Readers unfamiliar with roguelikes may wish to read my introduction to the genre first.
I first heard about Red Rogue a few years ago, when its author, Aaron Steed, began a development log forum thread on Tigsource. Soon there was a playable build which I had some fun messing around with, but I didn’t stick with it for very long. Flash forward to last week, when out of the blue I saw the news that the game is now complete. So I decided to take another look. And my, it’s a lot more interesting now, enough so that I kept playing it instead of writing this post (apologies for the tardiness) and I imagine I’ll keep playing it for some time.
So what is Red Rogue? It’s a roguelike platformer. If you’re like me, that immediately makes you think of Spelunky, which I’ve written about before (it’s excellent, by the way, and you should definitely go play it). But while Spelunky is a platformer that borrows a bunch of roguelike elements in its design, Red Rogue is more of a roguelike re-imagined as a platformer. While exploring its procedurally-generated levels, you will find, identify and equip weapons and armor, you will walk into enemies to attack them, you will search for traps and secret passages, and you will slowly learn more about the dungeon and the rules that govern it.
Oh, and you’ll die a lot.
Red Rogue’s protagonist is the widow of the rogue named “@”, a reference to the original Rogue. She’s entering the dungeon, along with the animated skeleton of her husband, to seek revenge on the Balrog that killed him. And maybe find that elusive Amulet of Yendor while she’s at it. When playing Red Rogue, I’m continually impressed with how well it adheres to the classic roguelike systems. There’s no jumping, so movement is entirely based around walking, climbing ladders, and dropping from ledges, in a way that feels very true to traditional overhead roguelike movement. The randomized scrolls, potions and wands from traditional roguelikes are condensed into a set of magical runes, which have all manner of uses depending on whether you decide to eat them, throw them, or enchant an item with them. Weapons and armor must be identified as well, but pleasingly this knowledge persists across play sessions in the game’s “lore” menu, a nod to the slow process of discovery that accompanies roguelike games (I also appreciate the auto-sort feature which will put the best items at the top of the inventory menu, so you know when you’ve grabbed a weapon that’s better than your current one). There’s even an optional “dogmatic” mode in which time only progresses when the player is moving or otherwise taking an action. While not exactly turn-based, it does evoke the more tactical gameplay of top-down roguelikes.
Unlike traditional roguelikes, however, Red Rogue is extremely simple to control. All you need are the arrow keys for movement, and the space bar for the menu, which grants access to everything else. It does help to use a few keyboard shortcuts though. F will fire a ranged weapon or throw whatever is equipped in your throwing slot, C will call your skeletal minion (and deceased husband) back to your location if you get separated, X will disarm a trap, and Z will initiate a search. I especially love how searching works: you must hold still while a search box spreads out from your location on the mini-map, and any traps or secret passages are revealed as red blips on the map. You’ll still have to hunt for treasure chests yourself, though, so you’ll want to explore each level in full.
The aesthetics of the game are also remarkable. The graphics are lo-fi and presented entirely in greyscale, with one exception: the blood is very red. Red Rogue, aptly named, is a very bloody game. Even passing by harmless rats and spiders as you explore will turn them into tiny splats of blood, and combat with enemies gets very gory indeed. While many roguelikes simply accept the fact that cutting a bloody swath through hordes of monsters in a giant, evil dungeon is a normal occurrence, Red Rogue acknowledges just how strange it is. From the gory combat to the odd items (you wear tiaras or swarms of flies instead of your more standard leather, chainmail, etc.) to the fact that your rogue will tear out enemies’ hearts and eat them to regain health, there’s something off about the dungeon that creates a delightfully creepy vibe. This is helped in no small part by the excellent audio design, courtesy of Nathan Gallardo. Perfectly creepy music punctuated by the occasional inhuman howls of distant enemies make an ideal complement to the visuals. But I think my favorite details come when resting. Sleeping will recover your health, but also show you text-based snippets of the rogue’s dreams. These slowly reveal the heroine’s backstory, and ruminate on the nature of the dungeon and its inhabitants. Her husband’s story is in turn told through the various inscriptions he carved into the walls for her to see. Over many plays I was able to piece together some of what happened, and I’m eager to find out more.
There are tons of other cool details I could mention — extra-tough named enemies, the ability to wear a slain enemy’s face to take on their appearance and abilities, the altars to RNG, God of Chaos — but I should leave some things for you to discover on your own. Since it runs in Flash, you can play Red Rogue in your browser over at Newgrounds or Kongregate, or you can download the game for free from the main site and play offline, which allows a nice fullscreen option. You can even host the .swf yourself if you are so inclined. No matter how you decide to play, make sure you give it a try. You won’t regret it.