I have played videogames for a good portion of my life, but I never really got into roguelikes until the last five years or so. So I am relatively new to the genre but I thought since the “final” DLC for The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth will be coming out at the end of this month, I figured I would take some time to share my thoughts on the genre as a whole. Now the most common features of roguelikes, especially in dungeon crawlers, are permadeath and procedurally generated levels for those of you who are not in the know. That means that when you die, note that I said when and not if, you lose all your progress and head back to the start of the run. Now, I am going to take a look at a few of these games as a way to analyze the benefits and detriments of this type of structure on the game’s experience. So, let’s first start with the game that I mentioned earlier, as it is considered one of the most famous examples of this genre in recent years. Let’s talk about The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
Now, I have actually played both versions of The Binding of Isaac and gotten all of the achievements for both on Steam. That also means that once the new DLC releases then I will have a sharp spike in my hours on that game. That’s not what important though. What I should mention is the game itself, and on that note this game is really weird. It very loosely is inspired by the story from the Bible where Abraham’s son Isaac is nearly used as a sacrifice. I didn’t think that story could get darker but it seems that I was wrong. In the game Isaac’s mother is told by “God” that Isaac is impure and the only way to purify him is to get rid of him so Isaac escapes into the basement so he won’t die. There he meets many nightmarish creatures that want him dead, a lot of which seem to be a reflection of Isaac’s worst fears. I am not even going to try to unpack the story so I will just focus on the gameplay. The game is pretty simple since all you can do is move and fire tears at enemies and with no reload times attached. There are game stats that influence your overall abilities but those are mostly influenced by the items that you pick up throughout your run. The thing is, some of the items in this game are much better than others so your run can largely be left up to luck. You can get better items as long as you make a certain amount of progress in the game since certain things are unlocked even if your attempts end in failure. That is also how you unlock the other characters to play as well, all of which have their own unique items to unlock. The game has so many items and because of this the game’s balance is incredibly easy to break with the right items. While I do enjoy the game there is a certain point where unless the items you get are decent, you will not progress very far. Truth be told there are a lot more garbage items than good items so I would recommend picking a character you like and sticking with it for decent runs. If not, you better have a wiki ready because no person alive can memorize all the effects on each item. Well, no person alive that I know.
Now, let’s move on to a game with a story that is a little more understandable. Instead of shooting tears as projectiles we have good old fashioned bullets this time. Although, this game takes more than a few liberties on what counts as a gun and what counts as a bullet. Yes, I’m talking about Enter the Gungeon. This game’s backstory is a lot simpler. A bullet fell from the sky one day and created a dungeon filled with enemies armed with ammunition. Legend tells of a bullet that has the ability to kill the past so you pick a character to fight through the gungeon to correct their past regrets. This game has two types of things to collect: items and guns. In the same vain as The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, you unlock things as you play to have a chance for better runs, but you always start out with the same stats and guns when starting a run. The main difference is that you have at least some idea of what you will get based on the design of the chests on each floor. Not like that means a lot since there are a lot of items in this game too. Although, it is a lot more manageable in this game since the majority of the items do not drastically alter the run, whereas it seems like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth the game is trying to break itself, usually in the most amusing way possible. Enter the Gungeon benefits from having a tighter focus with its gameplay, but it still leads to times when you have to rely on decent weapons to make meaningful products. After all, combat is more complicated than in The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth since different guns have different ways of attacking and you can switch between them freely, allowing for different ways to approach the same run. Overall, Enter the Gungeon has more skill required of the player, but I find The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth has more replay value due to the absurd amount of content. Unfortunately, due to the coding of the original game there won’t be any DLC for Enter the Gungeon, however there is a sequel if you wan t more content for it. I haven’t played it though.
Now, the previous two games I mentioned were pretty recent games when considering the scope of the roguelike genre. So naturally, one would expect me to talk about an older title to show off my well rounded knowledge. You would think that, but if you were paying attention to what I said earlier you would know not to rely on me for games that were released prior to about five years ago. So if you didn’t realize this, shame on you for not paying attention. Also, I’ll be talking about Hades. I know this is as recent as it gets, but I feel that it is an interesting take on the formula that has been prevalent in games such as the previous two. For one, the permadeath and random dungeons has a clear underlying reason in the story since the main character Zagreus is a god trying to escape the underworld so he can stick it to his dear old dad. Since he is a god, he can never really die and the procedural generation of each attempt is mentioned as being a way to make sure Zagreus can’t map out an efficient way to the surface. Another interesting thing aside from the story focus is that you improve your stats by dying and going back to the hub world. The more progress you make in a run, the more you can power yourself up to have a chance to win later. Also, the game is difficult no matter which gameplay style/weapon you go with while still feeling pretty balanced overall. That being said, I haven’t played through the game enough yet to determine what weapon works best for me. However, the weapons, as far as I know do not seem to influence which boons you receive during your run so the powerups seem to be entirely random. Not that I expected different in a roguelike. However, this level of randomness doesn’t have a huge effect on what you can do with your own skills. In fact, this game is definitely,, the most skill heavy of the three. Overall, I think the game has more of a need for skill, so I consider it a nice change of pace.
Now, what I am trying to get at by talking about these is that roguelikes put you in an endless loop of trying to get a good run to try and reach the end. The problem lies in why else would you want to keep replaying it, especially after you have gotten a good run. That is where there either bombard you with added content like with The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth or keep you invested in the actual gameplay with more tactical precision such as in Enter the Gungeon and in Hades. The thing is while adding content to your game is all well and good, once the content runs out then people might lose interest right after. As much as I enjoyed playing The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, I haven’t touched it in a long time since the game can be a bit too unbalanced with its surplus of items and there is never a concrete goal to aim for since the paths split so much. At least in the other two games, no matter how much you go off the beaten path, you still end up heading to the same goal. There may just be a few distractions along the way. Now I am not saying adding content is bad nor am I saying that The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and its subsequent DLCs aren’t fun. What I am saying is that I will mainly be playing again to check out the new stuff that’s be added, not because I find much about the game itself to be very engaging story wise or gameplay wise. I find games like the other two to be more interesting to come back to because they actually have some interesting characters to interact with and the gameplay continues to offer a consistent challenge no matter how much previous progress you have made. Of course I could always change my mind about Hades if I ever end up finishing it. We’ll see down the line if maybe more roguelikes like Hades continue to pop up in the future since this could be a turning point in the genre. Okay, maybe I thinking too much.