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A roguelike game is a subgenre of the vast range of roleplaying games. It has some specific and unique characteristics. Their attractions are their difficulty and engaging narrative. They appeal to those who will persist despite the insurmountable odds. Those who laugh death in the face and pick themselves up time and time again. Until finally they emerge victorious to stand on the crushed bones of their enemies.
Seriously, if you like to puzzle things out and challenge yourself then you will enjoy a Roguelike game.
Why Are They Called Roguelike?
Long ago, when computers were just becoming a thing and computer games were frowned on as an unhealthy waste of valuable computing time, someone wrote a game called Rogue. And it was great. It was fun to play and people liked it. More games were written and if they were similar in style and gameplay to Rogue then they were described as Roguelike.
Then a group of gamers who really liked Roguelike games got together in Berlin (Germany) for an international conference in 2008 and defined what makes a game officially Roguelike. It became the Berlin Interpretation.
Of course, even further back in time gamers used to have to play board games. Like chess and snakes and ladders. Some have always preferred strategy games and groups of them would gather in darkened rooms with hex maps and funny 12 sided dice to play Dungeons and Dragons or to rerun World War II, depending on their personal preferences. Some of them even dressed up for that truly immersive experience.
The original Rogue had its roots in that role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Which was loosely based on the book – Lord of the Rings. Something in the human soul relates to the hero’s quest.
What is a Roguelike Game?
Put very simply a Roguelike game is a hero’s quest. You, the player, must endure many trials and difficulties to win through to the ultimate goal. It’s a simple plot ending you either slay the ultimate evil or obtain the ultimate treasure. Or perhaps both.
That’s the overview but what actually defines a Roguelike game? After all, they had a whole conference to come up with the defining characteristics. What are they? The main parts are as follows. A game doesn’t have to have all of these elements to be a Roguelike game but it will feature most of them.
The action takes place in a dungeon. You enter at the top and you work your way through several different rooms. The finale will take place in the very deepest layer. Some games end up in hell (metaphorically) facing the ultimate evil. The alternative name for Roguelike games is Dungeon crawler.
In some modern games, there may be the odd natural feature such as a river to break up the doom and gloom. This will not necessarily disqualify the game from being Roguelike but it may lead to it being referred to as Roguelite or even Roguelike-like.
Anyway, a Roguelike game involves a dungeon. Otherwise, it is a different type of role-playing game.
When you die, you die. A bit like life. Seriously, the main feature of the Roguelike game is that your character gets one chance at completing the game. Once they are dead everything they had (that cool upgraded sword, the ability to cast spells) dies with them. You have to start again with a new character. Built from scratch.
Some games have a neat (or sadistic) little twist – that character you lovingly handcrafted and developed is reanimated as one of your enemies. On the plus side – at least you know your enemy.
The idea behind the permanent death of your character is that you will think a little more carefully about the decisions you make. One wrong move, a bad throw of the dice and poof – everything is gone.
One other thing, when you die you go back to the beginning and everything will be different. That healing potion may now be poison.
You are given time to make a decision. Open the door and get out of this room or search for treasure? Then the consequences unfold and you are given the opportunity to react to those circumstances.
There is a strong strategic element like chess if I move in this direction what happens? There is also a strong narrative element, by your actions you are writing the character’s story. It doesn’t always have a happy ending, but eventually one of your characters may be successful.
Survival Through Gaining and Using Resources
Your character is going to have to eat to stay alive. Or replenish their energy levels. Or heal their wounds. Or a combination of all these factors. You have to spend time and energy working out what your character needs to stay functioning in the game. Otherwise, they starve to death and you are back at square one.
This limitation means you can’t just tear through the dungeon to the final layer. You have to spend time on secondary activities such as finding food and weapons. That brings us on to the next characteristic of a Roguelike game.
Remember – when your character dies you lose all those resources.
You are expected to explore the dungeon and its many rooms and layers. You need to find and use special objects. Identify and despatch the monsters that lurk in dark corners. These games are also about the journey and the discoveries you make along the way.
That’s where most of the fun lies. Each time you start your “run” you are entering a new dungeon, with new twists and turns. You have to adapt what you learned last time in order to get further through the game next time. That door that was safe may not be the best choice this time.
The game is designed to let you achieve your goal in a number of different ways. The designers’ challenge is to ensure that they have thought of everything your character could possibly do with the tools provided. So be agile and think on your feet.
Each time you restart the game subtly changes to present you with fresh and new challenges.
In some games, you have to reach a certain level before your character can do certain actions. Roguelike games are not like that. Wherever your character is in the game they can do all the actions. Of course, wielding a sword requires a sword to wield and if your character hasn’t got one …
Anyway, your character can behave in a natural way all through the game.
One would like to think that there is a peaceful, reasoned solution to every potential conflict. Don’t eat me, Mr. Troll – have this tuna sandwich instead. In a Roguelike game monsters have to be slain or your character dies. There is no befriending or negotiating. See monster, assess weakness, kill it and move on. Or die and start again.
There are a few other minor features of these games:
You have one character, with one life and to win you have to make it all the way through in one game without dying. Think of it as your own version of Groundhog Day. To succeed you are going to have to keep trying and learning until you have worked it all out.
The monsters can pick up and use the items that are available to you. It’s irritating.
The game will typically show your character’s state of health (starving or injured) and the progress through the dungeon on screen. You are aware of how well you are doing and if you are near your goal.
Cheating has been around for a very long time and is generally despised. Except when it is an integral part of the game.
One way of getting around that problem of your character dying is through a process known as “save scumming”. The game data is backed up so you can re-enter at the point just before the character dies rather than starting again. This is frowned on. Also, why would you do this? You are playing against yourself so who exactly are you cheating? But it is possible.
Then there are the other types of cheats:
- Cheats that have been built into the game by the developers.
- Third-party cheats that can be bought.
- Software glitches or bugs.
If a cheat has been built in when really it is more of a surprise bonus. Hit the monster with the wet celery and you get an unexpected ability. If it’s a part of the game then it really can’t be considered a cheat. It’s just a game feature.
For almost every game you can find free to download cheat sheets. In reality, these are more like tip sheets but they do shortcut your own personal in-game learning.
Anyway, cheating is a personal choice. Some do, some don’t. Can you face yourself in the mirror?
Some Roguelike games do allow players to operate a character each. Ultimately only one of you can win. At some stage, someone is going to stab someone in the back. Or in the front. Like with the monsters there is no scenario in which this ends differently.
How Do You Pick the Best Roguelike Game?
There are new games coming out all the time and the old favorites are always being updated. The easiest way to pick a game is by choosing a narrative that appeals to you. A quest that will hold your interest and keep you coming back again and again. Life afterlife.
Does it play on your gaming system?
It almost goes without saying that there is no point in buying a game that will not play on your gaming rig.
What mode is it?
Most of these games are for a single player. But, some do feature multiplayer options but remember there can only be one winner.
How Long will it take?
Hours and hours and hours. Because however superb a player you are you will keep dying and with permadeath, you will have to start from the beginning. But that’s the joy of these games.
Are there Save Points?
Save points are useful for when you have to go to sleep or work. Save points suspend the game action. You still only get one life and your run will end when you die.
We have reviewed the top ten Roguelike games to give you a flavor of what they involve. Now there are reviews out there that will give you nauseating detail about every aspect of the game. We haven’t done that because the joy of these games is exploration and learning. Surprises and A-ha moments. We don’t want to rob you of the fun so we have given just enough information on the plot for you to decide if the game scape is somewhere you would like to visit.
Ten Top Roguelike Games
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
Available for: Microsoft Windows, Nintendo (Switch, PlayStation4, PlayStation Vita, New Nintendo 3DS), Xbox One, iOS, Wii U, Mac’s and Linux.
Single and multiplayer.
Multiple save points.
Good visuals and music.
500 hours of possible gameplay.
Basic Plot: Loosely based on the biblical story of Isaac. In this version, it is the mother who is called to sacrifice her child to prove her faith.
Features: You will fight monsters and discover secrets. Throughout the game, the treasures you find will grant superpowers. These will be used in killing the monsters. You can expect to do a lot of slaying. Isaac’s main weapon is his tears (fired like bullets). The dungeon is the mother’s basement. Isaac has to evade capture by his mother and the final showdown is with her, with an optional trip to hell.
FTL Faster Than Light
Available for: Microsoft Windows, iOS, macOS, Mac’s, and Linux.
Developer: Subset Games
A deeply involving space adventure.
Basic Plot: The dungeon is replaced by a whole galaxy. You are in charge of a spaceship. Your mission is to save the galaxy. The character is the space ship. You win when you reach Federation headquarters with vital information. The final showdown is the battle with the Rebel Flagship. To be successful you will need to master complex resource management. You have a whole ship and crew to take care of.
It’s a hard game to win with a 10% success rate but players find it interesting and a little addictive.
Risk of Rain 2
Available for: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
Developer: Hopoo Games
Online Multiplayer (Up to 4)/ Single-player.
Basic Plot: You are on a planet and you need to escape. All the standard features of monster killing and loot collection. A unique feature of this game is that as you increase in skill and experience so does the opposition.
As with all Roguelike games, success takes time, patience and a little bit of luck in the lay of the land.
This is a recently released update of the original Risk of Rain.
Available for: Microsoft Windows, Mac’s, iOS, Android, Linux, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.
Developer: Motion Twin
Basic Plot: You are a slimy creature piloting a corpse. Naturally, you are in a dungeon. You have to work out what is going on through subtle clues and you can expect to die and restart multiple times. The final scene takes place in the castle throne room after you have fought your way through numerous monsters. Then you find this is not the end after all. As the fun of this game is unraveling the plot twists and turns, we suggest you play the game for yourself.
The joy of this game is trying to work out what exactly is going on and what you are supposed to be doing. Oh, and how do you actually win?
Enter the Gungeon
Available for: Mac’s, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4
Developer: Dodge Roll
Single Player but an optional second player.
Basic Plot: Choose to play as one of four adventurers. It’s a shooting game and is very focused on guns and magic bullets. The goal is to obtain “the gun that can kill the past”. As in all Roguelike games you are expected to collect objects (mainly guns) and kill monsters.
A game for those that like to shoot things, a lot.
Available for: Linux, Mac’s, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
Single Player/ Multiplayer
Basic Plot: You live in a world of mutant monsters. You fight your way to the (yes you’ve guessed it) the nuclear throne. The final confrontation. Except that once you’ve beaten the nuclear throne you can do it all again but with greater difficulty.
This is a basic shooter game with roguelike characteristics of permadeath and games resetting on death. Low on narrative development. The enjoyment comes from killing a lot of monsters.
Streets of Rogue
Available for: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation $
Developer: Matt Dabrowski
Multiplayer – up to 4 players
Basic Plot: Variations on a theme. You have a choice of 26 characters. You will be assigned a randomized mission. This will either involve acquiring (stealing) an item or killing a character. There are lots of customizing options (different character traits for example) to effectively build your own experience.
This is not a game where you can reach a point and say you have completed it. It is however quirky, humorous and ever-changing. There may come a point when you have played every variation but that would require some serious game time.
Available for: iOS, Mac’s, PlayStation 3, 4 & vita, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Linux and Microsoft Windows.
Developer: Cellar Door Games
Basic Plot: Defeat the final Boss (the computer-controlled enemy). In the process you explore the dungeon, acquire treasure, defeat your foes and try to stay alive. One feature of the game is that when you die (and you will) your heir will inherit your gold and a surprising characteristic. Like color blindness or vertigo. In that scenario, you will be playing in black and white until your next death. This game is classed as Rougelite because your character’s death doesn’t wipe out all your gains. The scenery is that of a medieval castle with a variety of fantasy friends and foes. The castle dimensions will change each time you die but the basic layout will be familiar.
Caves of Qud
Available for: macOS, Linux and Microsoft Windows.
Developer: Freehold Games
Basic Plot: Science Fiction/ Fantasy set in the far future. Different civilizations and characters. Ther are sentient plants. You play with a choice of very diverse characters as you explore this strange new world. This game is rich in narrative and appeals to those who love to explore and work things out. The game is under constant development so there will always be new villages to explore. So what do you have to do to win? What is the end of the quest? Not clear, basically you stay alive for as long as you can and explore this strange surreal world.
The graphics are rather old school but it provides a diverse and varied gaming experience. A world to explore and investigate rather than one you set out to defeat.
Tales of Maj’Eyal
Available for: Linux, Microsoft Windows, and Mac OS X – donation-supported freeware
Developer: DarkGod, Netcore Games
Basic Plot: This is a world to explore with many dungeons and enemies. There are a number of storyline choices and characters to develop. It is loosely based on Tolkien’s fantasy world. It has a rich and textured story that can be uncovered piece by piece. As you progress through the game you can explore many different characters. Unusually you can alter some of the settings so you can avoid permadeath and play a simpler version with unlimited lives. Or you can stay true to the Roguelike game and strive to win in one life.
There have been updates to this game and there are versions you can buy. This game is for the explorers and adventurers in strange lands.
Roguelike games are fun and involving. Best of all they are usually reasonably priced. Whatever your game playing tastes you are sure to find one to enjoy.