Rogue Wizards, a new action RPG/Roguelike hybrid from indie developer Spellbind Studios, taps pretty successfully into those addictive elements that characterize both genres. Like any good dungeon crawler, there is loot aplenty and various monsters and bosses to dispatch and like your favorite roguelike (whichever one it is), the tense possibility of a good run ending in death and a level restart looms over exploration. With a colorful and lighthearted approach to character and story, Rogue Wizards is decidedly less gloomy and gory than your average Diablo or Darkest Dungeon clone.
There is a very post-modern, slightly on-the-nose story about gender and racial equality embedded in, and ornamented by, the usual might-and-magic trappings of wizards and warriors and the need to control magic and rid the game world of several dozen types of monsters. Most of these are weak to one of the game's six schools of magic, so a wise player will make sure to equip plenty of potions and spells and populate his or her hotbar with ranged and melee weapons, magic tower generators, and more. Levels are procedurally generated but specific NPCs and vendors will always appear somewhere in the world in order to move the story forward or join the team. Once encountered in battle, the NPCs will populate the hub world as vendors or trainers. The town is a static storybook collection of buildings with a central portal through which the player travels to enter dungeons around the world.
There are no real character classes, instead players will elect to strengthen weapons and magic and essentially create a class through leveling magic spells and one of three attributes. Combat is turn-based but very fast, and while the player's party may contain several NPCs and pets, each with special abilities and strengths, the player has no direct control over their positioning or attack order. This can be frustrating. While NPCs do a pretty good job of staying alive -- but little more -- they can get in the way of optimal player placement and being autonomous, they will sometimes pick up key ingredients or spell ammunition that the player needs. Boss encounters usually mean taking advantage of a specific weakness and having enough supplies to last through a long battle of attrition that almost always includes lots and lots of adds to prolong the fight.
One of Rogue Wizards' strengths is the variety and depth of the six magic schools and their associated spells and abilities. Leveling up takes a little longer than in most ARPGs, and it seems like there's always a bit of a shortage of health potions (a limited number may be carried) and spells. One thing there's definitely no shortage of is loot. It drops from monsters and chests at nearly every turn but very disappointingly, the character models don't change with addition of fancy new armor or the rare, enchanted weapon. Spellbind must know that all that phat lewt is nearly meaningless if it can't be shown off. One nice touch is that weapons and equipment automatically earn upgrade points the more they are used.
Rogue Wizards is charming and family friendly, but despite its systems having some real depth, the game's aesthetic and mechanical choices can work against a lasting positive impression. The procedurally generated levels are also pretty monotonous, with not nearly enough variety in the tile sets. The branching and identical-looking hallways are -- except for the monster encounters -- a little tedious to explore for hours at a time. Happily, there are teleportation devices that make negotiating the levels less of a slog and monsters do not respawn if the player survives.
A little bit like Bastion, Rogue Wizards' environments drop in (and then, drop away), tile by tile, as the player explores. I, at least, found this constantly annoying and distracting, even though I understand the reason for this particular mechanic. Some enemies can lay down ice spells, for example, and these can send the player careening close to a disappearing floor. Still, given the amount of moving pieces on the screen -- NPCS and monsters and spells, etc -- it added a bit of visual overload. A gradually disappearing fog of war would have been less distracting.
Anyone who plays a roguelike knows that there will come a time when their character dies, not from a lack of skill, but from butting up against a random number generator or an unfortunate confluence of too many monsters and not enough supplies. Played on normal difficulty -- where characters and their abilities are persistent, and death just means replaying a dungeon -- the sting of Rogue Wizards' roguelike conventions are a little less pointedly painful and feel more in service of making the ARPG aspects more interesting. And for the more hardcore/masochistic player, there is a much less forgiving permadeath mode, where the difficulty constantly escalates.
As fun as it was, playing through Rogue Wizards left me with an ever-expanding wish list: I wished the characters (who are unvoiced and under-written) were more distinctive and that combat and environments were more varied. I wished player characters would visually change throughout the game and the darn tiles would stop dropping in. But, I also know that the small team at Spellbind Studios also got a lot right, and that Rogue Wizards is still full of depth, charm and promise.