Roguelikes have had a very good run as of late. Even before the launch of Supergiant Games' revolutionary Hades, talented indie developers were producing a steady stream of fun, "Fight. Upgrade. Die. Repeat," titles. And now Housemarque's Returnal demonstrates what the genre can achieve when it is approached from the opposite end of the development spectrum, backed by a bigger budget and the bleeding edge tech of a fresh console launch. Even though it is tempting to pit Hades against Returnal in terms of over all quality and appeal, the tired "which is the better title?" question, more interesting lines of inquiry are: "What unique things do these titles bring to the table?" and "What important qualities do they share?"
While both games share several features in common—like the near-identical currency system—they have very different lessons for developers working on future titles in the same space, that are equally valuable. Hades' peerless accessibility options open up an imposing genre to a broad audience. Returnal proves that roguelikes can go bigger in terms of both immersion and production without losing the genre-defining focus on improvisational character builds and compelling, challenging combat. More importantly though, both games prove that compelling, iterative narrative breathes life into a genre that would otherwise be arcadey and monotonous.
One could argue that the roguelike market is already saturated, and that the genre has been reduced to a tired fad. But Hades and Returnal will not necessarily inspire more roguelikes. In fact, they may deter developers from producing derivative titles by raising the bar for roguelikes as a whole. Newcomers weened on Hades' God Mode will demand access to future titles in the genre. PS5 early adopters will compare future games to Returnal's haunting immersion. This stiff competition demands innovation rather than bandwagon development.
Roguelikes, like Soulslikes, are a genre of videogame that demand mastery. Dying is not merely inevitable, but a core feature of the experience. For some players, that challenge holds inherent appeal. It feels good to master enemy movement patterns and boss attack cycles. But to many other gamers, burning countless hours to obtain the necessary degree of mastery becomes a deterrent to reaching the end of a truly compelling story (more on that later). Hades makes a powerful case for more soulslikes and roguelikes having an Easy Mode, by giving players benefits that scale with their struggles to complete the game.
Attaining skill is not the only way roguelikes act as time sinks however. Most entries in the genre demand a considerable time commitment from players, as few titles allow players to pause their progression mid-cycle. Again, skilled Hades players can shave their total time beneath the 15 minute mark, but for those starting out, a complete trek through the realm of the dead can take over a half-hour. Other games in the genre can take even longer. But Hades respects players' time by allowing them to pause a run after completing any chamber. If something comes up mid-run—an urgent phone call, family emergency, or other obligation—the players' progress to that point is preserved.
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