One of my guilty pleasure games as a teenager was the video game Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon for the Wii. As Final Fantasy spin-offs go, this one did not reach the titanic heights of games such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Dissidia. It had a weak and forgettable story with one-note characters and horrendous acting. Despite this, I loved it. For what the game lacked in presentation it made up for in gameplay, and it served as a fun introduction to a whole genre I’d never known before: roguelike.
If you’re not familiar with the term, there are a few details that most roguelike games have in common. There’s an emphasis on getting as far as you can into the game before suffering defeat, then customizing your character a different way and trying again. Each time you play you push a little further into dangerous territory. Dying costs you in money, EXP, and supplies – depending on the game, it may mean starting over from the VERY beginning. Roguelikes also tend to feature procedurally-generated worlds, so the same section of the game will never be the same twice.
Once I had a taste of the roguelike genre I wanted more. I soon dived into other roguelike titles such as the various Pokemon Mystery Dungeon titles, the Dragon Quest game Torneko’s Mystery Dungeon, and unfortunately the confusing disaster that was Baroque. The love that I felt for the genre faded as quickly as it had started, and there was a lesson to be learned here: like any other genre, roguelike could be done well or it could be done poorly. When procedural generation was used in place of a genuine effort to create an engaging world or communicate a narrative effectively, it left the realm of challenge and landed firmly in the hassle category.
On Monday, Nintendo UK posted an Indie Highlights video showing off a number of titles coming to the Nintendo Switch in the coming months (and even some for next year). This wasn’t an official Nindie Direct, so to speak, but gave an effective overview of what the indie developer community is going to be bringing to the table. And what they’re bringing to the table is roguelikes – lots and lots of roguelikes. It was interesting to see the term pop up during so many of the game descriptions. Are roguelikes particularly easy to develop? Are they the visual novels of action games? Is there another explanation for why they are popular with the indie community?
As someone who doesn’t typically keep an eye on indie games unless they’re getting a ton of buzz, it was interesting to me to see the kinds of trends that seem to be popular – at least, if this Highlight is an accurate indication of what’s actually popular with developers. So I thought it would be fun today to talk about the wave of roguelike titles coming to the Switch – not to mention some of the other games that were mentioned during the show!
A game about being a seedy underworld taxi driver investigating a serial killer, this made me wonder if noir is becoming as much of a buzzword as roguelike. That might just be my perspective coming from the tabletop community, though, where City of Mist has made some big splashes as far as popularity. At any rate, this game looks to be pretty standard visual novel fare, albeit with that edgy black-and-white style that gives the genre its unique feel.
We get to see how conversations in your taxi play out, with your interrogation victi- I mean passengers sitting in the back of the cab while you read their dialogue and sift through conversation options. The focus here seems to be on the cast of characters you’ll meet, as they cycle through a number of quirky individuals – including a dog. We don’t learn much about this title, but if you’re into noir visual novels then 2019 is your year.
MONSTER BOY AND THE CURSED KINGDOM
Thank goodness for anime cutscenes and boy bands livening this thing up a little, eh? I feel like the introduction to this one was a bit tone deaf when it comes to the online community. “Being a human is PRETTY COOL.” Sorry, Nintendo Lady, but the in thing right now is self-deprecation and wanting humanity to die as the earth falls to ruin. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom does not appear to be about any of that, though, instead being an actiony platformer title where you shapeshift into different monsters to accomplish tasks.
I thought that the purpose of the trailer would be to showcase each of the monster abilities, but I’m not entirely sure they did that effectively. The frog seems to have lots of cool tongue-related abilities such as swinging and eating things, and the dragon can fly and shoot fire, but what the heck does the pig do? How is the lion different from the human boy when they both just carry a shield and a weapon? And is there any reason to turn into a snake other than wriggling into small places? As far as presentation, this game was certainly eye-catching, and so far we haven’t seen any of those pesky roguelikes just yet.
THE GARDENS BETWEEN
This title is introduced to us as a puzzle game which relies on bending time in order to bend your mind. It’s an interesting concept, to be sure. The trailer shows us a pair of youngsters traversing a number of unusual islands filled with what appear to be mundane objects. We see them using a VHS tape, for example, to create a bridge between two cliffs separated by an expanse of water. In another shot we see a dinosaur skeleton falling to pieces, only to be rewound and reassembled as time is manipulated.
It seems that finding the correct time for things to happen in order to progress is the name of the game here, and it’s an interesting concept. What we don’t know much about is the nature of this strange world the children find themselves in. Are they playing make believe? Does the garden between their house actually transport them to a dangerous island with giant saws? We’ll find out when the game is released, and if you’re interested in this one, it is currently available for pre-order!
STREETS OF ROGUE
And here it is, our first roguelike in the bunch! I gotta say, this title is clever as heck. So what is Streets of Rogue? It’s a brawling game where you pummel a ton of enemies in a procedurally-generated city, giving you all the fun of a mystery dungeon along with the conveniences only a modern society can provide. It’s a high-energy game that appears to have a pretty good variety of character options: in the trailer we see hackers, police, pickpockets, and a variety of monster types from werewolves to vampires to what appears to be a kappa.
So here we see the roguelike elements being used to present the player with a large variety of challenges and enemies. We don’t get to see the penalty for death in the trailer, so it’s hard to say what defeat costs you, but we do get to see all the different tools in your arsenal to help you avoid dying. Lasers blast, flames spread, knives swing, and giants crush their enemies underfoot. If you’re someone who enjoys lots of chaos on screen, the four-player co-op seems like a perfect choice.
This little fella is a rogue-LITE, apparently? I guess that’s a roguelike on a diet. At any rate, Bad North reminds me a lot of the various tower defense games I played with my brother when he was smaller. He loved those kind of games – me, not so much. There are lots of familiar elements here, but it seems like the roguelite part is the procedural generation of the islands where you make your brave stand.
I feel like tactical games are a relatively straightforward genre to develop for indie developers, as you can get a lot of mileage out of simply giving players a choice between two upgrade options with different advantages. Bad North is interesting in that instead of having enemies travel along a pre-dictated path through your island, they sail up on boats and can come from any direction. This requires you to think more on your feet and you can’t just set up all of your defenses in one place expecting to earn a victory that way. As a tactics game, this one seems promising and it’s available right now if you’re interested.
Moonlighter looks like every free RPG I ever played on the internet as a teenager. Not the visual style – that part of the game is actually quite impressive. The fact that your little protagonist throws the blankets off of the bed when they get up is a touch that left me thinking “why does no other game do this?” The monster designs for the bosses are quite impressive.
Gameplay-wise, Moonlighter looks very much like the typical action-RPG. You run around swinging your sword to kill stuff to get money to buy stronger swords to kill stronger things to make even more money. And the cycle continues forever and ever, amen. I feel like games in this genre know that they fill a niche – if you’re like me and not interested, that’s totally cool because there are plenty of people who love this sort of simplified RPG experience. And for those who do like this kind of game, Moonlighter looks to be pretty impressive within its class.
THIS WAR OF MINE
Now this game seems to be from a completely different side of the tracks, but in reality is developed by the same folks as Moonlighter. Honestly I had a hard time understanding what’s supposed to draw me to this game other than the dark atmosphere. They didn’t spend a lot of time on it and the gameplay they showed just seems to be a lot of walking through derelict buildings. Are they procedurally-generated buildings, perhaps?
CHILDREN OF MORTA
Now this game you can tell is developed by the same developer. It has the same graphical style and gameplay influences as Moonlighter, and fails to explain what the heck the game is about in the same obtuse manner as This War of Mine. It very clearly focuses on magic, as we see all sorts of magical goings-on throughout the trailer. From the fireplace that opens up and begins to glow with blue light to the bursts of magic from a levitating tome, this game certainly seems like it is aimed at those with an interest in magic.
Whoop, there’s our next roguelike, and boy is this one a doozy. It’s set in space, a location that’s becoming increasingly popular to procedurally-generate courtesy of No Man’s Sky and Starlink. In fact, watching the gameplay in this trailer definitely got me reminiscing about Starlink, as they seem to share quite a few features. The Everspace trailer puts a lot of focus on flying and shooting, so we really only get a few moments to learn much of anything about how customization works.
We also get some voiceover establishing some basic plot details about the character being a bounty hunter or something. Seeing this game in action, I’m curious to see how it ends up comparing to Starlink. Everspace obviously lacks the physical peripheral that makes Starlink more unique, but with a lower pricepoint and otherwise similar gameplay (at least at the surface level), it will be interesting to see if Everspace can make a bigger impact or if it will simply be swallowed up by the game development machine.
BABA IS YOU
If I had a single complaint concerning the entire presentation, it would be that many of these trailers didn’t show me what I wanted to see from each game. This War of Mine was noticeably lacking in actual gameplay content, and I feel that Baba is You suffered a similar problem. The concept of the game – adjusting and rearranging the rules of a puzzle in order to solve it – is really compelling, but the trailer didn’t give a strong enough view of what that looks like in practice. Baba is You interested me the most up to this point, but only because we learned so little of it.
SLAY THE SPIRE
Jacksepticeye says you should play this game, so obviously you have to now. Slay the Spire is a card battle game, a genre that for some reason gets a ton of hate. Why do people hate cards so much? I love card games; just the feeling of holding cards is cool to me, and while video games lose that tactile edge, I still think card-based games are a perfectly good approach to a game experience. I guess maybe that whole “card games are awful” thing might be over now – I just know when I was in high-school and college the mere mention of a card in a video game immediately pushed my friends away from wanting to try it.
Have you ever wished that a video game would be a show instead? That’s how I felt watching the Windjammers trailer. This weird combination of tennis, volleyball, and martial arts is all style, but on screen looks like little more than a particularly vigorous game of air hockey. Seriously though, is this a show? Where do I find it?
This game only gets maybe ten seconds of screen time, but I guess since even I have heard this one they didn’t figure it needed much of an introduction. Now it’s coming to Switch, so if you don’t already have it on something else, then you can add a portable version to your game collection.
Okay, so maybe this is just my chaotic alignment showing, but at what point did someone sit down and say “man, you know what would make this whole prison thing even cooler? If it was a video game!” I guess there was a time in my life where I also questioned the fun and excitement of a farming sim, but celebrating incarceration has a little less…rustic charm.
Granted, the description given by the narrator sets up the story as an exploration of the “grim and gruesome reality and legal grey areas of the prison system.” I think I could appreciate a game which treated the subject with honest criticism, but at the end of the day I think this one joins Octopath Traveler’s Primrose story arc in the too close to my day job category.
A shooter focused on growing and shrinking, Morphies Law casts you as a morphie. Shoot other morphies to increase your size, take damage to shrink. Striking a balance between large and small is key to diversifying the tactics on your team, as while larger characters are more powerful, smaller characters are harder to hit and can fit through spaces where big morphies can’t follow. It’s an interesting concept for a multiplayer shooter, so if you enjoy that genre you could do worse than checking out Morphies Law.
Having now gone through all of these indie titles…there weren’t nearly as many roguelike games as I thought! For some reason those titles stuck out to me as being prominent parts of the presentation, but in reality the roguelike genre was only about 20% of the entire presentation. Then again, perhaps that is quite a bit in the grand scheme of things.
What do you think, adventurers? Did you check out the Indie Highlights? What did you think of the games that were shown off? Do you feel like the roguelike genre is taking over the indie scene? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
Roguelike used to be a very niche genre and its definition was also a lot stricter than it is now. In fact, some purists still insist on the original definition (randomly generated world, huge flexibility in characters, no persistence, permadeath, almost total absence of a narrative component) to such a degree that a term was coined for those games that just draw inspiration from roguelikes rather than adopting the strict definition.
I think two games in particular really brought the genre the mainstream appeal it has now: Dungeons of Dredmor, which was fairly traditional in its execution but adopted a very appealing 16-bit pixel art aesthetic, and Rogue Legacy, which was the first game to use the descriptor “roguelike”. The latter distinguished itself by taking as much inspiration from Metroid and Castlevania as it did from Rogue, and also adopted the element of persistence most commonly seen in games described as “roguelikes” today.
Mystery Dungeon games are pretty much their own unique offshoot that haven’t changed a lot since Torneko, which was the first ever one of them. Noteworthy modern examples include Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God, which is a remagining of the RPG series that ultimately begat puzzler Puyo Puyo, and One Way Heroics, which combines Mystery Dungeon mechanics with auto-scrolling. I’ve covered both on my site if you want to know more — look ’em up in the All Games index if so.
Mystery Dungeon games are distinct from roguelikes in that they don’t have permadeath, but you do have to clear a whole dungeon in one expedition, otherwise you lose all the stuff you were carrying. You typically also reset to level 1 at the start of each expedition but keep your equipment, allowing your base stats to effectively be “higher” the further through the game you go, so long as you are able to hold on to those items, of course!
As you can probably tell, this is a genre with lots to say about it. To be honest, the term is rather overused and frequently misused these days, but I hope I’ve given you some ideas for things you might want to check out sometime 🙂
Oh, and if you want to try arguably the best “traditional” roguelike there is in 2018, grab yourself a copy of Tales of Maj’Eyal from Steam. That game is superb.
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Thanks, that’s really informative! Based on your description it does seem like the term is being attached to a few too many titles. I personally have only really played mystery dungeon games, so I’ll have to check out Tales of Maj’Eyal – it’d be cool to play a roguelike that’s truer to form.
Most Rogue-like games these days are really more Rogue-lite, being as they tend to give some level of progression even if you do fail, whether that’s an easier following run, access to new items, or upgrades to buy.
I LOVED Everspace. There were things I saw in one run that I haven’t seen since, and the space combat is great fun. The fact it looks beautiful is just a bonus.
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It was definitely one of the best looking games as far as graphics and gameplay. This was the first time I’d heard of it!
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