Real Talk by: Rickayyyyy
Roguelikes are an underplayed and not-so-well-known game category, but those who play them love them. These games are so hard you might want to pull your hair out at times, but that’s part of the reason we love them. They are challenging. They are thought-provoking. They teach you how to grieve. They are, simply put, fantastic. I’ll explain what makes a roguelike and talk about a few.
If you’re the type of person who hates losing, you shouldn’t play these. If you have problems grieving, you shouldn’t play these. In roguelikes, dying is fun. If you quicksave every few minutes in most games, you probably won’t enjoy these. You can only save on exit. Most roguelikes are played in a command window with ASCII characters showing the game, though many of the more main stream ones have tileset versions. Don’t confuse roguelikes and roguelites; all roguelikes share a couple of characteristics, roguelites eschew a few of these characteristics, and are generally easier. Here are the characteristics most people agree makes a roguelike:
- Permadeath – This has to be in a game to call it a roguelike. If you die, the game deletes your save and you start over. Roguelikes are often quite long and full of peril. I remember having a Demigod Wanderer in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, I was about 20 hours in (though I play super slow) and about to beat the game, all I had left was the orb run, which I had never died on before. I was almost out, when I get attacked by a pan lord who proceeded to haste himself and blow me to pieces with frost storm. So in case you don’t know anything about DCSS: I was about 10 minutes away from beating the game and I died. I had to start over. I got far, but it is still a loss. Dying is fun!
- Randomized – Roguelikes have to be as random as possible, meaning a different layout every time, random item drops, random monster placement, anything that can be random should be. That’s not to say there’s only random components, most games will have a few areas that are not random, and also there will be things you can guarantee you will get, but for the most part, everything is up to the RNG (random number generator/god). In the aforementioned DCSS game, I had gotten simply terrible luck, which is why I died to that pan lord. Next to no frost resist for the whole game is not very fun, but that’s the way roguelikes go.
- Extremely hard difficulty – Roguelikes have to be very, very hard in order to be considered truly roguelike. There are no pillow fights here. The point of the games are to challenge you, if it’s easy, it’s less fun. I’ve won in DCSS 17 times, and in each and every one of them, I had many, many near death experiences. Honestly, DCSS isn’t even as hard as most roguelikes. A true roguelike will push you to the brink, and almost always, you die. These games are more about managing risk than anything.
- Turn based – Roguelikes aren’t meant to test reflexes or coordination. They are meant to test critical thinking skills and judgement. Say you get hit by a stone giant and taken to 10 HP. Do you attempt to teleport? Do you attempt to heal yourself? Do you attempt to kill the giant fast-like? Those are the decision you’ll have to make. All three of those could be reasonable options; you should take the time to think about your strategy
Those 4 components must be in a game to qualify it as a roguelike. So let’s talk about a few roguelikes that are out there.
Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup
This is essentially the current standard of roguelikes. Many would call it the best roguelike, though some would argue otherwise. I would say it is the most well-balanced roguelike. There’s a reason I’ve mentioned it so much already: I have played it a TON. It has lots of good mechanics and is currently being developed, though personally, I wish they would just get it to an end-state already and start working on a new game. It’s already a great game, and I feel like they often take away more stuff than they add in the new patches. The great thing about this roguelike is how many viable playstyles there are; each and every class you choose is fairly well-balanced. There is no dominant build that is clearly superior, and no inferior builds (assuming you’re playing your build right, that is). If you want to play a necromancer, you can play a necromancer; if you want to play a melee, you can play a melee, etc. Melee might have an easier time winning, but that’s only because it requires less thought, really.
It’s not as hard as some other roguelikes, but that isn’t to say it is easy. I played for 3 years before I ascended the first time (aka winning). Granted, what caused me to win was me to stop playing risky (don’t intentionally randomly mutate yourself, sometimes it pays off but usually it screws you), but even still I only have about a 15% win ratio online (I played offline until my fourth win). The thing about this game that makes it probably the best roguelike is that usually when you die it was reasonably predictable. In some roguelikes you might die of something stupid like putting on an amulet of strangulation, whereas in DCSS you might have tried to fight too many enemies at once and wasn’t able to escape. Truly random deaths in DCSS are rare, they usually happen as the result of a mistake (but are still fun). I’ve had a 100% win ratio in one of the tournaments, so playing smart can be rewarding.
I mentioned tournaments up above, and it’s one of my favorite things in DCSS. Every 6 months or so there’s a tournament where everyone who plays online play for 2 weeks trying to score points to get a high rank. My best rank ever was 121st out of 2836 players, winning 4/7 games. I realize that doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, but that’s pretty good. The tournaments are always super fun; if you pick this game up I recommend you play in it.
This game is a classic. I started playing roguelikes with this game. It’s really good, though less polished than DCSS. The game is pretty entertaining. Dying is much easier than in DCSS, too (but that’s fine because dying is fun, remember?). You know the amulet of strangulation I mentioned before? That’s from this game. It’s one of the many reasons you don’t usually blind equip items in this game. Pretty much if you have an unidentified amulet and equip it and it’s an amulet of strangulation, you die (alright there’s a 10% chance it isn’t cursed and you can take it off immediately, but even still, not good odds).
Alright I’m a bit ashamed of myself for not having beaten this game, because I hear this one is pretty beatable if you know what you’re doing. One thing I have heard about beating it is you usually end up with the same gear at the end, which is evidently what inspired DCSS to have so much variety. I also hear the beginning is the only truly hard part in the game. I’m sure you could die in the later game, but if you can survive the beginning, you’ll be fine if you continue to play carefully.
Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM)
This is another classic roguelike. This one I really like, even though sometimes you die stupidly. Like NetHack you can sometimes die to stupid things, usually not amulet of strangulation stupid, but close. Dying from an uberjackal sucks, though it is avoidable (yet dying remains fun). One thing I really like about ADOM is that there is actually a story and NPCs who AREN’T hostile. You can actually talk to people without the need to smash their face in. Most roguelikes go the genocide route, but ADOM is a nice diversion away from it. That’s not to say you can’t kill all those friendly NPCs, but generally that’s a special case.
The skills system in this is a bit strange, but it works alright. Most classes have to acquire the healing skill ASAP. The cursed/blessed item system in the game is interesting, though at times annoying. There are also some specific things you need to remember to do early on in order to get everything you need. Some of these things are kind of weird, like remembering the first enemy you kill. A lot of this game is having the knowledge of what you should be doing at all times. It’s easy for you to enter a dungeon you can’t handle. You need to have a game plan in order to win this game.
I just discovered while doing some fact checking that they started development on ADOM again. It appears to even have a steam application with a solid tileset. I love ASCII and all but pretty tilesets always makes a game more interesting. Also evidently they’re making an ADOM II. I’m kind of excited for it; there usually aren’t many roguelike sequels.
Tales of Maj’Eyal (ToME)
This is a fairly recent roguelike that is pretty great. There are tons of character options, play styles, items, and interesting mechanics in general. In fact there is quite possibly too many mechanics, it can get confusing at times. There’s even more variety in this game than DCSS. One thing I did notice while playing this game is that you can go from 100% fine to incredible danger insanely fast. I’ve literally almost been one shotted while autoexploring (Dying >= fun). In this game, it is vital you build your character properly. If you don’t, you will die a fast and very unsatisfying death.
This game is great due largely to the number of choices you get for making your character. Also unlocking stuff is always fun. I’ve played for a while but I still haven’t unlocked everything. I haven’t been able to beat it yet, it seems harder than some of the roguelikes I’ve played, mostly due to the fact things go from 0 to 100 super fast. I’ve probably had more annoying deaths in this game than any other (percentagewise).
Most of the game is free, though if you buy it you unlock a lot of stuff, especially if you buy any of the expansions. I recommend the expansions, though I haven’t played the most recent one yet since at the time this article was written, it had only been out for a few days. The expansion I did play was great. These days this is probably my second most played roguelike after DCSS. It’s great, I recommend you play it.
This is a good but less well-known roguelike. It’s not a traditional roguelike, it’s a zombie survival roguelike. It has lots of interesting mechanics and can be pretty challenging. The only real problem I have with this game is that I don’t believe you can beat it. I don’t think there’s an end programmed in to the game, it just continues until you die. The story in this game is pretty interesting, which makes it even weirder that there is no end to it. You’d think there would be a solid climax to a game like this with a good ending(s).
This game is about surviving in a zombie apocalypse, so as you can imagine, you do survival related activities. You can build a home base, build a sweet car, go on supply runs, and improve your skills, just to name a few things you can do in this game. The idea of the game is to survive. There are a lot of dangerous activities to do, many with good potential payoffs. There aren’t only zombies to fight in this game, you will also fight animals (some of which have been possessed by evil entities), plant creatures, and a slew of random enemies. There are also NPCs who may join you, though in the last version I played they needed to be more intelligent. I remember one game I gave one of my followers a gun and he missed a zombie and blew my brains out. It was upsetting, to say the least (still fun though). Hopefully they have fixed this in a recent version. I still recommend this game, gun accidents aside.
Faster Than Light
Alright some people might accuse me of not following my previously stated rules of what makes a roguelike here, but I think FTL definitely counts as a roguelike. The only one of the 4 criteria I listed above this might not adhere to would be that it isn’t technically turn based. However, you can pause whenever you want to think out your course of action. I think that makes it qualify.
Anyway, this game is freaking fantastic. This game is a bit different from the other ones I have listed, but it’s still great. You control a ship that is navigating through a galaxy in order to save the galactic federation from rebels. There are actually 3 difficulty levels in this game, easy, normal and hard. Easy can still be kind of hard, but normal and hard are truly challenging. Honestly it used to have only easy and normal, and in this period I managed to beat easy once and normal twice. However, this was before the free expansion pack they released. Since they released the expansion pack, I haven’t been able to beat any difficulty level, though I haven’t tried easy again. Normal is substantially harder due to the expansion pack, and I can’t even imagine how challenging hard must be. Remember, dying is fun.
This game allows a lot of choices in how you build your ship. You start out with a choice of 9 ships, each with 3 configurations. As you proceed through the game you will upgrade your ship. There are tons of options for upgrading, but there is a lot of randomness to what the game gives you. Usually you develop a playstyle for your ship as you go along depending on what parts you acquire. You have to improve your ship as much as possible, because at the end there is an insanely hard boss fight. You can do good the whole game only to have your dreams crushed by the rebel flagship. Still enjoyable, though.
These games, and many other roguelikes I haven’t mentioned, are all fantastic. You must have thick skin, but if you do, these games can provide you with hours of joy, while at the same time teaching you effective grief management skills. One last thing to remember: dying is fun!