by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 22nd December, 2018
Find out the best rogue-lite games to play if you like the idea of permadeath combined with randomly generated levels, punishing difficulty, and often insane levels of addictiveness.
Ever since games like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, and FTL jumpstarted rogue-lite genre we have seen many dozens of cool games that either used tried and true formula of permadeath and randomly generated levels found in roguelike games adding just a couple of new features like 2D platformer gameplay and real-time combat or built upon their roguelike (which isn't the same genre as rogue-lite, read all about it here) roots and then ventured into other genres thus creating unique mixes that proffered something completely new to the video games market.
While permadeath and random levels are common features of all games found in this list that's about the only two common pieces found in these games.
And that's the beauty of rogue-lite games; they can be 2D platformers with fast-paced combat and Metroidvania elements, they can come as beautiful 3D space shooters, or opt-in for a turn-based combat revolving around collecting cards and still come with the same foundation made out of addictive gameplay combined with permadeath, creating extremely addictive formula that works with many gamers: making them competing with themselves and trying to be better each run.
This is what truly makes rogue-lites special and every single game in this list is a superb example of what happens when a team of developers perfectly nails the "be better than the last time" formula.
The first game on this list is also the most recent one. Dead Cells is a triumph of game design as the game offers a superb mix of rogue-lite elements spliced with a healthy dose of the addictive Metroidvania spice.
The game calls itself a Roguevania and we have to say that this description is spot on. You have randomly generated levels that are unique each time you start over, unforgiving combat that puts Dark Souls to shame, and meta progression system where you keep unlocked abilities once you die, allowing you to visit previously inaccessible levels during new runs.
And the whole game takes place inside a giant castle that looks like it was borrowed from some Castlevania game.
On top of all that the game looks gorgeous and plays like a charm. Controls are super responsive and combat is a breathtaking experience. You also have access to more than 90 skills and weapons, 4 epic bosses, and lots of hidden paths and areas that come with unique rewards.
The only problem we found is the fact that there are simply too many visual effects during fights, which can lead to an unexpected death, and that can be pretty frustrating in a game like Dead Cells.
Another member of the 2018 staple of rogue-lite games, Into the Breach is a perfect mix of turn-based strategy and rogue-lite. You lead a specialist squad of mech pilots and their battle robots in a far-fetched attempt to save the Earth from an alien invasion.
Aliens look like giant bugs and they come with all kinds of nasty abilities and attacks that will put your mech squad to the test on each level. The game world is divided into islands, each tougher and with more aliens than the last one, with the goal of saving every single island from the alien threat. You do that by fighting nasty bugs from outer space on tiny 8x8 grid levels where you have to outmaneuver opponents while keeping civilians safe and by making sure to preserve the power grid.
When the power grid falls below a certain threshold it's game over and you have to start again. Each of your fighting robots has a unique ability and there are plenty of different robot squads, each with their own common set of similar skills. This gives players an almost unlimited number of strategies they can use to save humanity.
The catch is that, at the very start of the game, you have access to only one mech squad and all others have to be earned by playing the game, pushing the replayability factor in Into the Breach over 9000! Into the Breach utilizes enchanting pixel art graphics (like many other similar games) and it offers about 3-5 hours of fun per run.
And the best thing is the way designers solved the problem of running out of motivation after beating the game. You see, your squad is from the future and they have an unlimited number of alternate timelines and each one includes the Earth and the alien invasion.
So no matter if you win or lose you still have practically unlimited number of Earths to save, which gives you plenty reasons to return to some new Earth and wipe out the bugs with a completely new set of combat mechs.
Now, the previous two games are pretty tough but this one puts them both to shame. When it came out, Darkest Dungeon was considered as one of the hardest games available (and the game got released way after Dark Souls).
Developers even had to come up with lighter difficulty modes (that cannot be usually found in a rogue-lite) because players couldn't grasp the game's brutal difficulty. So if you look for a challenge, pick this one.
Darkest Dungeon is a combination of rogue-lite and turn-based RPG where you lead a band of misfits, mercenaries, soldiers, and mages, into the depths of an ancient castle that hides gruesome secrets.
The goal is to reach the final dungeon and defeat whichever evil lurks there but in order to do that, you'll have to git gud like never before. The game looks sort of cute but believe us, it is utterly unforgiving. You have to take care not just about the health of your party but also about their mental state. Most of them also come with some sort of negative stat that makes them prone to going schizophrenic, or depressed, or suffering from some other mental illnesses like paranoia or various phobias.
They can also contract various diseases that lower certain stats until you heal them after reaching the main camp, located in an abandoned estate near the castle. Each trip to the castle's dungeons might be your last so you have to be careful and always return to your camp before your whole party dies.
The game sports a cool-looking gothic graphics style and the story and monsters look and sound like they came from some forgotten story from the pen of H. P. Lovecraft. What more do you want!?
This game isn't even fully finished but it can be freely awarded the title of one of the best rogue-lite games ever created! The unique combo of CCG and rogue-lite works flawlessly here. In Slay the Spire you play as one of the three characters, each with their own deck of cards. You start the game with just a basic deck made out of a couple attack and defense cards (10 starting cards in total) and fight your way through the spire that has 50 floors and three areas.
During your journey, you will find new cards, slay monsters, spend gold at the merchant, and stumble upon lots of unique events that can lead to positive or negative outcomes (usually it's the combination of the two).
Each area ends with a boss, which is usually extremely hard to beat but the map is also sprinkled with elites, monsters that are way more powerful than regular enemies and that carry bigger rewards.
Each elite, as well as each end boss, come with a unique artifact, and these are in high demand in Slay the Spire. Each artifact gives you one special bonus (that can or cannot be combined with a negative effect) and sometimes having the right combination of artifacts can be critical to reaching the final floor.
But if you build a powerful deck you can reach the final boss without any artifact, and this is where the game shines. Each character sports a unique card collection and player has to construct a viable deck out of cards they receive after defeating enemies (cards can also be bought at the merchant or found in some random encounters).
Each character has access to about half a dozen deck strategies that rely on different card combination. The game's meta progression gradually unlocks new cards for each character, which can be found and used during future runs.
As the Ironclad you can rely on powerful attacks or you can choose to play with a deck made out of cards that combine high defense with attack cards that wreak havoc when upgraded. There are a couple strategies that revolve around single cards along with half a dozen additional strategies. This also works with the other two playable characters, making the number of different deck strategies staggeringly high.
This is why Slay the Spire is so addictive; each run is unique and even when you beat the game you will come begging for more because there is always a better deck to build. And since the game comes with a special mode that makes the game harder each time you beat it, the fun factor in this one is through the roof!
This is one of the titles responsible for the current popularity of the genre. Unlike most other games featured on this list, Rogue Legacy keeps things rather simple. You have permadeath, randomly generated levels that are placed inside a huge castle (making the castle completely different during each run), fast-paced real-time combat and punishing difficulty. This makes one rather simple mixture of elements but one that works excellent in practice.
Instead of some kind of meta progression system that saves some upgrades, weapons, or pieces of equipment to be used on future runs in Rogue Legacy you play with a different character each time. These are offspring of your previous character and they come with their own unique sets of skills and abilities.
This means that you won't become gradually stronger (or have access to better equipment) each time you start over but random playing characters mean you have a chance of getting a particularly powerful character that will make the game and fights much easier.
While this RNG based character selection has its faults, the reality is that in Rogue Legacy players have to rely on their skills rather on gradually improving their arsenal through different runs.
Sure, you can get a powerful character but that doesn't mean the game will get easier, making Rogue Legacy the best option for players looking for a rogue-lite that asks from players to become better in order to beat it, not relying on new equipment and powers unlocked during previous runs.
Everspace is by far the prettiest game on this list. It is practically a space shooter with a rogue-lite twist. The game is a 3D title (unlike most other rogue-lite games) and it features beautiful spaceships along with impressive star systems (each star system is a single level in the game) filled with planets, moons, space debris and a bunch of hostile aliens and space pirates.
The game does have a story but to uncover it whole you'll have to play the game a lot because Everspace is pretty damn hard.
The game plays like an arcade space shooter meaning that quick reflexes, perfect aim, and master level of control over your ship are must have in order to survive. Of course, you will die eventually and will have to start the game over. But that doesn't mean starting from scratch. You can acquire permanent upgrades for your ship that carry over to future runs.
You can also buy new ships and acquire various blueprints that also carry over. This means that in case you craft some super cool weapon you will be able to craft it during the next run in case you found its blueprint.
Everspace is a game of skill but it is also a game of slow but steady progress because, even if you're not that good, upgrades you make and blueprints you discover make each run just a tad bit easier. But, if you want to reach the end of the game getting upgrades and blueprints won't be enough. You will have to seriously git gud.
Like, Slay the Spire Hades is an Early Access game that can be found exclusively on the newly founded Epic Games Store. Developers behind Hades delivered some of the cult classic titles such as Bastion and Transistor so expectations from the gaming community were high even before the game entered Early Access. And as soon as Hades got out everyone acknowledged it as one of the best rogue-lite titles ever.
The premise is simple, like in most other rogue-lite titles; you play as Zagreus, son of Hades and Prince of the Underworld who has a sole goal of finding his way out from the Underworld and reaching Mount Olympus.
This will prove to be trickier than Zagreus thought so he will die a lot and end up being resurrected inside the castle of his father. But dying and starting again carries some bonuses; Zagreus can buy permanent upgrades and unlock new weapons he can use during future runs, making each climb out of the Underworld a bit easier than the last attempt.
Greek Gods can give Zagreus various boosters that aren't permanent (you lose them once you die) but can greatly help players in battling horrors of the Underworld. The game looks amazing (like every other title that came out of Supergiant Games kitchen) and plays like a hardcore action adventure, requiring quick reflexes and fast fingers for pulling off combo moves.
The view on the action is from the isometric perspective, and while rooms (levels) aren't randomly generated their placement inside each run as well as monsters found in each one are. An excellent game that will only get better with time, making Hades an exceptional long-term investment for rogue-lite fanatics.
One of the best indie games ever, FTL (Faster Than Light) made rogue-lite genre a rightful contender on the video games market. In FTL you command a spaceship and her crew in the last attempt to save the galaxy from a horrible threat.
Each run creates a unique galaxy filled with enemies, random encounters (that play like mini-text adventures on a choice-consequence basis), and extremely powerful bosses.
You have a top-down view on your ships and her different compartments and can command each member of the crew. The ship has limited reserves of power and successfully managing them is the key to success. Each battle encounter requires from players to think strategically and make decisions that will keep the ship in one piece.
This is done by commanding crew members as they move through the ship, activating some systems while turning off others (for instance, you can turn off engines during combat and reroute power to shields and weapons) all while trying to stay alive while destroying enemies or making them flee.
This combination of rogue-lite, real-time strategy and management game is unique and it works more than excellent! Players can pause the combat and think about what to do next, they can use different strategies to defeat enemies (blowing them off, trying to escape, boarding enemy ships, overloading systems so they damage enemy ships, etc.), and can upgrade their ship during the course of the game.
Upgrades aren't permanent but new, more powerful ships get unlocked as you progress further into the game. These ships can be used on future runs, giving you an edge against nasty aliens, and new strategies to incorporate during combat encounters.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a remaster of The Binding of Isaac, a game that launched in 2011 and soon after became a cult classic. The premise is simple: you play as Isaac, a small child whose mother got mad and tried to kill him. He escaped into the basement and now has to find the exit while battling horrific monsters.
The game is pretty simple; each room is filled with enemies which have to be killed in order to advance. Isaac can find new attacks and other powers but those disappear when he dies. The only form of meta progression are new powers, items, enemies, and bosses, that become unlocked as your progress the game further and which can be found during future runs.
A simple yet extremely addictive game is filled with bosses that drop better loot, some fairly simple puzzles, and tons of dark humor. The game looks nice and works anywhere and its replay value is excellent because the game offers multiple endings based on the current run. And since even reaching the end for the first time is extremely difficult, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth offers hundreds of hours of addictive rogue-lite fun.
Spelunky predates all other games found in this list. Its first iteration appeared in 2008 as a freeware game for the PC. A few years later Microsoft decided to put the game on the famous Xbox Live Arcade market, so the company approved funds for developers and they made a much better version of the game that was timed Xbox 360 exclusive but a couple of years later it landed on every major gaming platform.
Here you guide a fearless explorer who is trying to uncover all secrets of a massive cave system that is filled with treasures and numerous dangers. You can earn money and buy new equipment and weapons, you can fight cave dwellers with a wide range of weapons, and your goal is to reach the end of the cave. But that will be extremely hard because in Spelunky you can die in a billion different ways.
Each time you die you have to start over and over time players can unlock new characters, each coming with their own set of unique stats that can make future runs easier. Aside from offering single-player challenge, Spelunky is a rare rogue-lite that comes with 4-player co-op and Deathmatch local multiplayer that can be played against friends and bots.
And for the end of this list, we have one rogue-lite that is perfect for playing on smartphones. While most of the titles shown here are available for the Nintendo Switch in case you don't have one and your only choice for gaming on the go is a smartphone, mobile game market is pretty slim when it comes to quality rogue-lite titles.
You have FTL for iOS but the game requires a big display (read iPad) in order to be able to play it without problems. There are lots of free-to-play titles but they too are far below titles mentioned in this list in terms of quality.
Luckily you have Downwell, a small indie title that started on iOS but soon after got released for every major platform. The game is perfect for smartphones because it's played in portrait mode and because it comes with an extremely simple, touch-based control scheme. In Downwell you lead a young man down into a mysterious well which hides many secrets.
You can collect red orbs during your journey which can be used to buy upgrades (you can also pick one free upgrade after each level) that make the journey easier and the goal is to reach the bottom of the well. There's no meta progression so you have to rely on your skill and the right combination of upgrades in order to finish the game.
While it looks extremely simple on screenshots, Downwell is a super intensive game that's a joy to play, especially on smartphones, and by far the best rogue-lite found on mobile devices. Unless you carry around iPad everywhere you go; in that case, you should get the mobile version of FTL.