For those who have followed the Critical-Gaming Blog for a while, you might be under the impression that I'm not a fan of RPGs. You could say that RPGs commonly have a lot of complexities, poorly constructed levels/scenarios, little to no depth (interplay), and mindless repetition. It's obvious this extreme description best fits old school or otherwise rustic RPGs.
Though I haven't written an article about it yet, I am also skeptical of random/procedurally generated levels. In a nutshell, the amount of control and fine tuning you lose because of the random generation is far greater than what you gain in "never playing the same level twice."
With that said, the question at hand is what do I think of RO9? I absolutely love it. You would think that the idea of playing roguelike would be the exact kind of game that would fall flat for me. After all, roguelikes are commonly RPGs that have randomly generated levels and a very high death penalty. On top of this, RO9 is essentially 9 simultaneous roguelikes (hence the name).
To put it simply, the genius in RO9's design is that it uses a simplified roguelike structure to create a game that's, in the words of its creator Justin Smith, "more of a puzzle game than a roguelike." Because RO9 falls on the puzzle side of genres, we can read it. The creator describes playing RO9 like this; "I like the idea that you can just look at the screen as-is and have all the information you need to make your next move." This is in essence reading the gamestate. To understand how to read RO9 we must first focus on a single adventure/screen.
Behold. You're in a dungeon that's 9 floors deep. Each floor contains at least 3 types of enemies of varying strength, money, a ladder to a higher floor, and a potion that fully restores HP. You encounter these elements randomly as you move through the floors. The goal of the game is to make it through all 9 floors alive. Because the enemies get progressively stronger, it's important to level up as you go. For all of these design features the basic, shallow, and easily optimized tactic of attack-attack-heal (and occasionally run) dominates.
For a single adventure/rogue, you really only have 4 significant choices to make: fight, run, ascend, and search for a potion. Fight when you're confident you can win. Run when you're less than confident about a battle encounter. Ascend when you're confident about survival on the next level. And search for a potion if you're not confident about fighting or ascending.
From this point we can bring the other 8 adventures back into consideration. By doing so we can examine the many ways the obvious tactics and strategies discussed above become a lot more complicated. RO9 really achieves a whole new level of strategy and depth by forcing the player to control 9 of these independent RPG adventures at once. The best way to describe this set up is dynamic. Every move you make affects at most 9 adventures. In this way, all of the rogues are "psycho-kinetically" linked.
Now we have a much more dynamic game state to read. Think about it this way, if you see a potion in front of one rogue, going for it may not be the best decision. If moving toward that potion also means brushing up against a powerful monster with another, weaker rogue, then another course of action would be advisable. Furthermore, to fight enemies you have to hit forward. This design means that engaging in combat with one rogue will cause all the others to move forward. In other words, even the basic action of fighting has a bit of "forward momentum." If an enemy is attacking you, even turning will cause it to harm you. There's hardly any action that you can do that doesn't effect all other active rogues.
Even the dynamic "psycho-kinetic" controls are dynamic. At the start of the game, each move you make affects 9 rogues. If any number of rogues die, your moves therefore become less dynamic (ie. controlling less rogues at once). Eventually, whether you win big (9 rogues surviving), lose hard (9 rogues dead), or anything in between the dynamics of your moves will changed as you play. Keeping track of the shifting dynamic is an important skill in RO9.
Reaching the end of the adventure with some of your surviving rogues or getting them killed isn't the only way that the dynamic player actions are affected. If you run any number of your rogues into a dead end or a wall, for example, they will essentially walk in place against the wall while other rogues can explore freely in a straight path. The reason this strategy works is because enemies can't appear or run into you until you face them head on first. So, walking against a wall or a dead end keeps you safe. By carefully reading the environment looking out for door ways, walls, and dead ends you can shuffle and arrange certain rogues to take a "time out" while others move about. This is a critical strategy for focusing your attention on a smaller number of active rogues by actively changing the core gameplay dynamic.
If you only had control of one rogue, fighting the bosses (the most powerful enemy on any given floor) wouldn't be worth the risk most of the time. Why not just level up on the weaker enemies? It's certainly safer. To give players more incentive to take on these massive enemies, a defeated boss drops an ankh that revives a fallen rogue on the same floor. Each rogue can only defeat one boss per floor, so there's a bit of decay in this risk-reward design feature.
Controlling multiple rogues at once can force you to make some tough decisions. Sometimes to survive you'll have to take more damage running away from a fight just because you need to avoid ascending a ladder with another rogue. Sometimes you have to pass up grabbing a potion to avoid danger on another screen. And when a rogue dies, if you're aiming to win it big, you have to take a riskier path and plan on fighting a boss.
This is how I read the above game state:
- If I move forward, I can attack the green enemy in C3 with an extremely high success rate. However, doing so will force B2 to ascend. This will put B2 at risk being under leveled, but the risk isn't too great. C1, C2, A2, B3 are all in "time out" if I move forward.
- If I turn right A2 and B3 will still be facing a "time out" wall. C1 will face an open hall. This is potentially dangerous because C1 is under leveled. A1 will face a door. Turning right will cause B2 to avoid ascending the ladder while forcing C3 to take at least 1 hit of damage.
- Turning left will expose everyone to danger except B2 and A3.
At this relatively simple point in the game, I would just move forward.
Though so much of the game is randomly arranged, luck can only take you so far in RO9. To be successful, one must understand the dynamics and read the field at every step. I made it out in my best run with all 9 rogues (see image above). At some point in the mid game, 4-5 of my rogues were dead. I had to pull out all the stops to bring them back using a full understanding of the strategies and dynamics. RO9 isn't too complex or too deep as far as reading puzzle games go. Yet, when you put the whole game together, you'll find a lot of elegant nuance.
The final product of RO9 is so refined and to the point that it's amazing the creator didn't go overboard. Some thought it would be neat if the environments weren't randomly generated each turn. But if each floor was a persistent environment, creating a mental map for 81 different areas would be too taxing, or, as Justin Smith calls it, a "brain strain." It's too bad that the ending screen doesn't also display how much money you nabbed. Even if money can be farmed by more obsessive players, it would be nice to know how well each rogue did.
9 adventures is a good number. Any more (like say 99 or 999) would be so far beyond practical that hilarity would ensue.