If you ask someone to list a roguelite off the top of their head, nine times out of 10, it’ll be an indie game. Dead Cells, Enter the Gungeon, Binding of Isaac, or Hades quickly come to mind. The words “indie” and “roguelite” (or “roguelike”) have practically become peas in a pod, and their best friend “metroidvania” is never too far away. But on April 30, Sony and Housemarque released Returnal, a truly AAA roguelite, warts and all.
In recent memory, it’s the first time a large publisher put its weight behind the roguelite genre. Arkane and Bethesda previously dabbled in it with Prey’s Mooncrash DLC, but that’s an optional, additional experience on top of a fully realized campaign. Returnal, from the ground up, is a roguelite—a $70 one, at that. After the genre saw years of success in the indie scene, could this be the start of an emerging trend in the AAA space?
Roguelites Are More Popular Than Ever
Roguelite (and roguelike) games are nothing new. The early days of gaming brought us the eponymous Rogue in 1980, and since then, a stream of titles have been reinventing and refreshing the wheel. However, it wasn’t really until the past decade or so that the genre gained a foothold in the zeitgeist. They weren’t necessarily “mainstream,” but people knew of them. Your friend who dabbled in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 might not have heard about Spelunky or Binding of Isaac, but you did.
After 2009, roguelites started picking up steam. FTL, Don’t Starve, Rogue Legacy, Risk of Rain, Darkest Dungeon, Enter the Gungeon—the list goes on, and it’s full of titles by independent developers. Considering how small indie studios tend to be, it makes a lot of sense. These games scale well compared to your average AAA game, making them perfect for smaller teams. Furthermore, when a roguelite clicks with the audience, its popularity spreads like wildfire.
Your average roguelite may only have a handful of “biomes,” but within them are hundreds of hours of monster slaying and chest opening. Gameplay may seem relatively “simple” compared to something like Devil May Cry, but it’s the hundreds of random modifiers that transform that simplicity into something unique and fun every time. Zagreus may just be a boy swinging his sword, but whether that sword unleashes crashing waves or booming thunder is up to you (and Lady Luck).
It’s no secret that many people find roguelites fun and delightful. They turn the frustration of dying and starting over again into something magical and engaging. They often won’t tell a story of the same caliber and presentation as something like The Last of Us Part II, but they never need to. Games like Dead Cells and Hades don’t suffer just because they don’t have motion-captured cutscenes and lens flares.
In fact, Hades acts as a bellwether for the times. Not too long ago, many gaming outlets—including yours truly—nominated and awarded it as the 2020 game of the year. That puts it in the same conversation as The Last of Us Part II and Final Fantasy VII Remake. In other words, roguelites are more mainstream than they’ve ever been after experiencing rampant success in the indie space.
Returnal is a Sign of the Times
Previously, the gaming mainstream conversation was dominated by shooters, action-adventures, and, most recently, battle royales. Activision is basically dedicated to Call of Duty because of Warzone. Ubisoft loves its open worlds, home to legions of side quests, season passes, and microtransactions. Nintendo dedicates many of its resources to family-friendly adventures like Zelda and Mario, appealing to all ages and nostalgia alike. But now, Supergiant Games is in that same conversation, although on a smaller scale compared to Activision, Ubisoft, or Nintendo. It’s fitting that right as indie roguelites receive mainstream commendations and widespread recognition, Sony launches the first AAA roguelite: Returnal.
Returnal has a lot of weight on its shoulders. It’s only the second PlayStation 5 exclusive in six months, and it’s a fairly experimental big-budget title. However, its release recognizes the growth and cultural impact of the roguelite genre, signaling that they can be “full-price” experiences too. Admittedly, it feels a little weird at first. It’s easy to expect forgiving checkpoints and constant hand holding when you drop $70 on a game. Returnal, however, is anything but that (especially when it comes to checkpoints).
To be fair, AAA games have invoked elements of roguelites previously. Diablo 3 has procedurally generated rifts and randomized loot. Watch Dogs: Legion dabbles in permadeath as punishment. Prey: Mooncrash added a roguelite experience to a first-person shooter. But none have committed to the bit from the start in the same way Returnal does.
You rarely see mainstream games advertised based on how often players have to start from the beginning, without any equipment or powerups. Returnal was the first, but it likely won’t be the last. Deathloop, despite multiple delays, is slated for later this year, and it features a similar premise. You play as an assassin who goes back in time every time he dies. Whether Deathloop will check all the roguelite boxes is up for debate, but it’s looking pretty likely so far.
Will We See More AAA Roguelites?
Needless to say, the demand is there for roguelites. If big publishers don’t capitalize on them, surely there’s a group of indie devs out there working on the next Hades. In a way, it almost behooves the larger players in the industry to explore roguelites more, especially with the mostly positive reception that Returnal has received.
There aren’t many AAA roguelites on the horizon that we know of, but this year gave us Returnal and (hopefully) Deathloop. More may be waiting for their moment to make their debut. Realistically, roguelites won’t dominate the market the way action-adventures, shooters, or battle royales have. They often require a bit more investment than a pick-up-and-play game like Apex Legends.
Nonetheless, the genre is carving a space out for itself on the mainstream stage. The more it shines in the limelight, the more likely we’ll see bigger budgets slated for bigger roguelites. Can the genre retain its magic and charm as it scales up? Only time will tell.
Are you enjoying Returnal? Do you want to see more AAA roguelites in the future? Let us know in the comments below.