"Six generations ago the Barbarian Queen Chun Li slew the eyeball beast Khidr. Given her extreme glaucoma there was a nice irony in that moment, but she never saw it. Of course, her offspring were a total disappointment. Her son couldn't stop swearing and his daughter was a dwarf with a fear of chicken. What kind of loving god would make a little girl fear the universe's only food source? Things only got worse from there: Scorpio had Alzheimer's, Grandpa Marvin was a hypochondriac and my dad had somehow reversed his personal gravity - we suspect a gypsy's curse.
Now it's come down to me, Sir Johnny III, intrepid (if clumsy and gassy) Shinobi. I've climbed the Tower and am moments away from slaying Ponce de Leon. On the very good chance that I'm about to die screaming, tell my child I love them, and to buy some health upgrades with all this cash I've swiped."
And so it goes in Rogue Legacy, Cellar Door Games' PC hit turned PlayStation adventure. One generation leads to another generation leads to another, as a family of nimble warriors gradually explores an enchanted castle that randomly changes its layout each time an adventurer walks through the door. Despite an unending litany of congenital defects, this clan plumbs the castle's dank depths, hopping from platform to platform, collecting gold, slaying monsters (with both steel and magic) and dying in the hope that the next generation might do exactly the same but slightly better. If it wasn't for an exceedingly thoughtful progression system and the tightest platforming controls this side of Nintendo it might seem repetitive, instead of addictive, engaging and frustrating in all the right ways.
More than anything, Rogue Legacy is a story about one family's dogged determination in the face of genetic catastrophe. Death is not an obstacle to the heroes of Rogue Legacy because each failure grants the player a choice of three heirs. Each new offspring features a randomly selected class - all are sword-swinging warriors, but Barbarians are more adept at combat than the more money-hungry Spelunker - and up to two random traits. Some of these, like IBS, are harmless farting gags, but others can make the game monochrome, make your character sprite gigantic or swap out the castle for set dressing borrowed from Tron. Despite this, some traits can have hidden benefits. Heroes with Dwarfism can crawl into the numerous caves too small for other characters, and if they also happen to be a money-hungry Spelunker, they'll earn huge bonuses on the treasures waiting inside.
All that gold comes in handy, as it effectively serves as the game's experience points analogue. Gold allows players to purchase new character classes, upgrades to health, attack and defense, new armor pieces and even enchantments that grant abilities such as the always vital double-jump. The elegant simplicity of this progression system is key to the appeal of Rogue Legacy. Though characters die often and with little warning, even the worst player can make progress if they can just manage to collect enough gold to unlock another rung in the upgrade ladder before the castle snuffs them out. On the next run they progress a bit farther, collect a bit more gold, and continue this way until either their upgrades or their platforming skills are sufficient to beat the castle's horrors.
Despite its thoughtfully-crafted difficulty curve, Rogue Legacy firmly qualifies as a "hard game." Between massive spike pits, jumping puzzles littered with disappearing platforms and enemies who can fill the screen with a blizzard of bullets, it often feels like Rogue Legacy wants its players dead. Compounding this is the castle itself, which randomly generates a new layout each time a player strolls through the door. Once unlocked, the Architect can bolt the layout in place for a single generation, but his fee is 40 percent of that generation's gold, making this tactic a bad investment except for those who want to practice against the game's gigantic bosses. As a result, most runs will be blind, and where players can't memorize a game's layout, they are forced to memorize each individual enemy's patterns if they hope to succeed. This lends great tension to each room transition, and adds a "roguelike" feeling of imminent doom, despite Rogue Legacy being far more user-friendly than any of the classics of that subgenre.
More than the game's progression system, its fantastic, Castlevania-inspired soundtrack or adorably pixel-heavy graphics, Rogue Legacy succeeds because it boasts simple, responsive controls. Jumping, swinging your sword and launching spells is as simple and immediate as a single button press, and acrobatic dodging quickly becomes second nature. Not only does this simple design make Rogue Legacy easy to pick up and play, it also means that the cross-buy game translates flawlessly to the Vita handheld. Everything from the clean, efficient button layout to online stat tracking operates on the Vita exactly as it does on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, and game saves are automatically uploaded to the cloud while you play, removing the unnecessary two-step hassle of saving, then uploading that's found in most cross-buy releases.
Rogue Legacy isn't a flawless experience - eventually, traversing the castle interior grows a bit repetitive, some of the classes are too similar to justify their inclusion and despite being more user-friendly than its "roguelike" contemporaries, Rogue Legacy can still present a daunting learning curve - but it is a master class on efficient, fun game design. By combining basic concepts from several genres Cellar Door has crafted an engrossing game that will keep players coming back again and again. Though one run through the castle might occupy a brief few minutes, Rogue Legacy compels players to play just one more turn, before realizing that "one more" turned into 20 and it's suddenly 4 a.m.
This review is based on a PSN copy of the PS4 version of Rogue Legacy, provided by Sony.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.