Every year, or at least most years, I find THAT roguelike.
The one that fills a very specific niche in my gaming habits. It’s the game that I come back to in between major releases. In between regularly scheduled programming blocks of life (laundry, before bed, etc.) Each of these games, FTL, Invisible, Inc, Duskers, Darkest Dungeon, to name a few, are fundamentally different than the typical Roguelike mold, though. They stress mechanical complexity but through very clear and effervescent command input. The way you interact with the games is tight, narrow, but the moving parts with which you interact are multi-spoked and brush up against each other in satisfying ways. They suck up so much time because each 2-6 hour micro campaign varies drastically between each run. And more over, they stress decision making over simply “playing the game.”
I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t find that game this year. I’ve purchased and toyed around with a handful of games to fill that hole but none have seemed to stick the way I need them to. Caves of Qud is too obtuse and though I love its atmosphere it doesn’t immediately lay out its complexity. Book of Demons is pretty flat (literally and figuratively.) Kingdom: New Lands is a beautiful and solemn game, but frankly not engaging in the long term.
Then I stumbled upon Streets of Rogue. Normally I would immediately click away from a Steam page that serves me top-down pixel art, 80’s themed Kavinsky-style house bangers, and fourth-wall-breaking jokes. I’ve had enough of those. What caught my eye, though, is that the game is a top-down simplification of the immersive sim genre. Which, if you’re not familiar, is the catch-all for games like Dishonored, Deus Ex, and the upcoming reboot of Prey. They’re games that stress player expressivity – that allow each issue to be tackled in whatever way the player sees fit. They do so by building complex sets of interlocking gameplay mechanics. You can either go in guns blazing, hack into a terminal to unlock an air duct to sneak in, or barter with the guard to let you pass. And most importantly, any combination of the three. The immersive sim happens to be my favorite genre, and one that the new king, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, learns a lot from.
In Streets of Rogue you progress area by area through a broken down cyberpunk dystopia. You pick one of many character to begin your run, each capable of, and equipped with items suited to a particular playstyle. Run and gun? Soldier. Sneak around? Thief. Each essentially functions as an archetypal character build in a game like Deus Ex, but rather than dumping forty hours in to raising your charisma, you have the opportunity to swap between play styles between each dungeon run. You unlock most of those characters by performing activities related to that character archetype. Want to unlock the wrestler? Complete a level with only punches. This adds a significant incentive for continued play, and more importantly, varying your strategy, which in turn expands your understanding of Streets of Rogue’s myriad systems.
And myriad they are.
For a game as small as Streets of Rogue, the opportunities it allows the player to express themselves is staggering. I’ve clocked about six hours into the game and haven’t made it past the third dungeon floor, and I learn something new about the world of Streets of Rogue every time I play. This bodes well for the game at large. In some regards, Streets of Rogue has a leg up on other immersive sims – because of its fast paced gameplay and relatively simple presentation, you’re constantly making the tasty decisions that are, for some other games, somewhat infrequent.
The game is not without issue. I can’t get down with the tongue-in-cheek, self aware humor. That it’s omnipresent really grates after a while. It’s unfortunate, because the sense of humor when it doesn’t rely on meta-layer irritation is actually quite funny. The disparity between them makes me feel that the developer isn’t terribly confident in their ability to write comedy, and it comes across. Example: the paralysis trap’s item icon is an upside down “P”, which is explained through its in-game description as being so “because the developer couldn’t think of anything better.” Naw man, I’m good.
Streets of Rogue’s core combat is the spot most sore. The twin stick shooting is serviceable, but the melee combat is sloppy at best. So much so that it feels suicidal to tackle a group of enemies in close combat. You’re never sure when a hit will connect or when to swing whatever melee weapon you hold. It’s funny, whenever I think of SoR’s peers in the immersive sim genre, they all seem to share the issue of un-fun combat, Dishonored in particular. I can’t help but think it’s due to the complexity of building a clockwork world and how much of a developer’s psychological and fiscal bandwidth it must consume to do so. That being said, if you’re looking for a lean, combat focused twin-stick shooter roguelike, Steam certainly has your bases covered elsewhere.
I may have just found the roguelike I need to fill the empty gaps, assuming the game adds new layers of strategy the farther you go.