Honing the Difficulty Curve to Perfection
Rogue Legacy 1 was the game that taught me that masochistic side-scrolling action adventure wasn't for me anymore. I wasn't new to it, kid me ate Circle of the Moon for lunch. But it just wasn't with how angry and frustrated I ended up getting playing it then.
Now, that's not in any way intended to diminish what I thought of the game's design. Sure, there was not a great amount on offer not directly or indirectly inspired by series forebears, but Cellar Door showed a talent for taking these ingredients and making them gourmet, in a way that (initially for me) managed to be standout in how put together it felt, only now being really challenged as the mining of the genre goes deeper. The list of truly original concepts we get over time and don't have to ideate into another fine wiki category is sparse anyways. But as someone who only comes to the genre in these kinds of run games these days, and maybe wasn't in love with smashing my head on one of these, it was a lot. My playtime kind of stopped there, with a few new game saves sounding more appealing than that game's highest hurdles. If I'm remembering contemporary reviews of the time, and conveniently they agree with me here, I'm far from the only person who felt that way. And that leads me into why this game, Rogue Legacy 2, is the most enjoyable wallchicken-a-like I've played in a few decades, and an all-timer when talking about rogue-ishness.
Most importantly, the "is this a fun game to play" parts have been nothing short of honed. In a way that clearly came out as design intent, stubby person walking around with random weapon has rarely felt so good, and muscle memory so easy to learn. Movement abilities that existed in the first game feel better to execute in their basic forms, with new mechanics to use them with introduced at a good clip. A world that wasn't as fun to live in is spruced up with dynamic writing that flat out refuses to be pithy or siloed, which impresses me even more because the credits did not give out a ton for writing. The music is more dynamic, though maybe not as dynamic as I'd flat out love, but catchy enough to catch me humming or whistling tunes after playing for longer stretches. And feeling my way through the difficulty on offer was really a good time, with just the right amount of speedbump boss encounters to make me think about the "Legacy" aspect I was actually building. And the heirs I was building them with were the perfect amount of "this is useless but could be fun" and "I will give you money to just let me play this guy so I can show my stuff" I can envision, at least.
Except I didn't have to pay money. And that's part of why this is a five star review; in an era of very contentious debate over what difficulty and authorship mean in games, Rogue Legacy 2 came in and offered something unique and valuable in not just its genre but the medium. How do you make an accessible but still rewarding game that supports an audience as broad as "people that like roguelikes"? You make the adjustment of the difficulty a part of the curve you're presenting to entertain with. And maybe it's just my graphics and CPU tweaking personality, but that has charmed me to absolute death, and I barely used it.
Without tweaking a thing, the progression feels grand in a way that is just so notably improved over the first game. When you enter the castle to start your run, six portraits hang over a sealed door, and you are left with the impression that whatever is on the other side of that door is an absolute motherfucker through impression and dialog. That'd be correct, it is. So how exactly do you make said motherfucker on the other side of that door something the player that has ground through every challenge and upgrade happy with its difficulty, alongside the person who rushed bosses and just find themselves there? By making the option of preparing for him your choice; a slider or a challenge.
I think the directorial comment of "You fundamentally misunderstand our game" pointed at wanting easier difficulty in a Souls game not invalid. I also don't think that absolves accessibility concerns even if I don't think difficulty and accessibility are the same thing. This leaves me, like many, with no ground to stand on and no real idea how I'd like to see it done, except being conflicted between wanting developers to make exactly the game they want while making sure nobody who wants to jump in misses out. It turns out there's a pretty good solution though, and it's so damn good I think the industry at whole should borrow it for themselves wherever it makes sense to.
"House Rules" are presented front and center, through tooltip and nudge, as an in-game balancing system to get you through when you don't feel like grinding but you like what you're playing. Like your boss murdering chef and want to make a run at a boss with them? Keep 'em. Getting destroyed by contact damage? Turn it off. Just barely losing to a stupid hard fight but one more run through zone six for gold might just break your spirit? Turn the damage down ten percent. Hell, go fifteen. Other than an achievement you probably didn't want on some slight level, there's no associated penalty. So if you want to earn it the hard way, you're free. If you want to see the rest of the charm & design you've been enjoying to that point and just want to get over the hurdle, you're through. It's not "Easy" which whether you think should have a psychological effect or not, has one. It's what you needed, when you needed it, and easy to change back. Nobody's stopping you from doing reps to get those stat points, and there's even more available if you want to, with NG+ around to really bleed you dry if that's what you're lookin' for.
I can think of just so little to pick apart of any real substance when it comes to the whole experience, because the House Rules feature has been such good transportation. I'd have enjoyed a bolder soundtrack as the theme wore thin after 40 hours which is actually a consideration in something like a run game; in a lot of ways I can make the same criticism of Hades and it's equally minor there. The joystick deadzone by default wasn't great for directional control, which has been patched into feeling pretty good; nothing that gets in your way. A few classes made it out of Early Access maybe not cooked all the way through, but at time of writing I think almost all of it's been satisfactory addressed, leaving me with the distinct feeling that what I feel may still need work is more of a me thing than a them thing. Here's me, a picky, standoffish critic of exactly everything this game is trying to be grasping at the sand. That's an achievement in and of itself. This "for fans of the genre" comes alongside anyone who cares about such balancing in an artistic *or* empathetic sense. It's a bit preachy, but I kind of think everyone should see what it has in store for them almost just for that alone. There have been a lot of approaches, some included here. But as a package alongside a great game, it's damn close to genius.
Played on PC on a monitor I am tempted to brag about as you do but won't but c'mon it'll look good anywhere look at it; I didn't say metroidvania onc... fuck