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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Monday, July 19, 2021

Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos Is My Best Surprise for 2021's First Half

Today, we’re going to focus on something a little smaller than a candidate for my Game of the Year title, something more in line with “a really nice surprise”. I hadn’t heard anything about Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos, the new game of developer duo Heliocentric Studios. But it popped up in my attention, and it looked solid. And as an extra bonus, it was published by Team17.

I don’t talk about publishers a lot here, because I write about video games mostly as a fan rather than any sort of professional, and I’m not as clear on all that they do for a game compared to, say, developers. But one thing I understand that they can do, especially in the realm of indie games, is curation: looking for promising games and giving them resources and attention. And in that regard, Team17 is doing pretty good! I’ve played and enjoyed a number of their titles, and even covered a decent number of them here too: Yoku’s Island ExpressMonster SanctuaryGoing Under, Overcooked 1 and 2, the Yooka-Laylee games, Automachef… I don’t necessarily love everything they publish, but even the things that aren’t up my alley tend to be pretty high quality.

So when I see something they release, I’ll definitely take a second look if it catches my eye. Which is how I stumbled upon Rogue Heroes. My love of Top Down A-A games is pretty well established at this point, so seeing a game in that style published by Team 17 was clearly an interesting hook to draw me in. One short demo later, and I was all-in on the experience.

Let’s back out a bit: what is the general pitch for Ruins of Tasos? Well, it clearly draws heavily from the original, 2D Zelda games. Especially A Link to the Past, which serves as the template for a lot of its appearance. But on top of Rogue Heroes looking to A Link to the Past for its aesthetic, of all of the indie Top-Down A-A games I’ve tried, Rogue Heroes also feels the closest to ALttP from a gameplay standpoint as well. And as someone who absolutely loved A Link to the Past growing up, I can’t say I’m opposed to the decision to use it as a basis.

The main concern in such decisions would normally be that the newer game just feels like a shallow imitation, but that doesn’t end up happening here, as Heliocentric Studios had a ton of ideas for new things to add to the classic formula. The end effect is weird, but enjoyable. If you ever tried playing or looking for fan mods of games, it has a similar feel to stumbling on an especially extensive rework of an older title, like someone started with A Link to the Past, but completely remade the map, and then had an idea for a new mechanic or item to implement, which gave them ideas for new locations on the map, which then inspired another system to add, which led to another map rework, and back and forth and back and forth, until you’re years later and the resulting game has gone through a number of versions and feels as much something new as it does the original base game. And if you’ve never had that experience, it can be a fun one, seeing something familiar given such a big rework that it’s almost unrecognizable.

So what all does Ruins of Tasos change from A Link to the Past to establish its own identity? Well, the first major element is one of its selling points, the titular “Rogue” aspect.* While the game’s overworld is static, the dungeons are randomized with each attempt, with a number of preset rooms connected in new ways each time. Dungeons also drop gems, a special currency that you can spend between runs on a wide variety of items, stat upgrades, cosmetics, and events.

*I’m not sure if I’ve ever described the difference between roguelike and roguelite here, so I might as well here, for anyone who needs it: roguelikes start you from the original baseline with each new run, while anything that allows you to upgrade in between attempts is a roguelite, making Rogue Heroes the latter.

There are a ton of things to spend these gems on, to the point where you will almost certainly not be able to purchase all of them before reaching the final boss, even if you play fairly methodically. You spend gems to upgrade the central town that serves as your home base, building new houses around town for new residents to move into*, many of whom have their own services that can in turn be purchased for more gems.

*Technically, these town-building elements are another one of the systems the game introduces, albeit a minor one. It’s mostly just deciding the order to build shops and where to place them around town, along with the quests and items they unlock. Plus, you can increase the size of your character’s home and decorate it with different furniture, just for the heck of it. Ultimately, it’s not one of the game’s big selling points or anything, but I still feel like it’s notable enough that I can’t just let it go totally unmentioned.

Among other things, just about every major stat in the game (health, magic meter, stamina, etc) can be improved in a number of ways, and almost every item has its own upgrade tree to improve every aspect, from strength to range to speed of use. In some ways, it reminded me of Monster Sanctuary’s love of skill trees, but I didn’t find the usage here as irritating as it was there. I think that’s because the feedback in Rogue Heroes is generally pretty straightforward, in a way that Monster Sanctuary couldn’t pull off. Like, if you decide your playstyle is aggressive and you need to be able to take a hit, you can just pour your gems into defense. Monsters are taking a while to go down? Just look into improving your sword’s damage. Running out of stamina too quickly? Build the gym and improve it. At one point, there was an area I wanted to access, but my hookshot wasn’t long enough, so I just focused on improving the hookshot’s range until I could make it. You usually have a good idea of what you’ll need as you play more, and all of the improvements are simply exactly what they advertise, so the process is straightforward despite the wealth of options available at any time.

The randomized dungeons and upgrades are a big part of the game, but you’ll probably be spending just as much time in the fixed overworld, and honestly, I found that part of the equation to be much more interesting. The dungeons were good for scratching the primal “see numbers go up, accomplish tasks, improve character” itch (partly because of the upgrades you can buy with the gems, but also just from the visceral thrill of defeating enemies and seeing large numbers of gems fly everywhere), but just wandering around the main map was fun and rewarding in its own way (and honestly, one of my favorite unsung elements of playing Ruins of Tasos was leaving off with both overworld and dungeon tasks active, so I could decide which playstyle I was feeling at that start of each new session).

The Overworld is big and crisscrossing, with plenty of sidequests, shortcuts, and secrets to dig up. There are plenty of “Aha!” moments, where you see something that you can’t quite reach yet, and later make the connection on how to get there with more experience or new items (including several not based on Zelda mainstays!) or just random poking around. Honestly, as a Link to the Past fan, one of my big disappointments of the official Nintendo successor Link Between Worlds was how heavily it reused the original’s map and thereby cut into the feeling of exploration it could afford. So a big, thought-out map from Rogue Heroes is an even bigger plus, especially since they went a little further and offered twists on Hyrule’s regions’ styles so that none of them feels like an exact 1-to-1 recreation of the original.

Another difference Rogue Heroes brings to the table is its different classes that you can play as. One of the stores that you can bring to your town is a tailor, and once you complete certain sidequests, you can commission the tailor to make a new cloak representing a new class. In total, there are nine different ones in the game (the starting Hero class, seven that become available over the course of the adventure, plus a DLC Bomber class).

On the whole, I’m of two minds on this; I’ve seen some people note that it’s disappointing that the nine classes aren’t more different, and I kind of see that argument. The game ultimately chooses to gate off everything via equippable items, so none of the classes can access new areas or anything like that, plus, they’re all still working off the same general set of moves (one sword attack, one dodge, etc). On the other hand, while none of them is particularly special, they all still feel different enough to use, in their own ways. I still wound up with favorite classes to play, and I had specific ones I’d match to specific scenarios. That seems like what you’d want out of a class system, even if it isn’t the most extreme implementation of the mechanic.*

*Also worth noting, this comes into play in the game’s optional multiplayer mode too. You can have up to four players in the game at once, and each can be a different class for visual differentiation or to suit each person’s playstyles. I didn’t get a chance to try this mode, but it seems like a good enough time? And the game lets everyone customize their character’s hair, skin, and cloak color on top of their class, which I imagine helps cut through the on-screen multiplayer chaos when you need to find your avatar.

That’s ultimately a lot to like, and I would ultimately recommend it, especially if you have a soft spot for Top Down A-A games. But it does have a few drawbacks keeping it from perfection. The story is existent, and there are some interesting hooks to it, but not a ton. It’s ultimately just not that important, which is disappointing (albeit not that unusual for a game).

Additionally, the game is a little glitchy. But, unlike Lenna’s Inception, it’s not at all intentional. There are a lot of unique items to test, and a big map to test it on, so sometimes you might find yourself pushing through walls, or even getting stuck out of bounds and resetting. It wasn’t too much of a problem to me, and sometimes I even intentionally tried to trigger glitches to see what all I could do (again, read my Lenna’s Inception review for more insight there), but I could see it really bugging someone who was less interested in that side of things. Heliocentric Studios is still fixing things up, and has even released a patch or two since release a few months ago, but there are still problems (including a one or two that prevent you from completing a sidequest).

The game runs into a few other limits from being a small team with big ideas, too. The fourth region doesn’t feel quite as deep exploration-wise as the first three, like it could have used another round of revisions. And there are a few areas that are very clearly intended to be new dungeons and areas to explore following a future update. Those will be a nice reason to check back in a few months, but for now, they’re just a few jarring dead-ends you might find while looking for secrets already in the game.

But outside of those issues, I had a good time with Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos. I don’t know that it’s anything groundbreaking, but it is a well-executed version of older styles with some new ideas to go around. And if you’re looking for a multiplayer version of the 2D Zelda experience, this is probably the best example since the Zelda series itself was last doing it. Hopefully the planned future updates bring a few more fun adventures to the game, and I anxiously await them.

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