Part two in a promised four part series, trying to figure out why mobile games so rarely make any impact on me. Hoplite is a roguelike. Comfortable with that bit of game jargon? Then you can skip the next section. But if not, allow me to quickly explain: Named after Rogue, a 1980 game that cast the player as an adventurer pushing deeper and deeper below the crust of a fantasy world, the roguelike is a peculiar little subgenre. As in the original, movement and combat most are commonly based around tiles and turns. Heroes are upgraded by levelling up and/or collecting equipment as you descend. But most importantly: every death is permanent, whisking you back to the start of the game to face a whole new set of randomly-generated dungeons and monsters. More recently, the likes of Spelunky and FTL have distilled the genre’s spirit into something frothier, keeping the permadeath and different-every-time levels but translating them into platformers or strategy games. These game are known as roguelites.(Suggested Further Reading: my potted history of the genre for IGN.) Hoplite keeps the same quest structure as classic roguelikes: you play a chunky little Spartan warrior, tasked with the retrieval of the Fleece of Yendor. (The name is a dual reference to the McGuffins from Jason and the Argonauts and classic roguelike Hack.) The Fleece is on the sixteenth level down, protecting an ever-increasing number of enemies. Once you’ve picked it up – which took me a few dozen attempts – you can choose to port back to the surface, ending your game in victory, or push further and deeper for a better score and the simple thrill of challenge. In fact, while it feels like a roguelite, Hoplite is actually a remarkably orthodox example of the genre. As well as the permadeath and random levels, it maintains the turn-based combat: your avatar is able to move one hexagon at a time, slaughtering anyone on an adjacent hex, or take one action, then the forces of hell take their go. The big difference is that Hoplite is built from the ground up with mobile in mind, streamlining the experience to fit the small screen and fat fingers. Classic roguelikes utilised an entire keyboard’s worth of commands, even down to capital letters having a different effect to their lower-case equivalents. Hoplite does away with all that, leaving only movement and three attack commands: use shield, jump, or throw a spear. Combat feels like a puzzle, thanks partly to this limited arsenal and partly to the clean Fisher-Price presentation, which displays attack paths for any character you hover a digit over. It encourages the player to think ahead a couple of turns – if I jump over this baddie’s head, running him through with my sword, I can use this demonic demolitions-expert as cover from that archer, and next turn deflect his bomb back at them both – for my money, more than Threes ever did. You’ll need that kind of forward planning as you descend further. Each successive floor pushes up the number of enemies by one and adds new flavours of demon to the mix – the most fearsome being the sorcerer, who can shoot fireballs across almost the entire screen. Before long, each level is painted with a convoluted criss-cross of attack patterns leaving only one hex safe, and often tantalisingly out of reach. To balance this out, there are altars on every floor where your Spartan can pray – in a shouty Scottish accent, if 300 is to be believed – for one of five upgrades. It’s the levelling up process simplified to its absolute core principles, minus skill trees or item augmentation. The upgrades on offer range from prosaic (an extra healthpoint, a quicker reset on the shield bash attack) to game-altering (the ability to teleport to any hex your spear lands on), and can be expanded through the game’s achievements system. Restore your health with a single heart remaining, for example, and next game you’ll be able to pray for a pair of winged sandals which let you leap across much further distances. These upgrades, once unlocked, are available from the same altar each time. That’s useful for planning but it’s also indicative of Hoplite’s one major issue . The game in general could do with a little more randomness. Each floor always features the same number and type of enemies, with only their placement and a few scattered lava tiles to differentiate it from the last time you made it this far. Maybe that won’t matter the first few dozen times. But after your hundredth battle with the third level’s two swordsmen, one archer and one bomber, it starts to feels a little restrictive. And make no mistake, your playthrough count will reach the triple figures. It’s shocking how well the pecularities of the roguelike suit mobile. Just about any chunk of dead time can be transformed into a string of enjoyable deaths, a couple of minutes apart. In fact, once you’ve done it a couple of times, beating Hoplite – that is, picking up the Fleece and teleporting back to the surface, presumably to be carried on the shoulders of your cheering comrades and paraded through the streets as a hero, never to sleep alone again – can be done inside of ten minutes. But as the challenge of grabbing the Fleece fades, the promise of cheers and endless lovemaking for your little Spartan pales into insignificance next to the promise of a few extra points, a new level reached, a new ability unlocked. You push deeper and deeper, taking more chances, deftly avoiding the attacks that would have felled your younger self. Until you suddenly realise you have to jump off at the next stop, and abandon your hero’s epic tale, never to be finished. So what? You’ve lost maybe fifteen minutes of your time. It’s not like you would have done anything good with it in the first place. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONELEGO MARVEL SUPER HEROESMONIKERSTHREES
Rogue Legacy is currently available on Steam at the bargain price of £7.49, a discount of 40%. It’s the game I’ve played most this year, and here’s why: Family, eh? In Rogue Legacy, you play Sir Scorpio, the latest in a long line of knights, mages and barbarians on an inherited quest in a strange land… until the moment you die. Then you play Lady Chun Li, the latest in a long line of knights, mages, barbarians and undead bloodsuckers on an inherited quest in a land that, thanks to its randomly-generated levels, is strange all over again. The quest – to clear a castle full of ghouls and ghouls, plus five bosses – isn’t the only thing you inherit. The death of your predecessor grants you their long-coveted possessions, yes, but as their offspring you’re also prey to all the genes that brought them to a sticky end in the first place. As in life, so in Rogue Legacy. The former means any gold picked up by your predecessor on their run through the castle – picked up by smashing furniture, beating enemies and finding chests – and which powers the game’s hybrid level-up/shop system. The latter … well, it’s the game’s masterstroke. After dying, you pick one of three heirs, each with their own combination of class, spell, and traits. Traits are the kind of role-playing characteristics you don’t see in the Skyrims of this world: everything from colour blindness, which turns the screen monochrome, to OCD, which rewards you for smashing every box and barrel in sight, to congenital baldness, which … makes you bald. It’s silly good fun, but the variety this introduces also helps keep the game feeling fresh, and adds an extra layer of exploration. Discovering what hypochondria actually did in-game, for example, was a great laugh-out-loud moment. I won’t spoil it here. This is just one of the many ways Rogue Legacy draws you back in for one more go. The levels, shuffled afresh for each run, offer variety and plenty of one-off surprises: rooms with knife-throwing challenges, or histories of developer Cellar Door’s previous games. And then there are the upgrades. Remember that inherited gold I mentioned? Before the next game starts, you have the chance to spend it all on equipment, upgrades and unlocks. These can be incremental, like a shinier sword or an extra health point, or tangible game-changers. Buy the Air rune to gain the power of flight; unlock the Paladin class and you’ll be able to block enemy’s attacks. These post-death upgrades make Rogue Legacy the ultimate ‘one more try’ game, an endless cycle of explore/die/spend/explore/die/spend that cost me a good chunk of the summer. But this persistence also serves to undermine the power of permadeath. In other roguelikes, you build up a character and progress deeper and deeper into a randomised world, the odds stacked increasingly against you until finally you’re overwhelmed. There is a neat horror in that moment, the loss of invested time providing an analogue to the loss of life, which is also part of the fun. Here, all you really lose is the set of levels generated for you this time round, which you can keep for a penalty – and so each death is just fuel. Sometimes, I’d catch myself dashing a character against the rocks to grab one final chestful of gold, knowing they’ll die but also knowing it’ll give me enough to buy that next sweet upgrade. It’s never quite a grind though, even when the clunky keyboard controls make the game’s more bullet-hellish screens difficult to navigate, because all money gathered has to be spent before the next run starts, meaning you can’t stockpile resources. And while you’re playing, it’s never anything less than great fun. Still, it’s easy to come away from a two-hour binge – which, make no mistake, is how you’ll play Rogue Legacy – feeling a little empty. In the quieter moment of play, you can hear that little lizard voice at the back of your mind whispering ‘grab the money, die, buy the shiny things’. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like a hero so much as a prudent investor, putting away something for the kids’ future. Maybe that’s part of the point, though. I automatically looked at Rogue Legacy from the perspective of a child but it also has you playing the parent, in an endless loop of sacrifice and gain, unconditional love and selfish hunger. …Family, eh?