Though the Castlevania series has had a rather inconsistent and confusing run over the years, the one thing tying it all together is the famed Belmont clan, with a member of the family showing up in just about every game released in the series so far. That age-old battle between the forces of good and evil has spawned all sorts of stories, but what if the Belmont clan wasn’t actually very good at the whole evil-punching thing? You’d probably end up with something approximating Rogue Legacy, a humorous and wonderfully-designed roguelike RPG following the clumsy efforts of a family attempting to conquer a castle.
The story of Rogue Legacy is a simple one which tracks the adventures of a long line of knights as each generation attempts to successfully eradicate the evils that live within the walls of the ever-changing Castle Hamson. As far as plot goes, it’s about as basic as things get, but little bits of lore are peppered in here and there through collectable journal entries that chronicle the journey of a fellow knight through the castle. Both from these journal entries and the plentiful flavour text that adorns item and stat descriptions, it’s clear that the writing is quite polished and humorous, setting an enjoyable and goofy tone that luckily doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Rogue Legacy is a roguelike action platformer through and through, leaning hard into the difficulty that the genre is famed for while interspersing strong RPG elements that support an infuriatingly addictive feedback loop. A run starts off with you selecting one of three children, each of which is of a random class and has certain ‘traits’ that either help or hinder them, usually in humorous ways. For example, a character with C.I.P. (congenital insensitivity to pain) doesn’t have a visible health bar because they don’t know how injured they are, while a character with dementia occasionally sees monsters that don’t exist. Traits, for the most part, feel well balanced in how they mix up the experience without breaking it outright, most importantly making each run feel that little bit more unique.
Classes are similarly varied, with each one focusing on a different kind of playstyle that highlights the engaging combat in unique ways. The Lich, for example, starts out with a paltry amount of health, but each kill raises the character’s maximum health cap. The Archmage has extremely strong magic capabilities, but low health and a weak melee attack. Considering that you’re typically not given much choice over which class to pick – two of your three child picks can often be of the same class – you’ll be putting in plenty of time trying out each one, neatly forcing you to try out all classes and learn to adapt strategies to the strengths and weaknesses of each one.
Once you get into the castle, the goal is simply to make it as far as possible before dying, which you will do plenty of times. There are four areas to traverse, each possessing a boss fight required to unlock the final boss, and though a player could theoretically traverse an entire given map in about forty minutes, the odds are much better that you’ll make it about five minutes before falling to a deviously-placed spike trap or a horde of enemies. Rogue Legacy is a hard game; it’s practically a given that you’re going to lose some (or, y’know, a lot) of health in every room, and once your character goes down, they’re dead forever and the cycle repeats with you choosing from another three children.
Rogue Legacy would be a good enough game if this were all there was to the gameplay loop, but it’s strongly enhanced by the underlying RPG structure that ensures not every run has to be in vain. When a character dies, all the gold they collected can be spent back at the family manor, where various stats like health, armour and critical hit rates can be boosted, or where new classes or class upgrades can be unlocked. After leaving the manor, you can also talk to a blacksmith, who forges new swords and armour pieces, and an enchantress, who enchants your gear with runes. Getting access to new equipment and new runes isn’t a simple matter of paying up, however; you have to unlock them first by finding them in treasure chests or clearing special challenge rooms scattered throughout the castle. It all seems pretty straightforward, but Rogue Legacy is hiding a nasty secret when you walk up with a new character, ready to re-enter the castle.
Charon, the ferryman of the dead, waits at the castle gate, and he cleans out any money left over from your last run. By throwing this spanner in the works, Rogue Legacy completely obliterates any hope of saving up money over several consecutive runs; you either spend it all before going back in or lose whatever you didn’t spend. Some may decry this as being unfair, but it smartly forces the player to diversify the stats that they invest their precious gold into; sometimes you don’t have nearly enough to buy that class upgrade you wanted, so you invest it into the slightly cheaper mana upgrade to ensure that Charon doesn’t get much of a cut.
Progression through the castle is more or less gated by this RPG system, with each area containing enemies and traps that deal and receive damage at progressively higher levels. Much like in the Dark Souls series, one could conceivably conquer the later areas right from the off, but it’s a much better decision to stick to the places you can manage until your stats have reached an acceptable level to challenge the horrors that lie ahead. Regardless of where you are in the game, Rogue Legacy is an absolute joy to play, with tight controls and solid moment-to-moment action. Just about every room contains a clever mixture of traps and enemies that are sure to keep you on your toes, dodging and weaving between fireballs, spikes, and spears in a desperate struggle for survival. Even in easier areas, it’s not all too difficult to be overwhelmed by the obstacles facing you, and later areas introduce new enemy and trap types to keep you guessing as you progress further. Combat is quick and clean, with your basic sword attack and optional projectile attack giving you everything you need to dispatch of threats efficiently, and the controls are delightfully responsive.
What holds this all together and makes Rogue Legacy such a wonderfully addictive experience is how each run simultaneously manages to feel unique, yet part of a natural progression of what came before. Unless you pay a handsome chunk of change to a certain merchant, the castle is completely different every time, and coupling that with the wild variance in the child that you choose to control for the current run, it can feel like a distinct game in some ways. Even so, the upgrades and bonuses that you acquire over successive runs also contribute to a growing and rewarding sense of empowerment; an area that once gave you a lot of grief early in the game may be a breeze to run through now regardless of what class you’re running.
Rogue Legacy very much feels like what would come to mind if someone were to ask you to picture a “cute Castlevania”; it integrates zombies, skeletons, and other horror-themed monsters, but all of it is depicted in a bright, somewhat cheery fashion that echoes the tongue-in-cheek tone of the writing. Environments are admittedly a little bland, but each area manages to look unique by the use of different colour palettes and room designs; the forest certainly feels distinct from the tower, even if there aren’t many defining environmental hazards in either. Each area also has its own theme, and an occasionally accessible jukebox gives you the option to listen to many more music tracks, but we found the soundtrack to be a little bland after dozens of repeated runs exposing us to the same music. It’s a relatively minor issue for most, but some may find the repetitive music to be grating over time.
Rogue Legacy is a simple take on the tried-and-true roguelike formula, but it executes what it sets out to do exceptionally well, making for an endlessly replayable and enjoyable action adventure that no fan of the genre will want to miss out on. A high difficulty level, funny writing, tight controls and rewarding RPG mechanics make this one an effortless recommendation; the design of the game makes it easy to play in short bursts or long sessions, which means it’s a great fit for the Switch. If you enjoyed Dead Cells, Castlevania, or any 2D sidescroller in that style, you’re almost certain to have a blast with this one.