic, kind of like a run in FTL, or any other prominent roguelike-alike (or whatever we’re currently calling inventive genre re-imaginings that throw in procedural content and permadeath). It’s not as deep as FTL, nor is it as committed to its emergent cruelties as Isaac, nor does completing it require any Spelunky-legnth marathons of uninterrupted virtuosity.

But in the other hand, well, greetings from Level 472.

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