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Platform: PC

Roguemance Review

Quit playing games with my heart

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I’m a fighter, not a lover. I mean, I’m not either, really, but I know which one my library of games features overwhelmingly more of. Games just aren’t very good at making love compelling. The Sims feels like idly toying with laboratory mice, dating simulations make me feel icky all over, and BioWare’s offerings are half a dozen different kinds of exhausting before you’ve so much as struck up a conversation with your C-Sec officer. The systems we’ve established for conflict are so much more mature and compelling than those developed for growing meaningful relationships, and at this stage it seems like a smarter idea to retrofit those systems as allegories for love than to try and engineer fresh love-centric mechanics. One can only assume this is the philosophy behind Roguemance, a roguelike that’s definitely not about crossing the landscape, fighting monsters or levelling up—despite featuring all of them prominently—but rather, about dating.


You may think you’ve heard this story before: someone sits down with a design document, hits ‘Find & Replace’, and changes out every other verb with some slightly more unconventional equivalent in the hopes it’ll stand out. “No, they’re not healing spells, they’re smooches,” they bellow at a huddle of programmers they catch using the wrong terminology. Oddly enough, not only is Roguemance not such a case, but its combat feels almost explicitly constructed from the ground up to be quite unlike any traditional roguelike fare; the kind of combat system that makes you afraid to start listing descriptive terms in case you end up unable to stop. “It’s simultaneous turn-based real-time spatially dependent rotary menu-driven orthogonal words adjectives... adjectives, can you believe I can just write anything in this box?”.

At the start of every turn, everyone chooses an action—enemies from a cyclic routine, player party members from a four-way menu—and then everyone moves all at once in a flurry of clashing activity. Spells and attacks manifest as horizontal projectiles—I suppose it’s sort of abstract, unless everyone’s literally flinging swords and axes around—which in turn can be dealt with by reflecting, jumping, overriding, absorbing, dodging, or otherwise negating them. It looks simple on the surface, and in a way, it is; the devilish part is how everything interacts to produce sprawling trees of possible outcomes. Much like, say, Spelunky, every individual actor has primitive behaviour that quickly becomes an armful-and-a-half when put in a room with three or four other people. A monster throws a sword at you, you deflect it back at them, they turn invisible and it passes straight through them, hitting their ally while infused with the ice spell that was sailing in the opposite direction. Roguemance’s combat is laced with the most wonderful kind of opportunism, and I daresay if you’re a clever sort with a specific build in mind, it could be so much more.

And it’s deterministic, too. There’s no invisible die, stirring chaos into the formula as some token gesture to the lingering spectre of Rogue, steering the course of the action with damage rolls and glancing blows; the only thing stopping you predicting the future with absolute certainty is how many steps ahead you’re able to think. Not that that’s a trivial task—on the contrary, if you know what the screen will look like more than three turns from the present, I’m going to assume this is what you do in between challenging Garry Kasparov—but the mere knowledge that it’s the case feels like an encouragement to strive; to attempt to plan ahead and save moves so they can be used to devastating effect.


One or two oddities lurk in the system, mind. Every projectile travels across the screen in real time—some slowly, some quickly—but the game lets you embark on your next turn immediately after ending your last one, regardless of whether things are still moving around. What this means in practice is that if you’re quick enough on the trigger, you can deal with the effects of the previous turn before they’ve had a chance to fully play out; avoiding attacks that were destined to hit, healing allies that were fated to die. It’s not entirely clear if this is even intended behaviour—though some attacks fly so slowly that that it’s hard to imagine just sitting and waiting for them to land—but it’s a bit of an iffy mechanic regardless. I’ve never quite seen eye-to-eye with games that think they can make choosing from a menu a more exciting experience by gluing a ticking stopwatch to it—that’s right, Final Fantasy, I’m calling you out—and it feels especially misguided in a game that’s at its best when you’re carefully considering the spiralling implications of your next move. Call it a subversion of the game’s rules if you like, but those rules were interesting enough by themselves; you don’t throw a spanner into the works if the machine’s already making enough of a racket.

There’s also the matter of early-game fights occasionally not respecting your time. The cooldowns on your moves won’t expire until you’ve deployed all four of them, and while this normally makes for an interesting limitation that shapes the course of combat, it gets a little tiresome around the start of the run, when you tend to have fewer offensive moves and enemies may not even be capable of hitting back. You get the sense that you’re wasting a lot of turns doing nothing of consequence; burning through skills with no current application just so you can refresh your sole means of inflicting damage. Naturally, turns can go by very quickly if you want them to—it’s not as if the game has lengthy, over-elaborate animations bogging it down—but nothing can suppress the fundamental inelegance of being forced to block repeatedly against a sentient pillow that’s physically incapable of attacking.

Of course, much like real life, Roguemance sort of expects you to find a certain someone—or multiple someones, as it were—to accompany you down its long and eventful roads. The game fancies itself as something of an extended dating metaphor, and while I can’t vouch for its accuracy in that department—I’m trying, mum, get off my back—the parallels are nothing if not easy to make. Partners, which are randomly generated and largely kept pleasantly gender-ambiguous, can be picked up in taverns and can then be called upon to accompany you into battl- I mean, on a date. But dating is a tumultuous and difficult process, and not just because of all the bloodthirsty monsters. You can’t directly control your partner’s actions—though with time, they may grow close enough to let you rotate their skill selection wheel in sync with yours—and it’s easy to get careless and accidentally hurt one another in the thick of things. Every partner has their own ideas about the best course of action you should take together, whether it’s the battles you choose or the rewards you pursue, and while it’s obviously in your best interests to keep them happy—as happiness does, over time, translate to increased health—sometimes it’s for the best to disagree and just deal with the short-term fallout. It’s easy to unwittingly work too hard to please a partner and fail to look after yourself, or become self-absorbed because you take them for granted, both of which are likely to leave one of you in a sorry state after suffering the slings and arrows (and chains, and swords, and fireballs) of outrageous misfortune.


Hmm. Video games have historically been pretty poor at modelling social dynamics—especially those tied up in something as nuanced as love—so it is sort of impressive that Roguemance’s partner system achieves so many parallels. I’m just not sure what the emotional outcome is supposed to be. It makes for a nice extra layer of management for design nerds like me to coo over, sure, but there’s not much in the way of actual payoff. Minimal characterisation makes it easier to randomly generate partners, but it also means it’s virtually impossible to get personally attached, unless you look back on your time spent picking out skills for them with the teary eyes of a mother looking through a yellowing scrapbook of baby photos. They’re just mass-produced automatons, gifted with seemingly arbitrary taste that they force on you at every turn. Yet even when treated with utterly cold-hearted pragmatism, partners don’t exactly feel valuable; they’re replaceable at every other opportunity, not even remotely necessary to progress, and are just as likely to make things trickier as they are to make things easier. Perhaps that’s all part of Roguemance’s grand metaphor, and remarking “hey, there aren’t a whole lot of practical reasons to have a partner, what’s the deal with that?” is some smirk-worthy naivety. I’m just not sure why I’m doing this, you know?

Here’s the big, clanging problem with Roguemance, though: it doesn’t grow. Not nearly enough. This isn’t shouldering the blame on the game’s minimalist, accessible, low-text approach—which is elegant roguelike design at its best, another feature it shares with Spelunky—but the main loop leaves a lot to be desired. Every floor confronts you with a fork in the road, giving you a choice of two or three randomly selected encounters to pursue—fights, shops, taverns, health refills, mysterious pudgy cats who grant you a random skill—but the spectrum of possible events feels small and underwhelming, not to mention lacking in surprises. Pathways are sometimes shrouded in fog, preventing you from knowing what lies ahead until you commit to them, but it does little to veil the experience in mystery when you know they can only be one of, what, five possibilities? It feels like Roguemance doesn’t have anything hidden up its sleeve; no rare occurrences or unexpected twists of fate, nothing to make your eyes widen in panic or delight. Delving deeper doesn’t feel like something you do out of curiosity, but something you just... do. It’s a video game, keep moving forward.

And the worst part is how little resistance you meet. Does a game like Roguemance need to be hard? Well no, not necessarily, but there’s a lot of nuance packed behind its unassuming, modest facade, and yet the majority of it goes to waste because the difficulty curve is just so flat. I finished Roguemance on my second try, having not yet grasped or even touched basic mechanics—without any partners, ironically, which certainly made the marriage-themed epilogue a bit surreal—and felt like nothing had really been asked of me besides indefatigable patience. The game’s design lends itself best to learning through doing—toy with a new skill, recognise a new pattern, get a feel for the vulnerabilities of a monster’s routine—but I was done aeons before I had fully learned. Instead of feeling more tense or hostile, Roguemance just feels more drawn-out and tedious as it goes on, to the point where the “X miles to go” signs that mark your progress seem to take on a mocking, sardonic tone. Part of the issue is that the only vector for the player character to grow is through gaining more maximum health, so if you’re even remotely diligent about levelling up, you become progressively more insulated from disaster—not that Roguemance ever really feels like throwing one at you.


More than anything else, my relationship with Roguemance is “it’s complicated”. The saccharine presentation feels hollow, but that was always going to be a given when we’ve been trained to associate pink hearts and rose petals with romance as envisioned by cynical corporate behemoths. Dig beneath the cutesy exterior and Roguemance is a game of nuanced design that isn’t quite given the support it needs to flourish. Accessible and modest, it almost undersells its compact, rock-solid systems, but after an hour or two of nonthreatening, repetitive encounters, it becomes apparent those systems won’t get the fleshing-out they deserve. As a metaphor for dating it works on a lot of levels, but outside of offering you the opportunity to coo appreciatively at the developer’s smarts—or to draw disingenuous conclusions about the nature of love—the game doesn’t seem to really know what to do with it. For yet another unique take on the procedurally-generated pilgrimage, Roguemance can offer a worthwhile dalliance, but it’s no lifelong passion. Then again, what is?

Our ratings for Roguemance on PC out of 100 (Ratings FAQ)
The artwork is cute enough, I suppose, though I can’t say it got much of a response out of me. Music was basically alright, minus one weirdly abrasive battle track that stood out like a bear trap in a cabbage patch.
The epitome of ‘easy to learn, hard to master’—or at least, it would be if there was any mastering to do. Smart core systems with great potential that never really get a chance to expand.
Single Player
As per usual with this sort of game, the only stories of any real note are those that arise from the coincidental interactions of mechanics—which, to be fair, there are a fair few of. A shame that it feels so wearisome and drawn-out, with the difficulty curve of a loading dock ramp.
Basic couch co-op that should serve fine for a session or two with your real-life partner, provided that you aren’t too fussy about sharing a 'confirm' button.
(Show PC Specs)
CPU: Intel i7-6700K
GPU: Nvidia GTX 1080
OS: Windows 7 Premium 64-bit
PC Specs

Limited configuration settings could be a pain, depending on what your ideal control setup looks like, but hey, I can’t imagine it running any more swimmingly.
Novel and cleverly designed, Roguemance makes for a delightful, tempestuous little fling while its ideas are still fresh, but its failure to make the most of them may leave you with a spot of premature exhaustion.
Roguemance box art Platform:
Our Review of Roguemance
The Verdict:
Game Ranking
Roguemance is ranked #1079 out of 1982 total reviewed games. It is ranked #68 out of 148 games reviewed in 2018.
1078. Algo Bot
1079. Roguemance

8 images added Feb 27, 2018 00:56
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