I want to change the world. Don’t you? It’s this dark joke of humanity. We’re wired to dream big, yet our toolset is so small. Each person gets—if they’re lucky—a bag of flesh and a reasonably functional brain. But we get by pretty well with those, all things considered. What really hurts us is the shelf-life issue. The flesh rots, the brain degrades, and we end. We hate that. So we invented a clever loophole: the “legacy.” Maybe if each of us is part of something greater that spans generations, then each life will feel less small. With a legacy, we don’t have to change the world all in one go, as long as we generate some momentum in the right direction. This is what we tell ourselves. It’s a brilliant delusion, and Rogue Legacy explores the messy consequences of it.
You begin the game as a cheery, goose-stepping warrior who seeks to tame a sprawling castle. The castle is populated with countless intruders who mean you harm, like wizards who impale you with spires of earth and gigantic, diseased eyeballs that shower you with caustic sputum. All this unpleasantness is too much for your puny fighter, so before long, you succumb to the onslaught.
Lucky for you, before you died, you were smart enough to produce three offspring. Once the castle lays you low, the next step is to choose which member of the next generation will perpetuate your legacy. Each potential heir has their own baseline set of sword-swinging and spell-casting skills, and thanks to upper-class inbreeding, the kids also carry a randomized rainbow of genetic conditions and personality quirks—some positive, some negative, and some inconsequential. If you elect to have a near-sighted child carry on your name, for instance, the edges of the screen will blur the next time you take on the castle. There are dozens of other “traits” (hypochondria, coprolalia, dextrocardia…), each of which serves as its own joke once you figure out its effect. I don’t want to step on those punchlines here, but I’ll say this: Vertigo is hell.
The ancestral cycle of adventure, death, and rebirth repeats until you finally defeat the masters of the castle, which will likely require more than a hundred generations. That may sound like tedium, but Rogue Legacy staves off boredom with two signature elements of design. First, the makeup of the castle is randomized every time you play. This approach is what defines the “roguelike” genre of games—the developers don’t design levels so much as they design a system that generates levels—so now you know where the first part of the title comes from.
Then there’s the matter of the legacy, in the form of the gold you collect as you fight. After death, you pass this gold on to your heir, so when the next generation’s hero bursts onto the scene, your first task is to spend that loot. Charon, lord of the underworld, guards the castle gate and charges a usurious 100-percent estate tax. The message: Use it or lose it. You can spend your cash to train yourself and improve your battle prowess, or to buy new equipment and spells. You can even shell out hefty sums to diversify the gene pool, allowing new classes of heroes with exotic abilities to be born. Who wouldn’t want a ninja in their family tree?
The legacy system allows progress. Each new expenditure burnishes your family line, making the next hero a little better equipped to take on the horrors beyond the gate. With time, the foes in the grueling heights of the castle tower become manageable, and fearsome bosses become less so. The difficulty is well-tuned, one of the subtler strokes of genius in Rogue Legacy. The castle doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but as you improve your heroes, it does yield enough that there are always new surprises to discover—surprises like a smart-mouthed carnival clown and a curse that imbues you with the spirit of Sonic The Hedgehog.
One recent point of comparison for Rogue Legacy is The Binding Of Isaac, another heavily randomized game that takes a more traditional roguelike approach: When you die, you essentially start over from scratch the next time. There is no legacy-building in Isaac. You cannot pass along a cache of cash to your progeny. The philosophical difference between the two games is the difference between a life lived for its own sake and a life that is part of a larger story.
In practice, that difference is profound. When I find my back against the wall in Isaac—which is even more challenging than Rogue Legacy—I don’t lose my will to fight. Instead, I summon a more tenacious level of fight. Some of my most memorable times with the game have come when I clawed my way back from death’s door to conquer the depths of the Isaac inferno.
Rogue Legacy doesn’t quite inspire that same burning desire, because its death doesn’t feel like true death. When my health is at a low ebb in some forlorn corner of Legacy’s castle, my thoughts turn to the next generation. I can’t accomplish greatness in this life, I reason, but perhaps I can scrounge enough gold to give a solid head start to the next family scion. By resigning myself to mediocrity in the short term, I’m simply taking a different path to greatness. The ruthless nature of Isaac induces heroism; the enduring lineage of Legacy produces heroes.
I’ve been married for eight years, so the “Kids?” talk comes up on a regular basis. Thus far, the answer is “Not yet.” We have our reasons. One of mine is that I’m afraid of becoming the dad who, like my underachieving Legacy dude, kicks the can down the road. We’ve all seen people lose their edge once they have kids—it certainly doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens. I hear some old college friend smile and talk about how he considers fatherhood his “No. 1 job,” and he might as well have zombie flesh peeling off his skull for how much that spooks me. “You’re barely 30 years old,” I think as I stave off a premature midlife crisis, “and you’re handing the ball off already?”
Yet often in Rogue Legacy, handing the ball off isn’t just the smart play, it’s the most enjoyable play. It’s fun to putter around Castle Hamson secure in the knowledge that Lady Teti XXXVI will have her own chance to leave a mark in this world. That’s the tradeoff of a legacy. You can feel like a link in a chain, but on the other hand, you live a life that’s never entirely without hope or joy.
That’s not to suggest that Rogue Legacy is a compromised game, just that its dynastic trappings are complex and truthful. It may not be quite the landmark game that Isaac was—Legacy’s ghosts ’n’ goblins aesthetic is cute and well-rendered but still too generic—yet it provides an important counterpoint to Isaac with a structure that’s superficially similar. When we write the narratives of our own lives, one natural inclination is to view it as a story with a concrete beginning and end. Legacy is a compelling exploration of what happens when we add a “To Be Continued…” after the final act.