By William Baker III
Why roguelikes? They’re still misunderstood. So I decided to create a story that’s something like Ronald’s Gordon’s Roundup – except with games. Here are my favorite roguelikes:
“Dead Cells” by Motion Twin
Dead Cells is a fast-paced action-platformer roguelike that excels in combat and exploration. For me, the fluid movement, tight controls, and satisfying combat mechanics create an exhilarating gameplay loop. The procedurally generated levels ensure that each playthrough feels fresh and unpredictable. The controls are tight and responsive, allowing for precise movement and satisfying combat. The game offers a range of control options, including keyboard and mouse, gamepad, and connecting external controllers (such as Xbox or PlayStation controllers). Beautiful pixel art brings the game’s dark and atmospheric world to life, and fast-paced and exhilarating combat with a variety of weapons and abilities to discover the game offers ample room for experimentation and strategic decision-making. Each run feels fresh thanks to those randomized levels, and the sense of progression through unlocking new items and abilities keeps you engaged. Dead Cells’ smooth gameplay, challenging difficulty, and gorgeous art style make it an absolute standout in the roguelike genre.
Playing Dead Cells feels like playing the most fun part of Metroidvania games (don’t kill me, you know what I mean), but all of the time. The music and VFX have a great impact on this, really building the atmosphere and helping you feel incredibly in control of your character as you spam your one immensely-upgraded weapon to your heart’s content and melt bosses (Uninterruptible Flint, anyone?). It feels good, and looks even better. While the skill ceiling isn’t through the roof, there is minmaxing to be done, and permadeath always adds some sweat to the brow no matter how experienced you get.
[NI, was] “FTL: Faster Than Light” by Subset Games:
Nominated back in the day for a New York Game Award, FTL: Faster Than Light is a space-themed roguelike that puts you in command of a spaceship on a desperate mission. The game’s intense, real-time tactical gameplay combined with its branching narrative choices makes for a thrilling and unpredictable experience. The pixel art style and atmospheric soundtrack create a captivating ambiance throughout the game. FTL’s high replayability factor and challenging difficulty curve will keep you coming back for more, aiming to achieve that elusive victory. FTL: Faster Than Light provides a thrilling space-themed roguelike experience. The controls are intuitive, with simple point-and-click mechanics that allow you to manage your spaceship efficiently. The display settings offer different scaling options and fullscreen/windowed modes, accommodating various screen sizes and preferences. The real-time tactical gameplay keeps you on your toes, making split-second decisions as you navigate dangerous encounters. The branching narrative choices add depth, providing a sense of consequence and immersion. FTL’s pixel art style captures the essence of space exploration, while the atmospheric soundtrack enhances the tension and excitement.
FTL is a great way to have fun getting mad at a crew of people supposedly working in a team, before remembering that the crew is entirely you. This game is HARD. You will get a story popup with two lines of text and two three-word options, and be terrified to click either one. You will grow to accept multiple “DANGER!” icons as a mainstay of your general HUD. You will get used to thinking through elaborate plans only for them to become completely irrelevant mere moments later, and you will get VERY acquainted with the phrase “well, I hope I didn’t need that,” whether talking about a crew member, part of the ship or a supposed reward. You will have a breakdown, and you will have a blast. You’ll probably have multiple blasts, actually. You may want to reinforce that hull.
“Risk of Rain 2” by Hopoo Games:
Risk of Rain 2 takes the roguelike genre into a 3D realm with its cooperative multiplayer gameplay. With a wide array of unlockable characters and items, each run feels unique and exciting. The fast-paced combat and dynamic scaling difficulty keep you on your toes as you fight through hordes of enemies. The visually stunning environments and a fantastic soundtrack create an immersive and intense atmosphere. The controls are smooth and responsive, whether you choose to play with a gamepad or keyboard and mouse. The display settings allow for customization of resolution, graphics quality, and field of view, ensuring an optimal visual experience. The fast-paced combat and dynamic scaling difficulty keep you engaged as you and your friends battle hordes of enemies. Risk of Rain 2’s cooperative nature adds an extra layer of enjoyment, fostering teamwork and strategic coordination. Risk of Rain 2 is a fantastic multiplayer roguelike that offers hours and hours of thrills.
Infinitely stackable items that are almost entirely passive buffs is an open invitation to anyone at least remotely experienced with the roguelike genre. Runs will differ so wildly, that the character select screen is less about choosing a playstyle and more about choosing the color and approximate shape of your small child you will then strap with loaded firearms and attach to the roof of a tank. It will change things, for sure, but it is FAR from the most important factor at play. Feel free to exponentially multiply your insanity by playing with friends! Someone WILL end up running off the map. It’s not an if, it’s a when. But man, oh man, will they have a hilarious time falling to their death. This game is proud to be unbalanced.
“Caves of Qud” by Freehold Games:
Released in 2019, Caves of Qud is a captivating roguelike with a vast, procedurally generated world. Its retro ASCII-adjacent tileset art style adds charm to the immersive gameplay experience. With a rich character creation system and deep lore, the game offers endless possibilities and surprises at every turn. The strategic turn-based combat, unique mutations, and intricate storytelling make for an addictive and rewarding adventure. Despite its retro ASCII art style, you just have to keep playing. Part of that’s because the game’s controls are intuitive and responsive, allowing for smooth exploration and combat. Caves of Qud’s challenging learning curve and rewarding character progression make it a joy to play for roguelike enthusiasts seeking a deep but difficult gameplay experience.
This game is your favorite childhood pick-your-path adventure, blown up to a massive scale and placed inside a visual blender of Baba Is You and WarGames. It is unique in all the best ways. There is so much to do, see and create. Even calling it a game is arguably a misnomer – in reality, it is a world. A world that isn’t evening happening around you, the player. You’re just a part of it, and it is incredible to experience all of the unique things you aren’t being and doing. The replayability value cannot possibly be understated, and honestly I would love a peek inside the mind of the writers that made this game what it is. Caves of Qud takes its time, and is well worth your time to play it.
“Slay the Spire” by Mega Crit Games:
Slay the Spire seamlessly combines roguelike mechanics with deck-building strategy. The game’s innovative progression system ensures that no two runs are alike, but every run offers exciting choices and synergies as you craft a powerful deck to navigate mysterious environments, overcome challenging encounters and defeat powerful bosses. The gorgeous art style and atmospheric soundtrack enhance the overall experience, making Slay the Spire a must-play for roguelike and card game enthusiasts alike. The game features roguelike elements, such as progression through different “Ascensions” which add increasing bonus challenges to runs, and the ability to unlock new cards based on how well you score on a previous run. The strategic depth and variety of cards and relics make each playthrough feel unique and enjoyable. Fight gremlins, slay slavers and overwhelm opposition with orbs in this mega hit from Mega Crit!
Slay the Spire is a game that defines what a roguelike should be. It is, without a doubt, my favorite of the bunch, and for good reason: this game wants you to play it. Its achievement system encourages trying out different playstyles, the Daily Climbs throw in even more fun variables to think about, and the modding community is absolutely bonkers (Seriously! They even have developer support!). The ascension system is incredibly balanced, to the point where many of the most skilled players love and hate playing on the highest difficulty (which is very much intended). It is approachable, understandable and yet still has so much depth in terms of playing optimally AND doing all there is to do (even though you can’t). Slay the Spire flawlessly combines deckbuilding and roguelikes, in a way which I have yet to see properly replicated to this day. It is worth far more than its price, and has a game feel to kill for. Or… slay.
William Baker is an Intern who attends Hunter College High School in Upper Manhattan.