There is only Dead Cells.
This year I’ve come to terms with many emotional revelations; my love for Metroidvanias, my addiction to building on an infinitely-expanding bank of Nintendo coins, and lastly, my forbidden love of Rogue-lites. I say “forbidden,” because, for whatever reason (probably my deep-seeded cynicism), I always perceived Rogue-lites as lazy video game design. Most, if not all of them incorporate procedurally generated levels which are solely designed to mask the lack of resources, and at least 90% of them are rehashed 2D-pixel graphics.
In spite of these limitations, this design process does allow more effort to be funneled towards core gameplay mechanics. Indeed, two of the best ‘playing’ games I’ve experienced this year are Rogue-lites! I’m talking, of course, about Dead Cells and Wizard of Legend. However, there are some fundamental traps that games in this genre fall into, and after covering HYPERGUN for review, it’s clear to me where the failure of Rogue-lites ultimately stem from. So let’s get into it, shall we!?
After of 40-hours of Dead Cells playtime, it has become pretty clear where other Rogue-lites need to improve:
Fundamentally, due to the repetitive ‘one more run’ nature of the genre, each rogue-lite presents a currency to acquire permanent upgrades which stick with your character through death. In Dead Cells it’s ‘Cells’, in Wizard of Legend it’s ‘Chaos Gems’, and in HYPERGUN it’s Hyper Coins. Although each game handles the acquisition and permanency of these currencies differently, there’s a common problem which persists through many of them: inflation.
In both HYPERGUN and Wizard of Legend, the special currencies are glued to you until you spend them. In doing so, the developers raise the cost of permanent upgrades, essentially demanding extra playtime. Are you TRYING to give me fatigue? A Rogue-lite needs to have a constant carrot-dangling in front of your starry-eyed gaze. As soon as your objective appears too far out, players fall off the game and never return.
Understandably, the failure of many Rogue-lites to achieve this equilibrium boils down to their lack of content. How else can the developers stretch out game time, if not by providing far off goals? I’ve been positively amazed that in the 35 hours it took me to beat Dead Cells, I ALWAYS had a target item to procure. In Wizard of Legend, that incentive dissipated after 5 hours, and in HYPERGUN, the attachments were so dull there was never any grip on me.
Another aspect which Dead Cells addresses in more ways than one is its ability to keep combat fresh and intense. Without a rotation of unique enemies, challenging (but doable) boss fights, and a set of abilities that force the player to adjust to newly generated levels, everything in a Rogue-lite will become ridiculously repetitive. I’ll be honest, in the last 4 or so hours before beating Dead Cells, I was growing tired; I’d discovered the loadout that worked best for my particular strategy, and was determined to take that setup through to the defeat of the final boss.
Though, therein lies Dead Cells’ repetitive ‘safeguard’: Yes, I was becoming increasingly bored with my playstyle towards the end, but I had an achievable goal. I was close, SO CLOSE to beating the game, so I stuck it out. And even then, I was still contributing cells to increase the drop rate of higher-quality gear! In Wizard of Legend, I’d found a set of air-bending powers I enjoyed most, but was still very far off killing that final enemy; without reward for my time spent, playing the game felt wasteful. On the other hand, Dead Cells has new weapon blueprints, new mutations, and rare drop increases which all combine to build your effectiveness.
So far, it has become stunningly clear that in order for a Rogue-lite to be consistently fun, there needs to be a tremendous level of detail added to the title. In this way, they’re an exceptionally misleading genre, one which denotes elements of laziness, but actually requires monumental amounts of effort to make better.
Procedural generation is fine, but that doesn’t mean unique levels aren’t required to be an effective Rogue-lite. Without the branching paths of Dead Cells, with its multiple novel zones and different enemy types, the game would be a huge step-down. It’s fine to have a detailed combat system with an incredibly adaptive combination of skills or weapons, but you must incentivise (or force) players to experiment, while still allowing them to retain (should they choose) the playstyle they prefer.
Now, I understand there is a difference between the size of development teams across the board, particularly with respect to Wizard of Legend and Dead Cells. Regardless, it’s important any new Rogue-lite out there takes a couple of pages out of Dead Cell’s book.