Rogue Legacy and Practice

Rogue Legacy Screenshot

15 Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all.

1 Timothy 4

There’s something quite wonderful about Rogue Legacy, but not for the reasons you might imagine. In its own way, it solves the problems of two distinct genres by blending them together: the JRPG and the Metroidvania.

On the first note, the JRPG usually presents one with the usual problem: how many random battles do I fight, and how many will the game make me fight before leading up to the next story sequence? For some of us, the continual combat blends into an exceedingly delightful game of pleasant repetition and smart resource management as we make our way to a dungeon and back out. It is why, for example, earlier JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, as those which ape them, provided far more intellectual fun for the player. The story came from you, the creator of these characters, who ventured into dungeons with the proper resources. Even with good strategy, you might barely eek your way out of the dungeon with little items to spare and half your party dead. You remembered these moments because you participated in them, and dedicated your time to them. That’s why random battles worked – danger lurked around every corner, and your next step could be your last.

Unfortunately, the modern RPG, starting with Final Fantasy VII’s success, realized they could eschew mechanics entirely for the story, and now we lie in our current predicament where the games themselves turned less and less interesting. JRPGs, thankfully, started to make a comeback where they balance story (anime style and melodramatic, but nonetheless appealing to me) and game mechanical elements. Even then, though, the game itself remains in service of the story; grind up, and win. It remains a sorry state of affairs that only time and mind-numbing repetition keep you from completion.

Rogue Legacy, a JRPG in the sense of statistics, returns decidedly to the old school mentality. Can you grind? Absolutely! But it follows the much more difficult pattern of the older JRPGs than the newer. You must harvest gold to receive upgrades; every time you buy an upgrade, it allows you to buy new things, from equipment to character classes to increased stats. Each time you buy something, everything else increases in cost relative to that. Even so, most rooms in the game present such a high level of danger and possible death (regardless of the upgrades) that you must plan carefully. Your health and mana, though obviously preventing one hit kills, force a “resource management” mentality; health is king, lose health and die. The longer you remain without getting hit, the more money you obtain, and the faster you can progress. While taking RPG tropes with reckless abandon, Rogue Legacy wants you to play well; killing a few enemies and dying will never level you up, nor will obtaining a few paltry gold. Expect spending the rest of your life playing if you don’t get better at it.

In that way, it evades the ease in which so many games before it fall into the Metroidvania trap. Although I love Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for many reasons, one of those reasons comes down to a lack of difficulty. Even a low level run with no grinding whatsoever simply isn’t difficult. Spend a little time getting the Alucard gear in the second castle, and you may as well steamroll right over the game (excepting Galamoth). The fun in the Metroidvania formula, like GTA, always comes from experimenting with the tools at hand and just messing around. Rogue Legacy, on the other hand, focuses the style to a razor sharp edge; with no save points and a constantly shifting layout, you must play well or you die and start over. You can experiment, sure, but a failed experiment will throw you back to the beginning with nothing to show but more knowledge to apply to your next descendant. In other words, the game makes you learn, and each death becomes a learning experience.

For example, I had no idea what the Archmage did before playing it the first time. I did NOT know you could switch between magic attacks freely in this class, so I merely used the sword attack and the Time Stopper that came long with him/her. I completely ignored the special stats and versatility of the Mage class in general, able to get mana back through kills and having a wide variety of attacks from many angles (if a bit of a glass cannon, as per RPG tradition). So I played pretty poorly. Better yet, I played horribly, and died rather quickly (always happens to the bearded ladies in my games, sigh). But now I figured out how to use it, and the game continues to unfurl its myriad depths through each and every death.

Rarely will you ever die or learn much of anything in Metroidvanias – most of the time, you can simply jump into the boss and smack them. In the rare case that they do pose a challenge, a little reflexes (and some health potions) will save the day. Not so for the Rogues and their Legacy – health powerups, like everything else, drop randomly. You’ll curse when the chicken legs drop early, because the RNG (random number generator) just screwed you over when you really need that health. That’s just the luck of the draw, though; maybe you just need to do the boss without getting hit, instead of whining. That’s the remarkable part of Rogue Legacy’s design, in that it somehow combines statistics, bare and out in the open, with actually skill-based mechanics that you truly require to beat the game.

That deft handling of two genres really works. It’s a bit of a misnomer to call it a “roguelike” (or rogue-lite, as the developers do), because it really doesn’t even fall into that genre. “Permadeath” is meaningless in a genre where…well, you die and the game is over anyway! But on the levels heretofore described, Rogue Legacy suceeds in squashing failed mechanics together where so many others failed, and for that I applaud Cellar Door Games. If you want to call it a feedback loop of greed and deception, fine by me, but it demonstrates much about human life in the practice of practice.

We like practicing things. We like getting better at it, particularly through a process of joyful repetition. Whether by God’s design or societal forces, we feel conditioned to perform certain habits over and over again…until something comes into our life that disrupts it. You know the feeling: the toothbrush isn’t in the right place, and something feels slightly off. Then, we find the problem and solve it by changing our habits in accordance with it. The Bible, for its part, encourages the habit of love, exactly the thing that God Himself is. When we read this in 1 John 4, then, it does not surprise us:

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.

We must practice love, for love is God and we want to be like God, correct? So we must love ourself, others, and God in order to get better at it. A simple statement, but one that I know requires much time, work, and effort. All I can say is: practice! It gets harder before it gets easier. And once it gets easier, you’ll understand why it was so hard.

Or just play Rogue Legacy, whatever.


About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Glad you’re liking it so much! So many things could be said about this game. It really is a well designed and programmed piece of entertainment.

    • Zachery Oliver

      I do think the “roguelike” genre (or lack of a genre) feels a little overplayed, but Rogue Legacy is pretty darn fun. Perhaps there are more flaws than those listed above, but they probably only emerge on New Game Plus.

      • Why do you think it’s overplayed? The new spring of games with that title is still relatively small. Like there’s not even a AAA roguelike.

        • Zachery Oliver

          I’d say it is co-opting something that already exists (as in, the game Rogue) to lend “hardcore” credibility to a burgeoning genre.

          Any game can do a random stage layout; that’s been done by games not even “roguelikes”. Rather, Rogue’ defining feature comes from its RPG roots – the lack of a conventional save feature. So in terms of dungeon crawlers and RPGs, this make sense due to the actual consequences of death being staggering (I guess Diablo Hardcore mode would also fit here).

          But if it goes to other genres, this doesn’t make any sense. Think of it this way: just because a game’s punitive measures constitute death and starting from the beginning does not mean it’s a roguelike. Every arcade game ever made would be a roguelike from that standard, and that makes no sense at all.

          That’s why I call Rogue Legacy more JRPG and platformer than roguelike. The genre designation doesn’t even make sense. One single element does not a genre make.

          At least in the indie scene, that’s why I think it’s overplayed.

          • I get what you’re saying. I guess the main appeal is just having a blanket term over games with permadeath and random levels.

          • Zachery Oliver

            Permadeath is also a bizarre term, now that you mention it. All death is permanent in most arcade games as well!

            But yeah, I’m just being a contrarian here. Most people get what you mean when you say “roguelike”, and I totally accept that. Just seems like the term came out of a lack of understanding regarding certain game types.

          • It was almost never permanent in arcades if you had money, though. Continues and lives were a thing. Not so much any more.

          • Zachery Oliver

            Oh, you! That’s just the money grab. I wouldn’t consider it part of the game, same as all these micro-transactions. When they negatively change the game, that’s when I would have the problem.

            Also, adding money to an arcade machine resets your score, so the designers obviously knew that from the beginning and placed that there to incentive getting better at it.