Let’s be honest, the rogue-lite has become a little too ubiquitous in 2019. Along with RPG levelling, procedurally generated levels and pixel art graphics, this once fresh and exciting sub-genre has arguably become more rote than riveting. And yet, despite the fact Streets of Rogue features all of the above, it’s somehow managed to dodge many of these issues, offering a very silly yet incredibly deep top-down adventure. And how does it do it? By really embracing the ‘role’ in role-playing game…
In the world of Rogue, a power-hungry mayor has confiscated all alcohol, installed a police state and - for reasons unknown - turned chicken nuggets into a more lucrative currency than gold itself. As a newly minted member of The Resistance, you’ll need to fight your way up from the Slums, through the Industrial area, to the faux-outdoors Park, into Downtown and finally into the domain of the Mayor himself in Uptown. Each level is represented by a series of interlocking rooms, corridors and open-area with an art style not too dissimilar to The Escapists or Enter the Gungeon.
You start out with access to six different classes, but there are actually a total of 24 to unlock throughout the game. Well, we say ‘classes’, but they’re really vocations, each with their own unique loadout, abilities and missions. A soldier, for instance, will enter a level with a machine gun and a set of explosives, enabling them to blow walls apart and lay waste to any guard, while the thief can turn invisible and will need to loot the contents of any nearby safe. Each level has a main story goal you'll need to complete before you can ascend to the next level, but having unique quests for each style of character makes each run completely different.
When you start unlocking some of the more unusual vocations - such as a gorilla who can’t use any weapons but his own fists while simultaneously attempting to free his fellow apes - you realise just how much potential there is for multiple playthroughs. Rogue-lites are all about the cycle of life and death, with one run flowing into the next as you die and restart from the beginning, but Streets of Rogue breaks this monotonous cycle by offering tons of variables to keep you interested. When you unlock the comedian, you’ll need to kill someone with a banana peel (a classic gag) while practising your new material on the denizens around you. It’s Syndicate by way of Terry Pratchett, with a sense of humour that’s happy to laugh at just about anything.
Each level layout is randomised, so you’re often having to think on the fly when it comes to the string of missions you’ll need to complete. Further quests can be obtained from quartermasters on each floor or in moments of systemic gameplay - such as a thief who runs into your path (who you can kill or join in order to share the spoils), so there’s always a means of earning gold and XP. You can start buying useful items such as rocks (for destroying explosive laser barriers), lock picks and hacking tools. Homeowners will accost you if you enter their premises uninvited, but you could tap on a window to distract them, or hack their computer from outside. The sheer number of options you have makes each run more of an exercise in role-play than simply another generic knight looting a dungeon.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of agency Rogue offers, and some players might be a little put off by a game that enables you to change the appearance of every character, while introducing gameplay modifiers that alter the behaviour of enemies or the composition of the level you’re about to explore. You can get to choose passive boosts that further enhance your character class every time you level up (such as being harder to hit when enemies use melee weapons). Add in support for local and online co-op with up to three other players (where using multiple classes really comes into play) and you’re getting a game with real ambition.
If there’s one area that Streets of Rogue does struggle in, it’s its presentation. While the environments are randomised, their layouts do get a little predictable. Even in scenarios where you enter an area embroiled in a gang war, there’s often the same set of rooms to explore (such as bars, jails and shops) so all that variety in character customisation and unique abilities can sometimes go to waste. The top-down art style is also a little bland, and relies a little too much on gloom and shadow. It makes you wish the developer had opted for something more stylised, such as Hotline Miami or Ruiner. Still, it's up-beat chiptune soundtrack helps balance out its predictable visuals.
Streets of Rogue isn’t the cheapest of rogue-lites available on the eShop, but years of developmental evolution in Early Access have resulted in the final product making it to Nintendo Switch, and while we do feel the asking price is a tad high, the amount of content you get far surpasses what you’re probably expecting. RPGs are at their best when they give you a world where you can be anyone and do anything - Skyrim has built its legacy on that very concept - so if you want to be a werewolf, or a scientist, or a bartender, then this is the game for you.