I am, as they say, rather “street”. Indeed, the individuals with whom I am best acquainted are predisposed to refer to me as “hardcore” and “an O.G.” (Opera Goer, or so I infer from context). At the end of a hard day’s work singing rip-rap rhymes at the local discotech, I’ll often use my food processor to turn a grenade into a sandwich, stick a few cigarettes into the ventilation unit of a nearby building to poison the people inside, and recruit the super-intelligent gorillas they were keeping prisoner into my party, just like any young nogoodnik. It’s all part of my inherent compulsion to get my dander up against the machine, you see.
Matt Dabrowski’s current project, Streets of Rogue, takes this near-universal story of the vicissitudes of urban youth and turns it into an immensely enjoyable roguelite romp across a procedurally-generated city. The alpha version, currently available for free on itch.io, offers players 19 wildly different character classes to choose from before setting them loose, alone or with a friend, to cause mischief and murder amongst the hapless citizenry (although they are not all bereft of haps – some of the better-armed ones in the later stages are downright hapful, particularly when they come at you in groups). Each class is equipped with unique traits and starting gear that will influence how you choose to overcome the obstacles you’ll be faced with as you attempt to complete a series of randomized missions in each district.
For example, the burglar comes equipped with tools for safecracking, lockpicking, teleporting through walls, and numerous other ways of reaching her target without attracting attention. Police officers are well-armed and are able to arrest NPCs, taking them out of action non-violently (although they lose experience for unlawful arrests). Everyone likes bartenders, so they can just wander into people’s homes like they own the place, or recruit large gangs of followers to act as their muscle. Shopkeepers are particularly fun: they have a bunch of routes to easy money and, better yet, can purchase any item an NPC is holding. You can buy people’s guns right out of their hands, leaving them unarmed while you rob them blind with their own weapons.
My personal favourite, though, is the shapeshifter. Your natural form is a tiny, naked, red-eyed monstrosity that shopkeepers furiously chase out of their stores and police officers will beat on without hesitation or mercy (I made mine look like Mr. T). However, by sneaking up on an NPC, you can hop into their body, possessing them and gaining access to their skills, equipment, property, and friends. I’ve possessed gang members and used them to bring an army to bear against my opponents, started a fight between two guards and then ditched the body, leaving them to kill each other, and become a cop in order to sneak a mission-critical prisoner out of jail without sounding the alarm. Best of all, if the person you’re controlling is killed, you’ll pop out of the corpse, battered but alive, giving you a chance to find another host and try again.
The systems that keep the city bustling often overlap in ways that will surprise you. The property system, for instance, which designates certain buildings as belonging to specific NPCs or factions, can’t be gamed as easily as I expected. During my first game as a shapeshifter, I wanted to rob a gang member’s house, so I knocked on his door and hired him as a bodyguard, then stepped inside and began emptying the chest at the foot of his bed. Two shotgun blasts later, I learned that some friendships are conditional (this is also how I learned that shapeshifters can survive the splattering of their hosts).
I shouldn’t have been surprised at the way that robbery played out, but video games have conditioned us to look for the seams where a game’s systems are stitched together and try to pry them apart to see what’s inside. In this case, however, there were no seams. I had assumed that the NPCs’ party affiliations took priority over their instinct to defend their property, but I was wrong. Dabrowski had foreseen the possibility that a manipulative jerk like me might try to pull a fast one on the poor NPCs, and programmed in a perfectly reasonable (or at the very least, logical) response.
In Streets of Rogue, property is protected by the Law of the Land, which is enforced by police officers (and the victims themselves, if they’re feeling brave enough). The Law is a fairly simple series of commandments in the vein of “no killing”, “no stealing”, and “if we didn’t see it, it didn’t happen”. However, the police are… occasionally somewhat indiscriminate in their application of force (and in the game, etc. etc.) and will often provoke innocent bystanders into joining any brouhahas that you happen to start. This is further complicated by the fact that many types of NPCs go ballistic at the sight of certain other professions (the scientists and the gorillas, in particular, seem to have a weird little shadow war going on), and also the ease with which combatants can be knocked through walls, which understandably peeves off property owners. Long story… still rather long, even the tiniest disagreement has the potential to turn into a full-scale riot that leaves half the town in ruins.
I haven’t even started talking about the really sneaky ways to accomplish your missions yet. A whole host of security-related devices are installed in the buildings you’re tasked with infiltrating, from cameras hooked up to automated gun turrets, to explosive laser walls (they’re as awesome as they sound). You can usually hack your way past them, if you can reach the building’s central computer, or even take advantage of them, if your character has the right skill set. Or maybe you want to clear the building and waltz in unopposed? Well, you do have a bag full of unidentified drugs, and there is that ventilation system just sitting there, all unguarded and lonely…
In case you haven’t caught on by now, I’m a big fan of Streets of Rogue. I’ve played some great games over the past few weeks, from Mini-Dead to Zubmariner, but this is the one I keep coming back to. It’s that most rare and precious of beasts: a complex, well-crafted, systems-driven game that leads to memorable and unexpected emergent scenarios, in the vein of Dwarf Fortress, Spelunky, or Rimworld. If you look closely, you can spot other influences as well, from the Deus-Ex-esque (try saying that ten times fast) approach to mission design to the frenetic, item-based combat that is so reminiscent of Nuclear Throne.
Despite the proud pedigree, Streets of Rogue stands on its own as an example of the indie game scene at its finest: bold, innovative, and not afraid to mash genres together into new and unfamiliar shapes. Perhaps the most exciting thing about it is that it is making such a strong showing in what the developer still considers to be an alpha. The game is more than playable in its current state and, in my opinion, already feels largely feature-complete. The joy of exploring (and exploiting) the intricate urban jungle is strong enough to carry the Streets of Rogue on its own, despite a few noticeably absent features, such as the lack of music or any hint of a narrative. Happily, the splash screen that pops up when you boot up the game assures us that we’ll see those elements added as the game creeps closer to a full release.
I don’t feel that I’m exaggerating when I say that this game has the potential to become an overnight sensation once it’s released in a completed state. You owe it to yourself to try it now while it’s free; the current alpha version easily offers hundreds of hours of entertainment and rivals the majority of fully-released indie games in terms of scope and polish.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, my crew and I have got to jet, or we’ll miss Andrea Bocelli’s performance of Con te Partiro (in all seriousness, that song is great and you should all listen to it, ideally while playing Streets of Rogue). Tally ho, homies!
FINAL SCORE: If life was South Park and Streets of Rogue was a Canada, it would be French Canada.