(Content note: ableism, slimepitter and GamerGate bullshit.)
Gotta discuss some housekeeping first. Skip to the fold for the review if you’d prefer.
While I didn’t exactly go looking for it, incoming traffic on my post eventually clued me in to this thread on KotakuInAction (CW: transantagonism within the first few comments — this is Reddit, and a GamerGate forum on Reddit no less, so it’s bound to be awful, right?) announcing my first Ethical Gamer post reviewing Mercenary Kings. The thread contains people simultaneously decrying Freethought Blogs and me as being unethical, expressing outrage that a Skeleton Warrior could possibly play video games and want to review them from a social justice perspective, and, strangely enough, comments lauding my outright expressing my biases up front. A few of them even calmly point out that most of my problems actually came from Mercenary Kings controlling poorly and becoming stale way too quickly. Judging by the name, the thrust of the original post and subsequent comments, the person posting it to that subreddit is clearly a slimepitter well versed in Freethought Blogs’ history and their mythologies about us, so it’s replete with the sort of Googlebombing of character assassination you have likely come to expect from their ilk.
It’s one of those Big Lie situations where they repeat any slander they can about a person as often as possible and to as many audiences as possible, to poison the well against us potentially being right about their rubbish ideologies. The goal, naturally, is to get the fence-sitters and people on the sidelines, to destroy the credibility of anyone who might present a valid criticism of their philosophy. And of course, to achieve its goals, it’s full of the least charitable interpretations of a bunch of things I’ve freely and under no duress discussed about my own past, about what shaped me into the person I am today and what gave me my ethical compass, misinterpreting and reinterpreting these events in order to paint a funhouse mirror distortion of me that hopefully someone might get outraged about because, you know, I’m Fair Game for being a Feminist Suppressive Person on the internet. Because, you know, Freeze Peach for thee but not for me? It’s a bit funny that a Slimepitter tried to sic Gamergate on me as His Personal Army, thinking he’d get sympathy because I dared use the phrase “ethical gamer” as my name, and most of them wouldn’t take the bait. It’s a bit difficult to tank for their more vulnerable targets when not even the slimers hoping to sic them on me can convince them my Threat is higher than, say, Anita Sarkeesian. Oh well.
The reason I named my series what I did is actually quite simple, and it has to do with ethics as a concept — especially, as a concept that right-wing reactionaries do not have a grasp on. Ethics is about having a sense of right and wrong that goes beyond simply what is within the laws or customs of society, about more than preserving the status quo for people like you. Good ethics requires empathy to work at all. Having good ethics means attempting to maximize good for as many people as possible — it’s about more than just revealing your personal biases or keeping liberal political statements out of video games, as the Gamergate narrative goes. It’s certainly not about getting revenge on a woman who dumped someone you’re sympathetic with, especially not by lying to everyone repeatedly to maximize her pain. It’s about looking out for the people who are traditionally disadvantaged, trying to make sure everybody gets a fair deal out of a transaction — especially when those traditionally disadvantaged folks are being stomped on for no good reason by a medium that’s actually just supposed to be about fun and pleasure. That’s why I started this feature, and why it has the focus it does.
The thread is, naturally, also replete with misinformation about this effort, like that I’m getting any money for reviewing anything. I’m not. I am lucky some months to break two digits in ad revenue for the whole blog, since my flow of content is down to a trickle for the past year-ish — my last cut of ad revenue was ten dollars and some change. These two (now three) posts are an infinitessimal fraction of that total traffic and ad revenue, so you can take that unevidenced rationale for my focus and cram it. I am also not getting review copies of any video games, unlike most of Gamergate’s favorite Youtube vloggers, nor am I affiliated with any of the games I review, like TotalBiscuit, another Gamergate favorite. (Meaning, of course, these actions are perfectly acceptable when they’re done by antifeminists and Gamergate sympathizers. Shocking that they might be tribal, right!?) And in the event that I AM affiliated with a game, I will either abstain from reviewing it, or make that affiliation plain as day. I don’t pretend I hold much sway, but if I’m too close to a topic, I can recuse myself.
I buy these games on my own, with my own hard-earned cash, usually through Humble Bundle purchases. I review them from my own personal perspective, which, since I’ve been blogging for almost ten years, you folks should know pretty well by now if you’ve got the same sort of longevity in readership as I have in authorship. I do it entirely for fun, to tell you about games that I enjoyed or games that I did not, and to discuss aspects of them that I might have found problematic. Further, I do it entirely recognizing — unlike some people — that it is perfectly possible to enjoy a game even if you dislike some bit of pernicious sexism or racism or what-have-you within it. It is also possible to criticize that aspect of a game without wanting to destroy an entire industry (see the preamble to every single Feminist Frequency video, which of course these folks ignore as well). And most importantly to me at least, I’ve stuck to only reviewing games thus far that are playable on Linux, because I’m a huge open source nerd and I’d like to make sure those games that are playable on Linux get a fair shot at being reviewed and treated as being worth your attention.
Having stumbled upon that post reminded me to complete this review of Rogue Legacy and post it.
I’m going to pull a Psycho Mantis on you and read your memory card. So, I see you like Castlevania. You also like platformers generally. RPGs, yes, yes. Roguelike games too? Excellent. Here’s a game that you might find right up your alley: Rogue Legacy. Plug your controller into port 2 and join me below the fold.
This game hits every single high note in my personal checklist of awesomeness: RPG stat-building elements, procedural generation, solid platformer action, retraversal (to a minimal degree), and permadeath.
Permadeath is one of those features that mercy-kills a completist like me — with games like the original ascii-based Rogue, from which the term “roguelike” was borne, when you die, you lose everything. There is no save reloading, no retaining your progress. You start over. In these games, the only thing you carry through from one playthrough to the next is your knowledge of the game mechanics, since your dungeon, starting statistics, loot, scroll and potion names, and monsters you’ll encounter will all change next time around. It’s a game that forces you to learn how to play it intelligently, rather than memorizing everything. It’s a mechanic that forces completists to play a completely different way, and it opens us to the possibility of playing a game “casually”.
Rogue Legacy barely scrapes by on that count, since every time you enter, you start at level 1 and you’re back to your initial stats; the dungeon map will rearrange itself completely, and you’ll have to explore it from scratch on your next run. However, and this is a big however, all of your character growth obtained in town is passed down from generation to generation. But the game is marketed rightly as a “Rogue-Lite”, for exactly this reason. The permadeath feature is actually to force you to pick a new character style, from a stable of “rolled” characters after you’ve died, to change up your class and any genetic anomalies you might have. You get to pick from one of only three generated characters, and if none of them suit your play style, too bad.
Every time you’ve made your way through the castle, even if you came out as a bloody pulp, you come out with all the money you’d earned, and your character’s descendant can spend that money to upgrade your characters’ bloodline. This is the “Lite” part — you do, in fact, get to improve your bloodline’s lot by buying upgrades with your last character’s monetary gains. You can increase your starting stats, unlock new classes, change your equipment, and even reduce the amount of money that Death tolls from you when you reenter the castle. The mechanic is good for giving you a sense of real progress from one playthrough to the next, but it dampens that roguelike atmosphere very significantly. It’s a mechanic that can make you feel rather overpowered in initial areas once you’ve done a number of really good runs, and in some cases, it might even feel like it’s the only way to cut your way through certain bosses.
The genetic variance feature is one I was really enthused by when I first heard of this game, prior to its launch, imagining perhaps an RPG system like E.V.O, or any sort of deep gene-swapping to maximize your characters like a video game version of eugenics. In game, though, nobody knows how you’re passing down genes from one generation to the next, and there’s no real “genes” at work where gene frequency is changed by your current loadout and who you mate with, so it’s not what I was hoping for originally. It’s just randomly re-rolled every time. A nearsighted hypergonadic warrior can procreate without a partner somehow (parthenogenesis?) and produce a gay wizard with irritable bowel disorder, who can then produce an ectomorphic Barbarian Queen. The genes are supposed to be a way of making the game slightly different on every playthrough without actually changing the sorts of monsters or the rooms that are generated. And some of the genetic effects have serious repercussions — endomorphs are bulky enough to be immune to knockback, while ectomorphs take extra knockback on being damaged. Many are just there to make slight alterations (gay characters, on a successful run, ride off into the sunset with a same-sex partner, for instance), or to be silly or annoying — characters with IBS make a fart noise every time you jump.
Many of the genetic alterations, though, are almost certainly going to raise some folks’ hackles. For instance, one alteration is called OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). With that trait, you get a small magic regeneration bonus for destroying all the breakables in every room. With Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD), you have no foot pulse and thus don’t trigger floor traps. There’s an absolute ton of these that are questionable at best, which translates to really strange game mechanics — having ADHD will grant you a 20% increase to speed, having dementia will occasionally cause you to “imagine” enemies that aren’t actually there, and being hypochondriac vastly increases the damage figures that float over your head when you’re hit (though you take regular damage).
All of this translates to the game’s developers perhaps rightly charged with making light of some serious conditions. They did, I’ll note, correct one particular trait: “Tourrettes”. The trait causes your character a bit of extra delay before you regain control of your character after being hit, while the character swears up a blue streak Q-Bert style. That trait still exists, but recognizing the incorrectness of the label, the devs kept the mechanic but renamed the trait “coprolalia” — literally meaning, shit-talking.
Procedurally generating content that stays fresh and original is a hell of a feat, though. (Trust me. I’m trying to do something like this myself right now.) So, with Rogue Legacy, you have a whole lot of hand-built rooms with slightly procedurally variable contents — some rooms might include a “miniboss” of an enemy from a higher tier, for instance. The layouts are identical through all four areas of the castle, and only the tier of monsters and tilesets used to display the backgrounds actually change from one area to the next. After a few dozen runs, you’ll start to recognize individual rooms, and become old hat at dodging the missile turrets and beelining to the monster spawn points. So, despite it being a different castle every time, with different monster placements and different loot, even this game can start to get stale as you come to know every single room type by heart.
And it’ll take a lot of runs to build up your stats enough to be able to take on the end boss, unless you’re a better gamer than I am. Some people have speedrun the game and beaten the end boss in 15-ish minutes, but I’m not that caliber of gamer.
It’s okay though. With the skill tree, and the item blueprints, I actually had something to spend time being completist about, so I was able to grind away getting every blueprint and upgrade. I haven’t beaten any of the alternate superbosses yet though, and it seems I’m unlikely to now, as I haven’t played the game in many months. But every now and then, I consider picking it back up and getting those few final trophies for my Steam achievements.
My verdict: definitely worth the money, especially if you like Castlevania. You’re going to recognize a LOT of the game mechanics as practically lifted wholesale, from the spells to the layouts to the skeletons who throw bones. Just, be aware that some physical and mental conditions are treated as though they’re superpowers, jokes, or even just getting them completely wrong, which might be particularly irritating if you happen to suffer from any of those traits yourself.