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.
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.