Live, die, die, die
Ah, the humble roguelike, what a strange genre you are, so enticing, so beautiful, so deadly. A good roguelike is a lot like a really good cheesecake, they’re good, you could indulge in them every day for the rest of your life, and you know they’re probably very bad for your health, but who cares? It’s also kind of a weird moniker because roguelike isn’t so much a genre as it is a descriptor of the kind of experience you’re going to have. After all, there are strategy roguelikes, action roguelikes, deck-building roguelikes, so the phrase roguelike is only really useful as a shorthand for “die a lot and hopefully get better maybe you n00b”. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful idea to play with, and it’s definitely led to an uprising of hard-as-nails games that are willing to push you to breaking point, only to be snapped in half when you finally master them, and that, my friends, is exactly why you’re here because you want to know which are the best roguelikes around, and I’m here to help.
The Best Roguelikes
What makes a good roguelike though, let alone one of the best roguelikes? Well, people make the best roguelikes (har har), but the components of the best ones can be whittled down to two main factors. Number one, it has to be fun enough that you don’t mind dying every five seconds, and you’re willing to persevere until you no longer die. Number two, it needs to have a good progression system, despite generally being the genre where you don’t keep your progress, the best ones tend to have unlockable units, items, or powers. These two aspects are incredibly important, and they’re the two main things that make the games on this list so exceptionally wonderful.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
The Binding of Isaac is perhaps the most well known of all the roguelikes at this point. It stars a cast of biblically named characters attempting to flee from a religious and overbearing mother who is hellbent on removing sin from the child. The thing is, the best way the mother knows to remove sin is to kill the child. It’s incredibly dark, but that’s kind of the whole point. The game itself unfolds as if playing a bullet hell game, though at a generally slower pace to begin with. You have to use your tears to defeat various monstrosities and horrors, all the while avoiding streams of blood, vomit, and explosions. It’s hard, but it’s also devilishly moreish.
Dwarf Fortress is technically the oldest game on this list as it started development in 2002 and was initially released in 2006. Despite that, it’s still one of the most intense and complicated roguelikes around. The developers skillfully meld the worlds of management sim and roguelike to create an experience that you’ll never truly understand until you play it. Also, you really should play it, it’s spectacular in nearly every aspect and also had dwarves, and who doesn’t love them? Nobody, everyone loves these beardy folk.
Slay The Spire
I’m not saying that card games are superior to all other games, but I’m also not not saying that. Slay the Spire has a simple premise, get to the top of the spire and kill the weird beating heart that powers it. You add new cards to your deck as you cut, poison, or electrocute your way through the battles, and you can also acquire powerful artefacts to help give you an edge in each fight. The thing that makes Slay the Spire so enticing is the incredibly flexible time commitment it asks of you. If you want to play for five minutes, then you can, but if you want to make your way through a few runs and spend half a day doing that, then you can.
Look, Supergiant Games are undoubtedly one of the best teams out there. With the likes of Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre under the belts, they’ve moved into creating a roguelike. Hades has you playing as Zagreus, the son of Hades, and trying to escape from the underworld. It’s more story-focussed than many of the other games on this list, and it’s also got more hot people, like, so many hot people. Also, the music is extraordinary, the graphics are stunning, and beating up Hades is one of the most cathartic experiences around. Do not sleep on this game, even if Hypnos is lurking.
Noita is an incredibly unique game, even among weird indie stuff. You play as a witch, and your aim is to make your way through the dungeons using wands you find as you go along. Each wand will have different spells tied to it, and you can then take those spells off of that wand and start combining them to make new spells that do absurd things. That’s just the start though, what makes Noita really special is that every pixel is simulated. If there is wood and it catches fire, then that fire will spread, objects on top of that wood will fall, and you can take out enemies using heavy objects instead of magic. It’s a genuine delight to play, but it’s also one of the hardest games on this list.
As a roguelike with the feeling of a Metroidvania game, Dead Cells does a good job of melding two seemingly incompatible styles of games together. It does so thanks to incredibly slick action, very funny and subtle humour, and more weapons than you can shake a weird undying blob at. I wouldn’t recommend shaking said blob though; it might take over your mind. Dead Cells has been out for a year or so now, but it’s also just gotten a new bit of DLC too, making it a fantastic time to jump in, get your feet wet, and get your head cut off. Ah, the finer things in life for sure.
Risk Of Rain 2
I love a good co-op game, I really do. There’s something glorious about forgoing the outside world in favour of digitally hanging out with friends and doing weird stuff together. Risk of Rain 2 is one of the rare examples of a true co-op roguelike, and it’s also an exceptional third-person action game in its own right. There is a nearly endless string of challenges to undertake, the characters all feel completely different from one another, and the difficulty literally never stops going up, so if you’re playing for a long time the only real end is when you get one-shotted by a giant jellyfish. Also, it’s still in Early Access and gets fairly regular updates, so you know things can only get better.
Into The Breach
A good strategy game is life-consuming, the kind of thing that you may or may not play in a hospital while waiting for your daughter to be born. Into the Breach isn’t just a good strategy game; it’s a damn near perfect one. It has you controlling the last remnants of humanity as you attempt to oust an alien threat from your timeline. If you succeed, then you simply jump to a new timeline to try and save it. If you fail, you basically do the same thing, but while sad? It’s all turn-based, and you can see what your opponents are planning on doing, which somehow both helps you plan your attacks, and also gives massive spikes of adrenaline when there’s nothing you can do to stop them killing you.
Enter The Gungeon
Do you like guns, puns, and big buns? Enter the Gungeon isn’t anything to do with big buns, but it does have the first two in spades, and it commits to them in a way that manages to remain charming, even if you detest the high arts (puns, not guns). Your aim is to get a gun that can kill the past and to do that you’ve gotta shoot your way through armies of sentient bullets using an array of comically silly weapons and a very cool dodge roll. It’s just a very good game, and if you’ve not played it, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.
I can’t make a list like this and not include everybody’s favourite red-nosed boi. Spelunky has you donning an explorers hat and trying to get to hell to kill satan, I think, which is not an uncommon theme in games, but is a lot of fun nevertheless. It’s also got destroyable environments, an unkillable ghost that haunts you, and really angry shopkeepers. It’s incredibly punishing, but it’s also still one of the best roguelikes around, and despite having been out for a whopping 12 years, is still one of the best roguelikes around.
Jason is the Editor of The Indie Game Website. He’s a lover of roguelikes, soulslikes, and other kinds of likes. He basically spends a lot of time getting beaten up in games and seems to enjoy it.