There’s a fine line between retro graphics and lazy graphics.
In my review of Knights of Pen and Paper, I applauded the pixel-art aesthetic. The low fidelity graphics helped to further the throwback premise of the game and, more importantly, were well executed. Subtle details and charm oozed out of every pixel.
The graphics in Rogue Legacy feel phoned in by comparison. Given, games of the rogue-like subgenre have never been graphically driven. The original Rogue that graced Unix systems in the 1980s was drawn entirely in ASCII symbols.
However, this isn’t the 1980s anymore, and Rogue Legacy has to stack up against dozens of others of throwback titles. And the comparison between Rogue Legacy and games like Knights of Pen and Paper, Fez, and Binding of Isaac is not a flattering one.
Rogue Legacy is a very generic looking game. The character, terrain, and monster sprites lack a defining art style, giving the impression that they were pulled from a stock artwork library. Random level feelings and biomes – common rogue-like features that add visual and mechanical variety to levels – are disappointingly absent.
Graphic recycling is another problem. The bestiary of monsters is limited, a problem that is exacerbated by frequent palette swaps. The game offers a number of classes to choose from, but the same player sprite is reused for each one. Regardless of whether you are a prodigal wizard, a noble paladin, or resourceful miner, you’ll always look mostly the same.
Although not offensive by any stretch, the visuals in Rogue Legacy clearly take a backseat to the gameplay.
As to be expected given the adoption of the Rogue moniker, the game is a dungeon crawler. The player dives headlong into a randomly generated dungeon and tries to progress as far as he or she can without succumbing to an untimely death. When the player dies, they are dead for good and have to start again from scratch.
Rogue Legacy mixes things up by allowing you to iteratively strengthen your character in each successive delve. Gold you collect in the dungeon is banked after you die and can be spent on upgrades. Base stats can be improved, powerful equipment purchased, useful new classes unlocked, and meta variables (such as the amount of gold found) skewed in your favour.
This inflation of avatar strength is framed within the narrative. Each new adventurer is the son or daughter of the last deceased adventurer – hence the word “legacy” in the title.
This mechanic works for and against the game. On one hand, accumulating gold to exchange for upgrades is an incredibly addicting mechanic. You’ll commonly find yourself pushing to complete “just one more dungeon crawl” to afford the next equipment tier.
On the other hand, the concept of increasing avatar strength is entirely alien to the design philosophy of Rogue. In your typical rogue-like game, you begin each adventure with a blank slate. Progressing deeper into the dungeon is entirely dependent on cultivating your own skill as a player.
However, achieving any sort of progress in Rogue Legacy is impossible without acquiring these coveted upgrades. Inevitable evisceration awaits you in the deeper annals of the dungeon without better equipment and more health to protect you. Because of this, Rogue Legacy is more or less a grind – a design choice that may prove unpalatable to those expecting the classic Rogue formula.
And the game doesn’t make grinding easy. Movement in Rogue Legacy feels crude compared to standard-setting platformers such as Metroid and Castlevania. The large size of the main character’s sprite and the floaty nature of the game’s physics make precision dodging or jumping difficult. Unlocking the ability to dash and double-jump later on helps a great deal, but I feel like these actions should have been part of the character’s core repertoire.
The addition of full controller support is mana from the heavens, but it only mitigates the weakness of the controls, it doesn’t solve it.
It’s poor practice to judge a game by one of its screenshots, but the visuals of Rogue Legacy are aptly representative of the game as a whole. The graphics, like the core mechanics and the controls, are unpolished, muddled, and straddled awkwardly between retro and modern design sensibilities.
Still, it’s hard for me to hate the game. Rogue Legacy is a strangely addictive time sink despite its borderline competency. It may not be worth the $15 price tag on Steam, but it’s definitely worth trying when the next big sale rolls around.