Know Your Rogue

Behind the semantics of "Rogue" games and the beauty of Vampire Survivors

Know Your Rogue
Nethack: A true rogue-like. Source: YouTube.

You have probably heard about, or even been strongly peer pressured by a friend to try out a "rogue" game sometime in the last several years. This genre has grown in popularity, and in terms of appeal, it can cross into almost every genre. Any descriptor can be thrown in front of a rogue at this point. Hades, the dungeon crawler by developer Supergiant, is likely the most well-known in recent history. Hades still has a considerably large fanbase for its genre and an enormous critical response, where it holds a 10/10 rating on Steam and a Hugo Award, making it the only video game to have that honor.

Right now, however, is the time of Vampire Survivors, a shoot-em-up with a 10/10 rating and arguably on the same level as Hades in terms of fan reception. If it wasn't competing with Elden Ring, Horizon: Forbidden West, and soon-to-be unleashed God of War: Ragnarok, this could be the weird winner for Game of the Year. One thing that both Vampire Survivors and Hades share? Neither are actual rogue games and technically fall under "rogue-like," and even more specifically, "rogue-lite."

Hades gameplay. Source: SuperGiant Games

An actual council of developers formed at the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008 held in Berlin settled on the basic guidelines for what a real rogue game is. This is called the "Berlin Interpretation" and would eliminate almost any game you have recently played from that distinction of being called a rogue. An actual rogue game does use perma-death, but you will also start over wholly stripped of any achievements, and it would be considered a hack-and-slash with no option of a pacifist route. They are less strict but imply the use of ASCII and whether or not you can have an actual "environment" outside of a dungeon. This limits you to older, drier roguelikes like NetHack and Angband, the former being as old as I am and was featured at the MoMA in New York.

This system comes down to semantics, and overthinking it is a bit silly. Conceptually this falls in a similar category as people that might get annoyed by Dark Souls being classified as a "soft game" and how some people got annoyed by the term "Doom-like" for first-person shooters. Rogue-likes and rogue-lites give you the backbone of archaic rogue games but are ultimately more forgiving in that you can see your progress and not lose in-game unlocks after one lousy run. While speedy deaths can be expected, you won't be tortured by playing a game that becomes a "Groundhog Day" situation.

Slay The Spire's Turn-Based Deck Combat. Source: Nintendo

The two most common rogue-lite subgenres you typically see are deckbuilding and action based. Slay The Spire, a beloved deck builder, was released in early access in 2017 and achieved full release in 2019. It is critically acclaimed and takes more mental gymnastics than some of the other deck builders out there. You choose between 4 characters and are given a base set of cards. Spire's combat is turn-based, and you "attack" with a hand of cards from your deck. The ultimate goal is building a strong enough deck, leveling up your base set by defeating enemies. You must also remember which cards to discard along the way, and the mana available to draw from, on your trajectory through the levels of the spire where you will eventually (hopefully) have the resources to defeat the boss.

It's a great game that takes a lot of skill and patience. Still, if you want something fast-paced and easy to pick up immediately, there are plenty of others in this genre. If you have general knowledge and enjoy RPGs and card games like Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone, Gwent, or even the Pokemon TCG that utilizes mana or a version of it, you'll have a great time. Monster Hunter, which is very similar but more forgiving deck-wise, is a less "rough" starting point if you want a straightforward deck builder that allows you to build a more substantial deck more quickly.

A cultist-driven run in Luck Be a Landlord. Source: Author's Screenshot

An odd favorite in which I've logged an upsetting amount of Steam hours is Luck Be A Landlord, a deck-based slot machine game. Every successful run adds another "floor," taking out more spaces on the slot wheel and giving you fewer and fewer respins and increased demands in "rent" in an increasingly limited amount of spins. It's a great game for when you have 10 or 15 minutes and want to play something with thought, that doesn't require much commitment. I would not compare it to Slay The Spire in terms of difficulty, especially initially, but the added form of the RNG of a slot machine makes or breaks a run quickly as you advance floors. If you complete a run, you will enter an endless mode of the game, which increases in difficulty much more rapidly.

Regarding action-based roguelites, I'm currently playing Vampire Survivors after months of being nagged by friends, and because a podcast I enjoy led up to its Halloween-themed "We Play, You Play" play-along with it. Vampire Survivors does live up to the hype; I watched one of the hosts stream it for about an hour before I got home and started playing immediately. It was noted by a few people on the podcast and fans that they ultimately had a great time. Still, it did feel like playing something like a slot machine as it feels like mindless fun at some points, which checks out because I'm the lady that put 130 hours into Luck Be a Landlord while trying to fill up time like being on hold on the phone.

The Unlockable "Inlaid Library" Stage from Vampire Survivors. Source: Author.

In Vampire Survivors, you will start with one unlockable character (Antonio) and eventually unlock more by sustaining longer runs, collecting money, and upgrading weapons. You can technically only control your character's direction; your character's primary weapon and base stats are set - they all control differently in terms of speed and by the merit of their weapon. With the four base characters, I do best with Imelda, who uses a magic wand and is better at attacking at distances, while I do more evading. I'll go with Gennaro if I want to focus on offense, who uses a knife and runs into hordes of enemies, none of which are vampires.

Leveling up certain weapons will also unlock more characters; as of typing this, there are 21, including the 4 "starters," and 3 others that include a panda, a dog, and an incredibly slow-moving priest that you get by nearly maxing out the garlic weapon. The game is an ode to Castlevania, the little text you do read is definitely self-aware and funny, and the music is consistently banger after banger. You may want to play with the "Library" map theme playing in a loop for hours - I have done it. The game knows this and even includes a "magic banger" relic that allows you to select certain tracks instead of defaulting to the stage's typical track.

No matter which of these "rogue" styles is your jam, and no matter what you want to call them, check a few of them out. I like the feeling of accomplishment of a "run," and it feels like a quick serotonin boost, and maybe for you, a game like Vampire Survivors would be a good "break game" if you are grinding your way through Elden Ring again or about to tackle God of War. These games might look simple, and the "rogue" term might be applied to almost everything, but they are fun challenges.


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