I know you’re just exhausted by the multiple-post-per-year pace of updates around here, so let’s take a break from turn-based combat systems and talk about the progression systems of two very, very good action RPGs.
When you die in Dark Souls – and if you know nothing else about the game, you have certainly heard how often you die in it – all your unspent currency (souls) drop in a bloodstain at the spot you were standing a few moments before death. If you can return to that spot before dying again, you can reclaim all that currency, plus anything you collected on the return trip. In order to spend the souls, you have to reach either a bonfire or a merchant. The risk of Dark Souls is overextending – going so far without banking your earnings that when you die, your bloodstain is too difficult to reach. If you have enough souls to convert into something permanent, the conservative play is to head back to safety immediately. Using a bonfire to heal and level up will cause any enemies you defeated to respawn, but as those stats increase, along with your skill and confidence as a player, you begin to view enemies as fodder for growth rather than obstacles. After all, as long as you can get as far as your bloodstain, nothing is lost forever – and with each cycle you accumulate more souls. But seasoned Dark Souls players will also tell you: ignore the souls, unless you’re specifically grinding. Souls are a renewable resource, and only a means to an end in any case. Permanent progress through the world – opening shortcuts, collecting keys, defeating bosses – is paramount.
When you die in Rogue Legacy, you keep all the currency (gold) you collected, but you must spend it before re-entering the castle; Charon claims anything you have left before allowing you to enter. At great expense you can invest gold in a skill that reduces the amount he takes from 100% down to a minimum of 70%, and I regret having gone down that upgrade path in my first playthrough – I didn’t recoup anything like enough gold to justify the thousands I spent on the discount. If your run was particularly short, you may not be able to afford any of the available upgrades or equipment, in which case you get nothing from it. The risk of Rogue Legacy is not reaching a milestone – the gold required for a new upgrade – before death. It is always best to go as far as possible in one run, to have as much gold in hand as possible when the inevitable happens. Until you discover a boss door, that is – then, if you are prepared for the fight, you can pay the architect, who takes a cut of any gold you earn in return for locking the map on your next run, allowing you to teleport straight to the boss at full strength. The game comes right and and tells you this is a great idea. As in Dark Souls, it’s best to have an objective in mind on any given run. Currency, or progress? The customizable equipment and runes let you decide how to balance combat mastery and gold farming.
In both games, the cost of an extra point in each stat or skill increases with every purchase. How you invest points doesn’t affect the cost in Dark Souls – your 21st upgrade will cost the same every time, regardless of the distribution of the previous 20. As a result, veterans tend to focus on two or three primary stats to level and invest as little as possible in the others; a level added to a mediocre stat drives up the cost of an excellent one. In Rogue Legacy, on the other hand, certain upgrades always cost more than others. Incremental increases to base stats are the cheapest, while high-return skills like new character classes and boosts to gold collection are much more expensive. But again, buying a level of any skill increases the price for all future skills.
Since you can’t save up gold, a twisted thought wormed its way into my head as I watched the price of the gold boost skill become more and more exorbitant: should I start throwing my gold away instead of dumping it into cheap upgrades, so that the expensive ones – which provide a huge return on investment – don’t become even harder to attain in a single run? I didn’t follow through on this idea, and in hindsight I’m pretty sure I was right not to – although the little upgrades don’t make a huge impact immediately, longer survival times correlate pretty directly with bigger gold earnings. But in the moment, standing between Charon and the castle, it wasn’t clear why I was desperately buying anything I could to avoid “wasting” a currency that existed in infinite supply – to a more skilled player.
The combat system of Dark Souls – attacks, blocks, dodges, distance from the enemy, and how the stamina bar ties them all together – is such a confident, elegant design that I get wistful thinking about it. It is possible to beat Dark Souls on skill alone – without spending a single soul. I am not capable of doing it. I need the safety net of more health, more damage, and especially more stamina, so I grind and grind. But where in most RPGs that currency is a marker of my progress – I made it to level 40! – in Dark Souls, it’s a monument to my shortcomings: I had to dick around earning 40 levels before surviving the Capra Demon and his effing dogs.
It may also be theoretically possible to beat Rogue Legacy without spending gold, though I can barely imagine surviving the final boss’s attacks without unlocking at least one double jump or dash. But looking back, I’d argue that denying yourself permanent upgrades isn’t how you demonstrate mastery of Rogue Legacy, as it would be in Dark Souls. Dark Souls is thoroughly deterministic; like Mega Man, its levels and the behavior of enemies can be (must be) learned. By contrast, the test of Rogue Legacy is managing the unexpected – random levels, random pickups, and most of all, random characters. After each run, you choose from three new random characters to play as, a combination of a class and a few helpful or harmful traits. The skills, equipment and runes you unlock with gold let you play to the strengths of your current character, and survive while exploring each freshly generated map.
So yeah, I was around level 100 when I beat Rogue Legacy. But I beat it with a character afflicted with Vertigo – i.e., the screen was upside down, with left and right inputs switched. Therefore, in conclusion, I’m awesome.
…In actual conclusion: Dark Souls, just two years old, has already become a touchstone for indie developers who want to differentiate their games from the press-this-button-to-win stereotype of current mainstream offerings (I’ve lost count of the games on Kickstarter and Greenlight that are “like Dark Souls but”). Rogue Legacy is this year’s breakout indie hit, likely to inspire further iterations on the “roguelike plus X” genre. I hope that these future games learn the right lessons from the success of Dark Souls and Rogue Legacy – and aren’t just punishingly difficult for difficulty’s sake, but deftly incorporate death and penalization into their progression loops.