Best roguelike games: a beginner's guide to the die-a-lot genre

Image credit: Mossmouth

Gaming used to be hard because of two things: money and time. As many games were designed to be played in an arcade, they leant into being intensely tricky in order to get your pocket money. Meanwhile, the games that were always destined for consoles usually just weren’t that long. In order to counteract their short playtime, home console games were made more difficult to prevent you feeling like you wasted your hard-earned cash- 30 hours to finish a four-hour story is value for money, right? 

As time progress, games changed and developers learnt the benefits of creating longer, less difficult games. However, while that’s something gamers claimed they wanted, in reality many still long for the nostalgia that comes with challenging games. They remind us of the arcade’s frustrating legacy. This has led to titles such as the infamous Demon’s Souls thriving, as saying that a game is ‘hard’ has suddenly become a positive thing in marketing. 

This masochistic awakening has seen the revival of a genre, buried by the sands of time, that is designed to kill you and sees your progression tied more to you than your character: the Roguelike… roguelite… rogue-ish. 

Roguelikes are all about getting better because you have suffered. Only through great suffering can one attain great power. Only after failing 1000 times can you expect to succeed once. Roguelikes take masochism and gamify it, rewarding your stubbornness in a way that no other genre does. 

So this is our little guide to some of the best rogue-inspired games around. A genre full of dying a lot, making mistakes, and scraping through by the skin of your eyes. Yes, your eyes...

The Shoot ‘Em Up: The Binding of Isaac

Why you can trust TechRadar We spend hours testing every product or service we review, so you can be sure you’re buying the best. Find out more about how we test.

Image credit: Edmund McMillen

Image credit: Edmund McMillen

The Binding of Isaac is an eight-year-old game that has been consistently receiving updates up until last year. For many, this is the quintessential roguelike game. You play Isaac – initially at least – a poor boy whose mother has been told by God to strike him down. He goes into hiding and winds up in a dungeon filled with monstrosities that seem intent on killing him. If you guide Isaac down deep enough you actually go through your mother’s womb and even fight Satan. You read that right.

The joy of this game comes from the runs where you become all-powerful. You can become a flying laser-firing cyclops that turns to stone when stationery. You can have an army of babies that attack enemies for you. Hell, you can spit teeth at enemies in order to take them out. The game gets harder the better you do, with bosses becoming more difficult and new areas unlocking. The real challenge though is in the other characters. 

As things progress you'll unlock more powerful playable characters, less powerful ones, and even biblical babies. Eventually, you unlock The Lost, a ghost baby that can only take one hit. Yes, just one hit and it is game over - to put this in perspective, the latter bosses are all bullet hell fights. You might be wondering why you would do this to yourself, well the only way to truly complete the game is to complete it with every character. The Binding of Isaac will crush you, and you will love it. 

The Metroidvania: Dead Cells

Image credit: Motion Twin

Image credit: Motion Twin

Dead Cells came out last year to widespread critical acclaim - and probably resulted in some broken controllers. It’s a side-on action-platformer game where you get new abilities and unlock new areas as a result of progressing: aka a Metroidvania. You also go back to the beginning when you die, which makes it a roguelike. 

The two terms are naturally at odds with each other, due to the former requiring permanent progression and the latter denying it. Nevertheless, Dead Cells balances both perfectly, like balancing a bottle of nitroglycerin on the end of a sword. 

The combat in this game is balletic. You flow around levels constantly attacking and double-jumping like a pointy spinning-top (or a Beyblade, for you geeks). You can clamber up walls, grow vines, set traps, and set everything on fire. You upgrade your character over the course of each run and then have it taken away from you when you die, or when you succeed. In the unlikely event that you make it past the final boss, the game restarts. 

This time though, you have a boss cell activated that changes the enemies in each level, removes some healing opportunities, and generally turns things up a notch. You can do this several times. The final difficulty gives you three healing chances to last an entire run. Apparently, this is still achievable... 

The Turn-Based Strategy: Into the Breach

Image credit: Subset Games

Image credit: Subset Games

Into the Breach is such an intensely compelling and enjoyable experience that you often won’t even realize you’ve failed before you’ve started your next run. The turn-based strategy title shows you every move your enemy is going to make and asks you to react perfectly in order to protect the timeline from alien interference. 

In order to succeed you need to look past your immediate options, if you can’t think at least three turns ahead then you are doomed to failure. Failure means permadeath, in this case that means teleporting to another timeline and abandoning all but one of your mech pilots - essentially making you start from scratch.

The brilliance of Into the Breach lies in the fact that you are always responsible for your failure and you’re forced to live with it - there are no redos. In other games, it is easy to blame an unfair AI or attack however, in Into the Breach , you can see what is going to happen, so it is your fault if you make a bad move. 

It’s like playing chess with the ability to see the future; if you still mess it up then it is on you, not the game. You unlock new mechs as you go and can even mix-and-match them to build your own perfect squad - just try not to lose them. If the threat of losing your squad isn’t enough to get the blood pumping then add a soundtrack comparably to audio ecstasy for extra measure. 

The Multi-Player Dungeon Crawler: Crawl 

Image credit: Powerhoof

Image credit: Powerhoof

Crawl is a Lovecraftian local multiplayer dungeon crawler which sees you descend into a pixel art dungeon - hoping not to descend into madness. You will probably die, but that is not the end of you. You see, there are up to four adventurers (controlled by you and your friends) all aiming to make it to the end of the dungeon- but only one can. Queue the literal backstabbing and murder. 

Whichever of your friends is lucky enough to kill you comes back to life, while the other adventurers exist as vengeful spirits intent on killing the fortunate survivor. These spirits can possess traps and furniture, and summon monsters in special areas that can be used to attack the living. These monsters gain levels and evolve depending on how strong the adventurer is. The stronger the living becomes, the stronger the dead are. It keeps things in balance. The aim is to be the living adventurer to first slay a boss. Then you get to start it all over again. 

While the vast majority of roguelikes are single-player and frustrating affairs, Crawl turns this on its head. Instead, you and three friends can take turns stabbing each other in the back, all to try and be the one who succeeds. It is well-balanced as no matter how strong the hero becomes; the monsters just get fiercer. The more you play the game the more content you unlock. You gain access to new old ones to worship, new items, and deadlier traps. The frenetic rush to be the spirit to deal the killing blow to the adventurer is wonderful, and one that is repeated throughout each game. Why not share the joy of dying a lot with your closest friends?

The Card Game: Slay the Spire

Image credit: Mega Crit Games

Image credit: Mega Crit Games

 Despite only releasing in January 2019, Slay the Spire has cemented its place in the roguelike genre. On paper, it’s a deck-building card-battling turn-based dungeon crawler, but you have to assume it was created by feeding two genres into a randomizer and just going with the results (in the best possible way). 

Your role is to make it to the top of the titular spire. To do this, you journey through different levels, battling various monsters along the way. As you progress, you get new cards to add to your deck and maybe even some fancy equipment. Seems simple, right?

Where Slay the Spire excels is in the subtle decisions you have to make. Adding a new card to your deck should be a good thing. The trouble is, doing so lowers the chances of drawing something else. Whenever a new card is offered, you have to figure out if it is worth taking. Do you take the card that is good on its own or do you take the combo card? The good one is good no matter what other cards you have, but the combo card could be instantly lethal if you get the other bits - which is more valuable. Failure means starting again of course, but this time you’ll know more about deck composition and strategy. It really is unique amongst roguelikes. 

Jason Coles
Writer and personal trainer

Jason is a qualified personal trainer who now writes for a living across fitness, tech, and gaming. He does most of his workouts at home with a focus on weight lifting and martial arts, and is also constantly figuring out ways of exercising that somehow keep his daughter entertained at the same time.