Mini Reviews of Roguelike Games

I mentioned (and wrote a many-thousand-word post about) how I like roguelikes a lot, but I’ve been playing others since the ones I mentioned in that post. Actually I guess most of them would more properly be called roguelike-likes because they tend to be realtime. Anyway here’s some brief reviews. They’re inspired by Tevis Thompson’s game review drabbles but I’ll be focusing on how well they do the main thing that I enjoy about roguelikes, primarily: interesting challenges with little grind downtime in between. (Although I make allowances for games that flout this but delight in other ways.) And I’ll use, as a numerical measure of quality—instead of a score out of 10—the amount that I’d feel good about paying for the time I played it. Note that these amounts are calibrated to Steam sales, Humble Bundles and other low-cost indie games. So $10 is a pretty damn good game. Except when I mention otherwise, the platform on which I played all of these was a Mac.

I’ll be adding to this list over time.

May 31, 2015

Spelunky

One of the most frustrating things about some roguelikes is their mistaking lack of information for satisfying difficulty. If I can look up how something works and never feel threatened by it again, that’s not a fun challenge. You’re just wasting my time by forcing me to either search for spoilers or play suboptimally until I figure it out.

In Spelunky, even a lowly, dead-simple arrow trap can pose a serious threat when combined with a stupid little bat in just the wrong way. And it’s not frustrating to die to something because you didn’t know how it worked, maybe because it always feels like such an accomplishment to have gotten there in the first place. There’s a rhythm to how, just as you feel like you’re getting used to an area, you reach the next one and are thrown completely off-kilter again; a precarity from how a careful run can be thrown into chaos by the toss of a yeti or the scramble to escape an exploding frog; a real accomplishment in unlocking the secrets of the depths because of the virtuosity required even if you peeked at a spoiler or two.

$15.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

It frustrates me because I want to keep playing even when that means the best move is tedious backtracking and minmaxing. I can overlook the compartmentalized, tightly constrained randomness. If I let my eyes unfocus a little bit I can see it as the bullet hell it is and ignore the repulsive theme and how I’m playing a naked child shooting tears at poop.

(There’s more to it than that, of course. But what sticks out is its trying too hard to provoke, not the seemingly serious but sort of half-baked Biblical theme of child abuse. That theming takes the same kitchen-sink approach as the sprawling list of collectibles but fares worse because of its trying to convey a message. That message, whatever it may be, is totally indistinct, smashed into a vague “religious-inspired child abuse is bad” by the sheer weight of the imagery it hauls out at every opportunity.)

I get past these things because the tremendous diversity of items yields even more staggering possibilities for character builds and steamrolling through the monotonous, gratuitous little rooms has a unique joy to it. My twitch reflexes aren’t the best so I play Isaac strategically and an underpowered build is almost invariably a slow grind to an ignominious death. It’s not a well-designed game. But the gaping flaws in its design are where all that tremendous abundant muchness gets in and they’re essential to what Isaac is.

$8.

Tallowmere

The oppressive, homogeneous, relentlessly square dungeon is surprisingly good at throwing up architectural challenges and the minimal but eclectic weapon selection is pretty decent at compounding them. But that’s not enough to keep the environment from growing tedious quickly or make more than one and a half of the handful of different enemies a serious threat. Nor do the intermittent “special rooms” have much staying power. And the randomized equipment has no flavor: just an array of sterile numbers, only two or three of which I ever cared about. There are a bunch of different special challenges you can take on, but in the short amount of time it took to completely suss out the standard game, I decided I didn’t really care for more of what would fundamentally be the same. That short amount of time was enjoyable enough, but it also made it apparent that this game is pretty thin broth.

$2.

A Wizard’s Lizard

I picked this up as a thematic alternative to The Binding of Isaac’s too-edgy grotesqueries. It has many of the same problems as Isaac: clear a room. Clear a room. Clear a room. Kill a boss. Oh, and maybe some backtracking to make sure you didn’t miss anything. (You did. You missed the room where you have to step on the tiles in the right order or bombs appear at random. Who thought this would be fun?)

Still, it’s a solid alternative. The equipment selection is diverse enough to allow a handful of different play styles (though the “soul powers” are mostly useless) and the inter-game progression widens your early-game options in a way that’s half-enjoyable and half-boring for how it can trivialize the first area or so. I pretty much hung it up about the time I found a degenerate-seeming strategy and unlocked every secret character in a handful of playthroughs. Getting there was a good time, though.

$7.

Risk of Rain

The extreme wide-angle view of Risk of Rain’s levels yields a nice broad landscape for the intimidating boss monsters, but the rest of the time, about 95% of that space goes unused. It’s a curious design decision; I guess it makes it easier to find my way around a level but it also renders all the other goings-on tiny and indistinct, and I spend an awful lot of time crawling glacially slowly across interminably long platforms. On top of that, the level generation seems wonky. In some levels I can hit the exit in 45 seconds, others take minutes just to cross. This makes things feel wildly unbalanced in a game that gets exponentially tougher as time goes on.

The game is certainly challenging, though not so much as to seem intractable. I just can’t get too invested in these tiny little characters, and the ability timeouts combined with high enemy health make combat an excruciatingly tedious kiting affair. Am I doing something wrong? I don’t mind that the game is hard. I mind that everything takes too damn long, and for no good reason. So when I encountered game-breaking controller glitches, I was fed up enough to put the game down permanently.

$3.

The Dungeoning

So I finished this game in maybe ten tries, which might be too easy for a roguelike. There is a New Game+, which I assume is the same thing, but harder, but by the time I hit it I was done. I put all my skill points into Strength, which increased both my damage and my HP, and at no point did I see a reason to do otherwise.

Get yourself a decent ranged weapon and you’ll have a good if boring time. Fail to do so, and even with very little skill you’ll still have an OK time, as the game becomes a race between collecting healing items and takng damage. Or you could probably just avoid a lot of the enemies. I don’t know. My first win came so easily, and the game is so generic in every respect, that I haven’t bothered to try and doubt I ever will.

$2.