Death and difficulty! We’re in love with it. Enough so that the genre of “roguelikes” (a name originating from an old turn-based dungeon crawler titled “rogue”) has exploded in recent years – complainers of the lack of difficulty in video games beware! We’ve compiled a list of the best roguelikes out there. Prepare to die.
Note: “Roguelike” means that each game must have the option of enabling “permadeath”, which requires that you start over from the beginning of the world having lost any progress in proceeding from that location. Checkpoints are not allowed, persistent gains outside of death are. Mechanics must involve a change in abilities, items, or resources.
10. FTL: Faster Than Light
I’ve established a solid love-hate relationship with FTL. On the positive, the ship combat and gradual customization as you rush through various solar systems with just enough speed to evade the impending rebel fleet is the most original roguelike gameplay I’ve ever experienced. Manual weapon targeting, managing fires and hull breaches, and making wise upgrade decisions adds a gorgeous dimension to a genre that’s not even begun to tire of its incredible potential. On the negative, I’ve also never seen a roguelike that depends so intensely on the sheer luck you possess over the course of any given run. Skill as a whole is barely relevant in FTL, especially with the ability to pause and unpause time at will, and so it barely ekes its way onto this list (on a somewhat unrelated note, its soundtrack is awesome, and rivals that of the final entry here).
9. Don’t Starve
The bizarre world of Don’t Starve distinctly brings to mind the twisted styling of Tim Burton, coupled with a plethora of survival elements and the odd moment of horror. Every object you see can be plucked, ripped or cut from the ground somehow, but the challenge of exploration under the constant stress of fending off threats of insanity and starvation is enough to tie a knot in the gut of experienced gamers. In terms of setting, there’s little comparison. The world you wrestle with is alien and dark, and hides plenty of secrets for even the most bored Terraria fan.
8. Din’s Curse
Non-linearity is a rare trait within the realm of ARPGs to begin with, but Din’s Curse takes the odd design several steps farther. The goal of Curse is to make amends for your sins by saving various villages from the monsters within their respective dungeons, and if you don’t respond to a distress call swiftly despite being five floors underground, you’ll find the NPCs – your ticket to victory – being slaughtered by a small army. Combine that with insane gameplay customization: there’s a ton of conditions you can attach to a new characters, most of which increase the already-formidable challenge of regular play.
7. Path of Exile
How do you know a game is to be taken seriously? Perhaps by a skill tree with several hundred nodes? Path of Exile is the greatest F2P ARPG of all time, with a heavy design around permadeath characters. There’s an entire league of players attempting to crush the whole campaign on one-life characters, often with special conditions attached. Think you’re great at ARPGs? Not until you rank hard in Path.
In a world full of silent enemies, clumsy drops from on high, and lakes of fire, permadeath is a feature well-suited to the most cautious and paranoid of blockheaded players. Minecraft’s challenge isn’t substantial on Survival mode, but when a single death on hard means the erasure of your precious world? Talk about raised stakes. Millions play Minecraft… but few survive the trials of Hardcore.
5. Torchlight II
Torchlight’s successor ranks among the greatest ARPGs of our time. The added challenge of creating a hardcore character in a game that throws bosses capable of instantly slaughtering you in your direction on a regular basis easily falls within the category of “masochistic,” even for a roguelike. Hardened power players only. Fantastic alternative to Diablo.
4. Risk of Rain
Would you like an obscene number of passive special abilities with your MOBA-type character? Risk of Rain is your dream come true… unless you don’t like dying. Learning to enjoy failure remains a must, regardless of the hundred-plus items that have (if you think about it for too long) horrifically warped your once-sane self into a thoughtless beast of pure destruction.
3. Rogue Legacy
“Retro platformers” are given a pretty bad rap these days. The simplicity of pixely jump ‘n shooters has resulted in a fairly saturated market – but when your platformer involves permadeath, a randomized dungeon, insanely difficult enemies, a huge upgrade / item system, and uncontrollable character quirks (such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome), it’s not easy to put it down! Rogue Legacy is as liable to kill you on the first room the first time as it is the twelfth, and it takes a ton of skill to make it through. Zero luck here, folks.
2. Dungeons of Dredmor
Dungeons shouldn’t always be taken seriously, and it’s difficult to do so in Dungeons of Dredmor – almost as difficult as it is to survive the first two floors on permadeath with a random set of skills. The incredible depth of DoD – traps, crafting, hundreds of items, fully customized skillset loadouts, and tons of player mods ensure that this turn-based roguelike is never boring… and often amusing.
1. Binding of Isaac
Combining Legend of Zelda-esque dungeons with skill-based, momentum-inheritance projectile combat and a grotesque body horror motif, Binding of Isaac is as disturbing as it is brutal. “Beating” the game for the first time is essentially beating the tutorial, and reaching the truly final boss requires that you conquer Binding’s darkly cartoonish depths eleven times.
Honorable Mention: Dark Souls
It’s impossible to ignore. Dark Souls and its sequel represent everything we adore about roguelikes – except for the fact that it does have checkpoints. That prevents it from making the list, as it isn’t permadeath in any sense, but its maddening difficulty, burden of skill and frustration factor earn it a place of honor after the fact. Praise the sun.
Did we miss something here? What’s a great roguelike that you think should have made it on the list?