Friday, May 10, 2013

Tea Time with Red Rogue

How do I always end up looking
fantastic in every game I play?
Roguelikes are perhaps the oldest form of nerd torture: a program made to evoke the feeling of that kid who you don't really like but who is willing to DM sitting across the table from you, smugly announcing that he rolled 94: 3 Tyrannosauruses on the random encounter table.

Yet, one of the most popular examples of a Roguelike is arguably Diablo 2. Everyone loves Diablo 2, right? And Binding of Isaac did well! Our guest for this tea time, Red Rogue, has been well received since its December release. I wasn't eaten by a tyrannosaur, so I'm tentatively pleased as well.

Madam Arcadia Prays to RNG, God of "No, nonono... no... no, no, NO!"

Red Rogue is lightweight, streamlined, and as easy to pick up as a game from a purposefully obtuse genre can be. You are dropped off in the first level of the dungeon with a time-honored goal in mind: get to the bottom. In this case, you even get to steal the Amulet of Yendor. Apparently, you are playing the wife of the dude from the original Rogue, who is that skeleton following you around. None of this is conveyed to you in the game and it doesn't matter at all. One girl, one skeleton buddy, and four fists a-punchin' until you find some knives. That's all you need.


If you are unfamiliar with Roguelikes, the idea is that everything is randomly generated and death is expected. The quest to win the game is measured not in progress made but in number of attempts. This randomness may in fact make it nearly impossible to complete a particular run, depending on the level of sadism in your game. Red Rogue is, mercifully, more tame with its capriciousness.

Most of this tea time was undertaken in Action RPG mode, the default option in which everything happens in real time. In this context, the controls were tight and the movement felt responsive. The lack of an attack key was a good choice for a game where you'd be mashing it as fast as you can anyway.

What does Rune of Undead do? Oh, thanks, fanmade Wikia!

The inventory system is where the game really gets caught between two worlds. While the pixelated, side-scrolling Action RPG mode has a great hack-and-slash feeling, the game still incorporates the tedious but necessary inventory management of traditional Roguelikes. It makes things a bit easier on the player by automatically sorting weapons and armor from best to worst (minus enchantments), and it does help that the things you can equip are very simple and limited in scope. Yet, you're still required to take time out of your dungeon-murdering to manage the sheer amount of crap you've accumulated. More complex strategies also require diving into the menu to switch around weapons and select runes.

Madam Arcadia smashed by A Giant Cactus Man, Seriously?

Action RPG mode has a big downfall. Like all Roguelikes, the player eventually gets into some serious situations where one false step can mean death. This is often as vague as "progressed through floors too quickly and now you're screwed." Where raw stats and equipment can't save you, cunning and paranoia do the trick.

The pun in the death message hurt the most.

Unfortunately, the measured risk-taking and careful planning of Roguelikes are at odds with the real time setup. A player can realize that they're in over their head and, while trying to carefully extricate themselves, be decapitated suddenly by a named boss dropping from the darkness at mach 3. While that kind of 'unfair' death is a hallmark of the genre, it's hard not to feel cheated by the reflexes required.

There are a few solutions to this problem. Certain enchantment setups, if you find them, can greatly increase the survivability of the player. This is especially true if they're willing to sit around and wait for health to regenerate. Setting up a situation where they can grind out levels is also highly beneficial, though extremely tedious. The quick, zippy, gore-splattered joy of running around a floor that you're evenly matched with makes the idea of grinding that much more soul crushing. Being careful is generally more important as you go on. Creeping around in a constant state of terror, constantly firing light arrows into the distance is just as much of an unwelcome tone change as you'd expect.

Infinite health shrine, AKA a compelling reason to repeatedly backtrack for several minutes.

The more extreme alternative is Dogmatic mode. In Dogmatic mode, Red Rogue channels the power of its forefathers and freezes time when the player is not taking any actions. This means that unless you are moving or attacking, everything is stopped, allowing you to study the situation and plan your next step. This does solve the surprise cactus man dilemma, but it also makes the game really, really annoying to play. The constant stop, go, stop, go is a headache when applied to the side scrolling format. 'Abusing ZSNES's pause function out of sheer frustration with a difficult part of a game' is not a good look to steal.

That Goblin Has My Tiara

It feels awkward to say that a game which has set out to be a Roguelike should abandon more of its heritage and focus more on the Action RPG aspect than it did, but Red Rogue really does beg for it. Less inventory management would have been a great step. Don't give weapons and armor a level, only a type, so there's no need to constantly look for upgrades. Maybe pepper the world with Enchantment shrines so the player can stop to figure out runes at natural resting points rather than constantly tweaking them. And then you could expand the categories of...

Oh, my. I just dumbed down a Roguelike that was explicitly paying homage to Rogue itself. It looks like the real balrog waiting at the bottom of the dungeon was me all along.

If you want to give Red Rogue a run, play it in-browser or download it here.

Want to suggest a game or genre for a future tea time? Email me at
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