Do I Play Roguelikes Wrong?

Enter The Gungeon was one of the games I picked up during the Steam winter sale. And I enjoy it! The problem, however, comes from how I play the game. Roguelikes or Roguelites, however you classify them, are all about throwing your head at a brick wall so many times that you eventually get past. In recent times, things seem to have shifted to be less about progression, more about…er, progression.

Building An Arsenal

isaac
Me realizing I didn’t get the new upgrade to make my run easier.

With new roguelike games, one of the biggest hooks is the idea of progression outside of each run. While you won’t get far in every single run, perhaps you finally earn enough currency to buy a new item for the gungeon? Perhaps you’ve dumped enough coins to get that new class in Rogue Legacy? Maybe you finally killed that one tough boss and died right after, getting you the new weapon that’ll make some Isaac runs easier?

Roguelikes were always about minuscule progression. Getting good to the point where you can finally get past one brick wall and start throwing yourself at another. Yet to me it feels like the progression outside of each run isn’t specifically about honing my skills. Rather it feels like I’m trying hard to get a secondary goal done to make my next run easier by design, not by skill.

I realized this during my Gungeon run when I couldn’t buy more items from the in-game shop with the secondary currency. I was worried I had hit a point where I couldn’t improve the gungeon by proxy, NOT by my own talents and skills.

Throwing Spaghetti at a Wall

ftl
“Good luck with this run.”

That said, this seems to be where roguelike games have evolved. Take for example one of the early ones, FTL. FTL didn’t have much in the way of outside progression. You could unlock more ships and designs, sure, but these never completely buffed your gameplay. They just offered a new way to play. It was ok but it wasn’t the hit game that Binding of Isaac would be.

Comparatively Binding of Isaac was still a roguelike. Yet achievements and more could unlock stronger weapons, buffing the variance but overall being a net-positive gain. Nobody is going to argue that “+1 Heart” is anywhere near as good as “All your tears are targeted bombs”. It was a hit because there was ALWAYS a sense of progression, even if you instantly died the moment you stepped down the cellar door.

Enter the Gungeon and Rogue Legacy both seem to have taken cues from the former but not entirely. Gungeon guns are strict upgrades, some are just…ok. Different but not directly better. There are some things that’ll give you direct upgrades such as fixing the elevator but not to the degree that some upgrades in Isaac will. Rogue Legacy also gives you flat stat bonuses but not so much in the idea that you’re getting a raw buff. It’s minuscule and probably hard to notice.

I’m not sure if this kills the spirit of the roguelike. If this persistent system of upgrades is making me play the game wrong, worrying less about my skill and worrying more about the side buff to fill out my arsenal. While I’m by no means awful, I still can’t help but wonder if this system of the sidegrade and the empty armory is making me care more about what happens after the run, not during.

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