The 2010s were a weird time for video games. Big budget titles become increasingly risk averse due to the increased costs of development. This led to widespread stagnation across the industry’s major players, who settled into making fewer games with established formulas. However, we also saw digital distribution normalized, and the collective rise of the indie game. By skirting traditional publishing, these smaller developers could release experimental titles without the same level of financial risk as their AAA counterpart. As a result, the industry experienced a creative high, and low point simultaneously. Weird, right?
If you followed the indie scene during this time, you’d have likely seen some bonkers shit. One of my personal favourite experiments to come from this period was the modernization of the roguelike. For decades, this genre had an extremely specific definition, which led to a narrow selection of titles trying to ape the success of Rogue. However, games like The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, and FTL: Faster Than Light challenged the perception of what it meant to be “like” Rogue. Since then, we’ve seen an explosion of new experiences flourish with creators no longer being shackled to Rogue’s legacy.
Speaking of legacy, one of the earliest successes to embrace this new interpretation of the roguelike was Rogue Legacy. There’s permadeath, and random dungeon layouts, like Rogue, but it was one of the first roguelikes to feature permanent progression. It was a huge departure from the progress loss on death that many still consider to be a defining facet of the genre. Despite this, Rogue Legacy was met with a wave of success both critically and commercially, inspiring other developers to adopt a similar style of progression in the decade since its original release.
However, for as influential as Rogue Legacy was, it hasn’t aged gracefully. The roguelike genre has evolved past it, with newer entries containing greater variety, depth of gameplay, and features. Rogue Legacy is very much a game of its time. This doesn’t make it bad, but it does mean that it feels comparatively lacking when held next to any of its modern contemporaries.
Unwilling to be outdone by newer games, it was announced Rogue Legacy would be receiving a numbered sequel, which spent a stint of time in Steam Early Access before releasing earlier this year. Unfortunately, the resulting game is a sequel in the same way that new versions of Fifa or Splatoon are: little has changed. While I concede that a few quality of life changes were applied, Rogue Legacy 2 largely falls into the same pitfalls as the original. Plus, new stumbling blocks have been added to the mix with changes that were meant to address shortcomings of the original. So, here’s a somewhat middling take on a somewhat middling sequel to one of the most influential roguelikes of the past decade.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Rogue Legacy 2 is a roguelike-platformer hybrid that takes its name very literally. You play an armor clad chad exploring randomly generated dungeons with some good ol’ fashioned 2D side-scrolling action. That covers the rogue half of the name, but what about the legacy? Well, instead of playing the same character, you’ll play a descendent of the previous hero whenever you die. This adds a nice bit of narrative context to the constant cycle of death, which isn’t present in most other roguelikes. However, nothing else changes, with NPCs notably never aging, so it’s mostly window dressing instead of a unique facet of the game’s storytelling.
Chrono anomalies aside, the passing of the torch has been revamped in Rogue Legacy 2 to contain notably more variety than the previous game. A bevy of extra classes have been added, each featuring different weapons and abilities, to help runs feel more distinct. Traits have also been revamped, so they’re generally more useful. As an example, if you have IBS your character’s spell slot will be replaced with a giant Wario-esque fart explosion that can be used as a double jump. This is a huge upgrade over the original title where your character would randomly fart every 30 seconds. The original was arguably more funny, but the increased emphasis on mechanical diversity is highly appreciated in a genre built upon repetition.
Unfortunately, outside of revamping traits and adding additional classes, little else was done to improve Rogue Legacy 2 over its predecessor. This is no clearer than it is with the progression system, which is still just as busted as it was in the original. Throughout each run of Rogue Legacy 2, you’ll collect gold. When you eventually perish, your ill-gotten gains are passed onto your child who can use them to buy permanent upgrades. This includes shop and class unlocks, as well as a host of different stat increases. In essence, you go on runs, you collect a bunch of gold, you spend it to make yourself stronger, repeat. Cool.
Where this progression loop falls apart, stems from how it differs from other games. You know how most RPGs typically relegate the most powerful, interesting skills to the end of a given tree? This allows players to anticipate when they can finally use level 9 lightning magic to unleash a super scrimblo blast frying the testicles off everything in a 3 mile radius. That doesn’t happen in Rogue Legacy. All of the hugely impactful upgrades, like new classes and shops, are front-loaded. This means players are, once again, stuck with nominal stat upgrades for the overwhelming majority of Rogue Legacy 2. Yay. My favourite.
My complaints might sound like a small nitpick, but consider Rogue Legacy’s entire gameplay loop is built around the progression system. This is less complaining about the side salad, and more complaining about your steak being overcooked. One would imagine with progression being a key motivating factor in retaining the player’s attention, that it would’ve been revised to pace out the substantive upgrades better. However, the more time you invest into Rogue Legacy 2 the less interesting, and impactful its upgrades become. The whole thing feels just as underwhelming as it did back in 2013.
While the progression system hasn’t changed, the environments have. Rogue Legacy 2 features 6 unique zones, where the original had 4 generic flavors of castle backdrops. The traps, enemies, aesthetic, and mechanics of a given area provide it with a distinct sense of personality. This largely helps to keep the pacing of the game from slowing to a crawl once players become bored of the progression loop and is, frankly, a huge improvement over the palette swaps littered throughout the original game.
However, not all of the new environments work to Rogue Legacy 2’s benefit. Some of the zones focus heavily on platforming challenges, which would be a nice change of pace if they weren’t so god damn annoying. I get the impression that enemies are placed randomly throughout the game’s levels, which can result in some absolute dickhead spawn locations. There were countless times where projectile spewing enemies would be placed completely out of reach. This turned what would otherwise be a straightforward platforming affair into a complete nightmare. However, there were just as many times where these same challenges were a cake walk because nothing was placed to impede my progress. This huge fluctuation in difficulty never felt great.
The final point I wanted to mention is the lack of enemy variety. Rogue Legacy 2 contains a larger roster than its predecessor, and also spaces out introducing this menagerie so players aren’t overloaded. However, the back half of the game is still chock full of reskinned, big versions of existing foes. This is especially pervasive in latter half of the game. At least the new art-style works better here, as stretched character models look far less hideous when they’re not pixel art.
It probably feels like I’m down on Rogue Legacy 2 because I absolutely am. After a decade on ice, I thought a sequel to one of the early influencers of modern roguelikes would have more to offer. Instead, I’ve been faced with the sad reality that Rogue Legacy 2 is little more than an expansion. Many of the same problems that plagued the original game remain, and the minor alterations to address them don’t work as well as they need to. Don’t get me wrong, the game’s still fun to play until you grow tired of the progression loop. I’m sure if you enjoyed the original, you’ll enjoy the sequel, but if you were hoping for a meaningful update you might be better off playing another roguelike-platformer.