I’ve struggled in the past with trying to label games influenced by the groundbreaking dungeon crawler Rogue. There are games doing the exact same randomly-generated, enemies-move-when-you-do, hack-and-slash dungeoneering gameplay; we call those “roguelikes.” It’s a little clumsy, to the point where I’m not sure it’s still the accepted nomenclature, but it gets the job done without being too confusing. You just have to make sure that any time you talk about the game Rogue, it’s with that capital R. These are games where you move in a grid, fighting through randomly generated levels filled with randomly arranged enemies, loot, and traps.
In classic Rogue, you can save, but if you die not only do you start over from the title screen, but the moment you die, your save is deleted off your hard drive. Some roguelikes carry on this tradition of mercilessness, but it’s optional- plenty of them spare you this moment of despair. Some have stories, some don’t, there are different systems outside of dungeons (though in some roguelikes you never are)… it’s a more diverse genre than you’d think. It’s not my favorite genre, but examples like Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja and Shiren the Wanderer are certainly impressive games.
Then there are games that are… like Rogue but actually only like a few elements of Rogue? They have some level of random generation, and trademark “one and done” life system where the game ends after one death, but otherwise, they don’t match Rogue’s mechanics at all. These are favorites of mine like Spelunky, OlliOlli, and more. They’re called “roguelikelikes,” which is weird because they’re not like roguelikes, they’re like Rogue. Some roguelikes don’t have permadeath, which is the biggest feature that every roguelikelike needs to qualify. It’s incredibly sloppy, rolls off the tongue like a bowling ball… a terrible name. I hope we come up with something better.
Finally, there is a third category- games that are essentially Roguelikelikes (ugh that name) but also have an extra feature- progression. When you die, you start over… but some part of the progress you made remains. Over time, your deaths form a metaphorical mountain to help you climb to greater heights. Titles like Crypt of the Necrodancer, Rogue Legacy, and Iron Fisticle show that though you lose the thrill of chasing high scores, it’s often worth the tradeoff for a rewarding system of progression.
These titles are called “Roguelites,” and at first blush I really liked that name… but hang on, no! These aren’t “lite” versions of Rogue, and they aren’t even “lite” versions of Roguelikes! They’re modified Roguelikelikes! But you can’t call them “Roguelikelites” because that’s just the dumbest name imaginable and- okay, I need to get over it. This is how it is, and now “rogue” doesn’t even look like a word to me because I’ve typed it too many times.
Given all this nonsense it’s actually a relief to talk about a simple roguelike. Sproggiwood by Freehold Games is positioned as an introduction to roguelikes, complete with a minimal and appealing interface, and simple yet elegant set of abilities for each class you unlock. Yes, this game has progression- remember, roguelikes are allowed to have progression, as long as the dungeons and combat are still done in the style of Rogue! This is a key element of Sproggiwood: you start with a very basic class and gear, but as you go you unlock both equipment and characters of increasing complexity, smoothly ramping you up to deeper gameplay and a higher level of challenge. That challenge requires you to make use of your options as they open up to you. In a genre with so much to learn, and so many of its lessons unlearnable from any other genre, it’s a great ramp up to a full roguelike experience.
I have never played a roguelike for more than a single sitting. The one time I tried the genuine article, Rogue, it was incomprehensible, and playing Izuna wasn’t much better- while not as difficult to understand, it felt annoyingly random, and I soon lost interest. Winning or losing seemed like it was purely based on the layout of the randomly generated level- my skill was barely a factor at all! It’s clear I never really understood the heart of roguelikes, and Sproggiwood was more than happy to show me what they’re all about.
The tutorial is short and sweet, teaching you only the basic controls. The rest is doled out in the most intelligent of slow drips- this enemy leaves a poison effect on the tile it was killed, so you need to be careful where you finish them off if you don’t want to limit your own mobility and progression. Stepping on one trap spawns three enemies all around you… if you stop to swing at them, they’ll be able to swing back, but if you use the one opening left to run to a chokepoint, you can eliminate them one at a time without taking a hit. I finally appreciated the intricacies of positioning, which are everything in a roguelike. You can get enemies to attack each other or use an ordinarily annoying slippery tile as a quick escape from a bad situation. Though the random generation is certainly a factor, with careful thought you can make it through the toughest level.
This system gently introduces elements and gradually ensures you get a grasp of how they work, and then adds more when you start to crave additional depth… but its patient pace has an unfortunate side effect. One of the great hallmarks of Rogue and its imitators is complexity- the possibility space was practically endless. In NetHack, you could transform into a cockatrice and turn foes to stone if they touched your flesh. That’s deep enough, but if your character was female, your female cockatrice could lay eggs. Then you could shapechange back to your human form, and throw the eggs. When they broke open, the victim would technically be touching cockatrice flesh and turn to stone. Bam- petrification grenades. Not all roguelikes have the same depth as NetHack, but most allow for an intense level of planning and strategy.
At the moment, Sproggiwood never really gets there. It’s still in closed beta (and it’s a real beta- there are typos, missing graphics, some minimap weirdness… it isn’t always perfect), so things could change, but each class is clearly capped at four abilities, with one slot for a useable item. Your weapons and armor can have special spell effects, but none of them are too crazy- you’ll see a lot of classic enchantments like fire, ice, or healing. The enemies never seem to have more than two attacks themselves, and none of the traps have been too wild, either. I will be delighted to play more Sproggiwood even if it never reaches the complexity necessary for truly diabolical tactics, but it would have made a good game into a great game.
As it’s still unreleased, getting a copy of Sproggiwood isn’t as easy as just visiting the Steam Store. It has been Greenlit, so it will be on there when it’s done, but until then you’re going to have to look for a beta key. The creators have been pretty generous with sharing keys on social media- the team’s programmer, Brian Bucklew (@unormal on Twitter), throws a handful up every now and then. However, it’s already worth paying for (assuming they’ll charge a reasonable price), and the game is only growing as they update it. If you’ve never known a roguelike you could stand… give this one a try. The art and writing are supremely charming, but most importantly, the game sold me on a genre I’d once written off.
A copy of this game was obtained by Scanline during a developer giveaway.