Procedural generation is a term that is being thrown around quite often lately, and it's one that has a decent amount of stigma going against it. When environmental characteristics and enemy arrangements are decided by an algorithm or line of code, changing the surroundings with every replay, it can make a game feel cheap, and the level design in particular can appear generic and impersonal when compared to levels meticulously planned and staged by someone that obsessed over them. Like we say, there's a stigma, and it's also partly because this process is being overused and not every developer employs it to its best effect. But when it comes to Rogue Legacy, a rogue-like action platformer that's – finally – arriving on Xbox One, developer Cellar Door Games has forged something with procedural generation that works really, really well.
In Rogue Legacy, death isn't really a punishment – not entirely, at least. Instead, death is an inevitability that players will need to come to terms with and learn how to use to their benefit. The ultimate goal of the game is to fight through a medieval dungeon, finding and defeating four bosses before slaying the big-bad final boss. The thing is, the dungeon is procedurally generated, which means every time you re-enter, everything – enemy placements, level design, and the dungeon layout – will be different. And because you begin the game very weak, with limited abilities, it's likely you won't survive for very long. You'll die, and die again, always attempting to harvest as much gold as possible from fallen enemies and breakables in the environment before doing so – then you'll apply it to upgrades, skills, and armor to make circumstances easier on yourself going forward. So that's why death isn't necessarily a punishment. It's a means of living, and living better than you did before.
This design choice naturally leads to grinding, which won't be to the liking of everyone that typically swoons over the release of a new platformer. But what some might consider repetitive and unnecessary, others will likely refer to as addictive and rewarding. There's no doubt that there are points where the focus negatively shifts to grinding for grinding's sake, but for majority of our playthrough, we were consumed by acquiring the right amount of gold to upgrade a stat or locate new runes to enhance our repertoire of moves. You become invested in your role, eventually having to talk yourself out of that "one more go" urge after hours of losing yourself within the dungeon.
This is because, on top of effective use of rogue-like elements, Rogue Legacy plays pretty great. Combat is simple when it comes to approach, but interactions with the rich gallery of enemy types, each with varying attack patterns, makes it much more complex. It's kind of like Castlevania in this regard, where the hero is equipped with a main weapon – a sword – and also a projectile-based attack that eats up a bit of mana with each use. The marriage of combat and platforming is balanced well, and it was ultra rare that we felt we didn't have the tools to maneuver through the intensest of gauntlets while disposing of any obstructing evils along the way. Your skills will be tested, that's for sure, but the difficulty is fair more often than not – just be prepared to be incredibly light on your feet, dodging almost as frequently as you attack.
But when that inevitable death comes knocking on your door and there's nothing that can be done to ward it off, you'll respawn as a randomly-generated descendant of the deceased. Actually, players will be given the choice between three heroes, each with pros and cons to consider. This freshens up each journey into the castle, because there are plenty of situations that require a slight adjustment of your play-style if you want to thrive. Where one character is described as a walking tank that can withstand a higher degree of damage before dying, he may be less agile. He could also be limited to seeing the world only in black and white or lack the ability to remember where he's traveled on the map. Some of these traits are merely superficial and inconsequential as opposed to fundamentally affecting, while others can be quite beneficial, comical, and/or even damning. (We should note that all attire, runes, and upgraded stats carry over with each death, as we hinted at toward the beginning of the review.)
Each of the four themed areas of the dungeon – castle, forest, tower, and darkness – have a boss to slay, and this is the primary means of progressing, as it gets you one step closer to unlocking the path to the aforementioned final boss. Every time a boss is found, it feels like an accomplishment; every time a boss is conquered, it's immensely rewarding. It can be a bit discouraging to stumble on a boss in one build of the dungeon, die, and have to search for him again through a newly-generated layout; but if you talk to the Architect before reentering, you can restore the dungeon to its previous form by sacrificing a percentage of your gold intake on the next run. It's a fair trade when you're determined to make progress, and it significantly decreases the time it takes to beat the game.
Rogue Legacy, when taken at a natural pace, can be a lengthy adventure. That's because traditional progression isn't the driving force; it's usually the next stat, upgrade, or ability that's dangled right in front of your face, providing constant incentive for another go. You'll participate simply because the game is fun to play, but you'll obsess over chasing or unlocking something new, and there's always something new right within reach. As we stated before, the grinding – which usually occurs when you're not yet strong enough to triumph over a boss – can reduce your enthusiasm on numerous occasions, but it's never enough that it ruins what makes Rogue Legacy so enjoyable. From controls, concept, execution, visuals, the number of secrets and surprises, and more, this is a game that does what it sets out to do, and it does it very well. We might even go as far as to say it's one of the best instances of procedural generation that we've come across in our many years of reviewing video games.
Rogue Legacy does procedural generation right, offering countless hours of action, platforming, and exploration to anyone that's attracted to it. The amount of grinding that's present throughout the adventure does occasionally lead to stretches of monotony, but when every other facet of the game shines the way it does, it's not enough to massively damage its reputation. Rogue Legacy is one of the best indies available on Xbox One, and you should do what you can to become a part of its family tree – its zany, amusing, dysfunctional family tree.