What would it take to make you play a game for hundreds of hours? Could it be an endlessly sprawling open world? What about a branching storyline that requires multiple playthroughs to get different endings? What is the secret to making a hugely addicting single-player game? I only recently found out the answer to this question, and it wasn’t massive open worlds or branching plotlines. It was replayability, and what better example of replayability is there than the roguelite?
To explain the roguelite and its growing popularity as a genre, we must first take a look at its big brother: the roguelike. The roguelike genre originated from the 1980 computer game Rogue, which was an RPG based on text-based and tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Rogue boasted a high fantasy setting with randomly generated levels, enemy encounters, and item drops, and one of its defining features was permadeath, meaning if your character’s HP dropped to zero, you’d have to start all over again.
Nowadays, features like permadeath and randomized levels can sound like buzzwords for selling new games, but at the time of Rogue’s release, these features made Rogue so popular that people started looking for games like it, hence the term Rogue-like.
Fast forward to the 2010’s and roguelikes have evolved, crossing over multiple genres and broadening the definition of a roguelike. One of the newer subgenres is the roguelite: a more forgiving, pocket-sized version of the roguelike that doesn’t take too much time for a single playthrough. Roguelites still possess the same randomization and addictive replayability as roguelikes, but they’re perfect for when you can only spare an hour or two of your day to play a video game.
Here are five great roguelites from the past decade, for when you just want to play a quick game after a long day, or when you want to binge through a dozen playthroughs on the weekend, just to see how far you can go.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the 2011 remake of the cult classic shoot-’em-up flash game of the same name, made by the same team that made 2010’s Super Meat Boy.
You take on the role of Isaac, an infant being chased into the basement by his crazed, murderous mother. The basement serves as the game’s dungeon, and you’ll have to navigate five floors of it in order to finish a single playthrough, defeating a boss in each floor.
You start off with only Isaac’s tears as your weapon, but through the five floors you’ll find random weapon upgrades, all weird, grotesque, and powerful in their own way. In one playthrough you might be skewering enemies with blood lasers, and in the next you might be blowing them up with fetus bombs. All the weapon upgrades in this game can synergize with each other, which means that upgrade effects stack, and the more you play, the more overpowered combinations you’ll discover in your journey down the basement.
Rebirth boasts an overhaul of the original game’s art style, swapping out the thick brush lines of the original for stylized pixel graphics, and a whole lot of new weapons and items for players to discover through each run. You could play Isaac for tens of hours and still find something new hiding in the basement. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, is Replayability: The Game, and it set a precedent for every great roguelite that came after it.
So what happens when you take The Binding of Isaac’s formula, add some run-and-gun action from Hotline Miami 2, and a large helping of bullet hell? You get 2016’s Enter the Gungeon from Devolver Digital.
Enter the Gungeon is The Binding of Isaac taken to bullet hell levels of difficulty while also improving on gun combat and weapon design. The camera shake and attack animations make gun combat feel impactful, and the amount of weapons and weapon upgrades you randomly encounter make each playthrough a fun challenge to master.
Enter the Gungeon also places an emphasis on balancing attacks with dodging and rolling, which may trigger war flashbacks for fans of the Soulsborne games, but with this game, dodging and rolling adds to the depth of play as you weave through wave after wave of bullets, waiting for an opening to attack. It’s extremely fulfilling to dodge at just the right time leaving the enemy vulnerable to whatever overpowered weapons you’ve built up during your run.
Wacky weapons, an always-changing dungeon, and unlockable characters with their own special skills make Enter the Gungeon extremely fun and replayable, and now that it’s been ported to the Nintendo Switch, you can even take this stellar roguelite with you on the go. It’s a refreshing upgrade to the Isaac formula that’s worth a try.
Have you ever played a Soulsborne game and thought, “This would be great as a 2D metroidvania platformer”? Then look no further than 2018’s Dead Cells, developed by Motion Twin, who’ve also cited The Binding of Isaac’s roguelite formula as one of their inspirations for creating the game.
In Dead Cells, you take control of a slime creature possessing a corpse, known as “The Prisoner”. Just like the Soulsborne games, Dead Cells’ lore is sparse, and it’s up to the player to figure out just what’s happened in the world, as you piece together information from item descriptions and clues from NPCs.
Dead Cells is an action-platformer at heart, and its roguelite features feel complementary to the gameplay. Controls are smooth and character animations are sleek and stylish, and jumping and slashing your way through medieval fantasy and Lovecraftian-inspired creatures is reminiscent of classic Castlevania and the lesser known Megaman ZX games.
As you make your way through the randomly generated dungeons, you’ll find weapons, items, and character upgrades to power up The Prisoner for your current run, but there are also upgrades that will provide you with permanent upgrades, so permadeath doesn’t feel so harsh when it inevitably happens to you, again and again.
Dead Cells is a great roguelite for when you’ve played enough roguelite shoot-’em-ups and you’re looking for a different kind of roguelite experience. In the roguelite metroidvania genre, it’s currently the best of its kind, and it’s available on all major platforms so you can play it at home or on the go. Just remember, there won’t be any bonfires to save you this time.
Subset Games, the developers of 2018’s Into the Breach, rose to the limelight with their 2012 roguelike, FTL: Faster Than Light, a top-down, real-time spaceship management game where you find yourself manning a spaceship of your choice through the depths and dangers of deep space.
FTL is an excellent roguelike, but it takes a lot of time to master, and can put off players looking for a casual gaming experience, which is why I chose to include Subset Games’ Into the Breach in this list instead. After all, it’s a roguelite list. And Into the Breach is no less an amazing game, and one of my favorite roguelites if not one of my favorite games of all time in general.
In Into the Breach, you take control of a squad of three mechs, placed on an eight by eight grid. Each level has randomly generated terrain, enemy spawn points, and city tiles that you have to protect. By controlling your squad of mechs, you must prevent waves of kaiju from dealing damage to the city tiles while fulfilling bonus objectives that will later allow you to purchase more weapons and upgrades for your mechs.
What’s unique about the turn-based tactics-style gameplay of Into the Breach is that it lets you see how your enemies will move and attack in their next turn, so every move you make will be to pre-empt them. Each unlockable mech has their strengths and weaknesses, and some are better at attacking or defending than others, so a certain combination of mechs might mean that you’d have to sacrifice some city tile damage in order to fulfill a bonus objective that would be of greater help to you later on in your run.
Into the Breach is the perfect example of how a roguelite can be simple enough to enjoy casually, but complex enough that it can take a while to master. What starts out as a game you play like Final Fantasy Tactics, can turn into a headache-inducing mental exercise akin to trying to pre-empt a checkmate in chess. The better you get at it, the more fulfilling it is to know just the right moves to make, for the mech configuration you’ve got. This game was one of the truly great surprises of the past decade, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Before I get to the Top 1 entry on this list, I would like to give an honorable mention to a game some people might be surprised contained a roguelite mode in it, and that game is Hearthstone.
One of my most played games of the past decade was Hearthstone, and nothing quite beats the feeling of taking down opponents playing current-meta decks with wacky, unwieldy Rogue decks, but when the meta grew stale and I found myself bored playing against the same kinds of opponents again and again, what kept me playing Hearthstone was the underrated and oft-overlooked single-player Solo Adventure mode.
Ever since the release of Hearthstone’s 2017 expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs, Blizzard’s Team 5 introduced the Dungeon Run mode in Solo Adventures, which had players choose a starting hero and starting deck of 10 cards, to battle against random bosses for new cards and special loot that could affect the entire run. Future expansions retained and improved upon this Dungeon Run feature and to this day it remains highly replayable and fun.
Hearthstone’s Solo Adventures deserve a lot of credit for how well-designed and enjoyable they are, and the only criticism I have is that each new expansion’s Solo Adventure is a paid mode, which you can either purchase with real money (19.99 USD) or 2800 in-game gold (that’s 28 packs you could have bought instead). As it is a game mode and not a standalone roguelite, I couldn’t include it in this list in a ranked position, but I wanted to give it an honorable mention. Team 5 really hit the ball out of the park with this one.
While my predilection towards card games might be evident in the hundreds of hours I’ve sunk into playing Hearthstone, I myself am surprised that I’m putting 2019’s Slay the Spire on the top of this list. If I hadn’t purchased the roguelite card game hybrid on Steam’s Winter Sale just weeks ago, the number one spot would have likely gone to Into the Breach.
Slay the Spire came out at just the right time to close the decade, from the developers at MegaCrit and publisher Humble Bundle. This game is a single-player card game with roguelite elements, such as random item and card drops, random enemies, and of course, permadeath.
In Slay the Spire, you take control of one of three characters each with their own archetypes. There’s the Ironclad, which you could classify under the paladin and warrior types, the Silent, which you could classify as a rogue or warlock, and the Defect, the game’s magic-wielder and support archetype.
With your chosen character, you’re given a starting deck, and you have to fight through creatures dotted out on three randomly generated maps with branching paths, with each map gradually increasing in difficulty. Scattered on the maps are random friendly and hostile encounters that could provide support to your current run or deal damage and apply curses to your character. You build up your deck by defeating enemies and gaining gold, which you can use to purchase new cards and items at the shopkeeper, also randomly placed in each level’s map.
Each playthrough of the game lasts for an average of 40 to 60 minutes, making Slay the Spire extremely replayable. As you rack up misplays and wrong path choices, you get better at the game by getting wiser with your choice of paths and your card draft. Losses don’t feel as harsh because you can always start another run with your accumulated know-how. And when you finally get to finish the game, each character has 20 levels of challenge runs called “Ascension” runs, to test your mettle and deckbuilding ability.
Since the 2017 early access release of Slay the Spire, various clones of it have spawned on Steam and in the Google Play and iOS app stores, and Slay the Spire may as well have created its own genre. Be sure not to miss this gem of a game, because while it is the first of its kind, I’d argue that it’s still the best one. Slay the Spire is currently available on most major platforms, and is currently in development for iOS and Android.
So that was my list of five great roguelites from the past decade. The roguelike/roguelite genre itself is a vast one, and you can take a quick look at the Steam Store to see that it’s a growing genre from which we’ll surely see more great games emerge this coming decade.
Roguelites provide a taste of the fun and complexities of roguelikes for people who might not be able to afford the time and effort required to play more demanding games, like FTL: Faster Than Light or Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. After all, we’re already plenty busy playing the complicated and unpredictable roguelike that is real life, with its random encounters, surprise difficulty spikes, and of course, permadeath.
Roguelites let us play through multiple lives in pocket-sized portions, letting us enjoy their replayability while also figuring out how to get better at them. If there’s a life lesson to be learnt here, it’s that there’s more fun to be had in simply trying again. Pick up and play a roguelite today.
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