Some would say that roguelikes are a scourge. Or, as the genre has more commonly become known, roguelites. Decades after Rogue popularized the basic parameters of the genre that lifted its name—randomized levels, permanent death, exploration, lots of killing—games that borrow, twist and rewrite those rules have exploded all over any device on which you can play a game. The vast majority of them don’t hit the full suite of expectations found in Rogue or NetHack, and codified by the Berlin Interpretation of 2008 (yes: that is real), and hence the term roguelite. It’s like a roguelike, but lite. It’s cute, it’s pithy, and it means absolutely nothing if you aren’t already deep in the weeds of the games world, which makes it a perfectly impractical 21st century gaming term.
ScourgeBringer, a new adventure from Flying Oak Games that recently hit Early Access on Steam, is one of dozens of independently developed roguelites to flood the market in the last few years. Don’t hold that against it. This pack might be unnecessarily crowded, but ScourgeBringer rises to the top and stakes a claim as the most vital roguelite in years. If you’re looking for a game that balances systematic depth with quick-burst action and mercifully short play times, ScourgeBringer should be next on your download queue.
Despite accurately calling itself a “roguelite,” what most makes ScourgeBringer work isn’t its trendy genre. It’s not the structure, but the mechanics. Playing this game requires a rigorous physicality that never becomes overly complicated. It’s not dissimilar to playing a fighting game, in how you’ll have to be comfortable using every button at your disposal. You essentially wrestle with the controller, although not in a way that’s tedious; the bulk of the action is entering a new room and slicing or shooting through two waves of enemies as quickly as possible, with a time-based combo meter that increases the amount of money you earn with each kill. Money is important in a game that’s otherwise light on power-ups, so you want to keep that combo as high as possible. And so every fight becomes a sprint, with you trying to string attacks together while avoiding damage; once you’ve defeated a room, you’re still on the clock, and with enough planning can swoop into the next room and start the carnage again within the few seconds before your combo streak resets. You’ll careen through the game’s randomized labyrinths, stabbing face buttons to double jump or strike your enemies, parrying their attacks to leave them stunned and weakened, and clutching down on shoulder triggers to rush through the air or fire off a variety of firearms, and doing it all as quickly and accurately as you can. Yes, it’s like a kind of dance, one that you do with your fingers, and it never quite grows old.
The press materials compare it to Celeste, at least in terms of how the character moves. That’s accurate, in that you can extend your double jumps with a move that hurtles you through the air in a straight line. You can very briefly cling to the sides of walls and run up them before pivoting and dashing off into another direction. It’s a very free and open environment that respects your ability to move through it but without punishing you too harshly if you forget to. It punishes you in other ways—ways familiar to anybody who’s played a roguelite before. Damage comes often if you aren’t careful, and it’s difficult to replenish your health. Nothing recharges between stages—when you defeat the first boss, you move on to the next level suffering from whatever damage you’ve already incurred. It might resemble Celeste on the surface, but those roguelite elements make lend it a different kind of difficulty—one that’s less brutal from moment to moment, and yet more frustrating in the long run, as you’ll have to replay every level every time you play the game.
It also doesn’t have the emotional or narrative depth of Celeste. Curiously that isn’t much of an issue—yes, it makes it a little hollower than that game (which, again, it openly invites comparisons to—we’re not just forcing references here), but the mechanical depth is so ample, and the pure thrillpower substantial enough, that ScourgeBringer succeeds on almost entirely different terms than Celeste. If that game’s focus on character development and mental health issues failed for you, you might appreciate ScourgeBringer’s vaguely mythological approach to storytelling.
ScourgeBringer doesn’t have time to worry about your mental state. It always rushes forward, pushing you along the way, compelling you to start up one more round in hopes of mastering its seconds-long eruptions of frenetic energy. At its best—at your best, while you’re playing it—it’s a trance-inducing, unfiltered distillation of the most elemental promise of videogames. No matter how crowded and overexposed it might seem, no genre that could bring us a game like this could be wearing thin.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.