The past year has shown us what a single dev or small team can create, and it’s blown our collective minds. Bright Memory on the Xbox Series X|S, while slightly more than a demo, was a one-person AAA game, while The Ascent, created by no more than a dozen people, is a technical marvel. It’s hard to imagine that these indie games can challenge some of the industry megacorps for lavishness and depth.
It may not quite be on the same tier as those last two, but Rogue Wizards is an impressive showcase of what one dev can do. Following a successful Kickstarter in 2017, one-man team Spellbind Studios outsourced its art and is now ready to show off its wares. What they’ve got in Rogue Wizards is a dungeon-crawling RPG with a surprising number of interlocking systems, a deep upgrade structure and plenty of reasons to replay. It’s not a graphical powerhouse and it has some underlying flaws, but Rogue Wizards is well worth an RPG-lover’s time.
Table-top gamers will be particularly at home with Rogue Wizards. It almost presents itself as a board game, with an isometric board and a grid of squares to play on. When the game shifts into combat mode, it quickly becomes turn-based, and the pieces on the board shuffle according to some pre-set rules. It’s reminiscent of classics like Hero Quest and Space Crusade, as you choose how to spend this turn’s ‘action’, whether that be leathering a demon in the face with a battleaxe, switching to a different weapon, moving or casting a spell. The enemies take their turn, and then it’s back to you.
Away from the combat, it’s less turn-based, in the sense that there are no enemies to fight, so you can move without a fireball to the face. But things still move on the grid, stuttering from square to square, so it has the outline of a turn-based board game. That’s going to be a turn-off for some, so it’s worth doing some soul-searching over: if you were hoping for an action RPG, a Diablo-toppler, then Rogue Wizards ain’t it.
It has a simple enough template. You pick a dungeon to raid based on the named boss at the end of it, and the number of swords (difficulty) that are attached to it. Then you arrive through a portal into a procedurally created dungeon, where your aim is to find the stairs (or portal) further down into the dungeon. There you meet the boss, dispatch it, and wipe the dungeon off the map.
That’s the immediate goal, but the longer term goals are to improve your dungeon-dude. And there are plenty of ways to do that. You’re picking a higher difficulty of dungeon, because the difficulty increases the quality of drops. There are five different weapon types, and they drop in different rarities from monsters and chests, with the higher rarities having a chunky stat improvement over other weapons. The same goes for armour, and the loot positively rains down on you.
The list of ways to improve your character is borderline crazy. You can enchant your weapons and armour to give them sockets, which then allows them to house gems that do all manner of things. Every item of gear can level up, too. Then there’s your Power, Finesse and Stamina stats, which you can dink up as you gain levels. There’s a skill-tree of magic spells to unlock, with each spell being individually upgradable, and you can even upgrade your hub, unlocking more and more amenities, as well as improvements to what your shops sell, how much you can store, and more.
That’s when we reverse back to our comments about the one-person team. There’s depth and replayability that you don’t see in a lot of AAA RPGs. You’re always improving, and you can feel that improvement. You’re not just ticking up numbers for the sake of it: you’re becoming clearly more powerful, and skewering enemies that previously skewered you. The sheer number of dials and levers for improvement also means you’re pushed to play more. If you’re a sucker for optimising and min-maxing yourself to victory, this is a treasure trove. You’ll be pulled into its engine of procedurally generated dungeons, leading to constant improvement and then you’ll be back again. It works particularly well, and we found ourselves hooked on its once-you-pop-you-just-can’t-stop approach to dungeons.
Getting there requires you to overcome some of Rogue Wizards’ sizable issues, however. The biggest is its controls. Rogue Wizards never satisfactorily solves how to move, and how to target in the game. It’s a tale as old as time: in an isometric, grid-based game, what direction do you push to go up from the character’s perspective? Is it up? Is it diagonal? And which way is up really? We found it incredibly difficult to move where we wanted to in the opening sections, and it’s going to be a problem for first-timers and casual players.
Rogue Wizards’ next mistake is to rob you of the d-pad. It’s used to navigate your action bar, rather than move the character, so you’re forced to use the analogue stick to move. But we found the result to be inexact and almost a complete washout. Want to avoid that trap? Nah mate, you’re ploughing straight into it. When half of the enemies in Rogue Wizards have AOE attacks that paint the floor with ice, acid or fire, you’re constantly swanning into it when you least want to.
Those attacks are a problem, too. Clearly Spellbind Studios want you to be on the move, and it would have admittedly been oh-so easy to stand in one place and chuck chakrams or lob arrows. So, enemies push you about, make the floor lava and so on. But it’s all a bit over-the-top. Rogue Wizards can resemble a pinball game, as you’re tossed about the dungeon, when we just wanted to stick with our weapon and twat someone with it. The nudge to keep on the move and use your full roster of weapons is actually less a nudge and more a full-on suplex.
The last of the trilogy of core issues is the loot. It’s a common pitfall of any game, let alone an RPG, but Rogue Wizards looks like it’s going to avoid it before stumbling in at the last minute. You get an absolute metric ton of loot in Rogue Wizards, which feels pretty good, and – to be fair – it’s all wildly varied. The problem arrives in how often you’re switching out your gear. You’re never sticking with a weapon for more than two dungeons – there’s always a better drop or item in the shop – so you’re hardly in a monogamous relationship with your longbow, say. But Rogue Wizards has intricate socketing and leveling systems, which seem to want you to be monogamous. It feels like you’re bypassing the best parts of Rogue Wizards, and we ended up wishing the two sides of the game would come to an agreement. Personally, we wanted to be sticking with weapons more than we were. The constant switch to the Inventory tab got repetitive.
But the trilogy of faults can all be overcome. The wonky controls become something like second-nature (although we still awkwardly tumble into the odd teleport trap); the barrage of pinball attacks actually calm down towards the end of the game; and, similarly, the loadout management becomes less of a problem at the top-end, when you can settle down more with your favourite items. But it’s like saying a ten-series TV show gets good in the ninth series. It’s a hell of a commitment to get there.
We had a lot of time for Rogue Wizards. It’s unashamedly retro, it’s not the prettiest of RPGs out there, and it has near-gamebreaking faults in its controls and loot. But it’s decided that the best parts of an RPG are in its upgrade systems and randomly generated dungeons, and who are we to argue? Some of gaming’s greatest joys come from diving into a dungeon and emerging twice as powerful as before. For a one-person project, Rogue Wizards is deeper and more addictive than it has any right to be, and that should get at least one thumb up.
You can buy Rogue Wizards for £12.49 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S