It didn’t have to be like this, you know. I could have played Lucas Molina‘s Roguemance, a game about procedurally-generated dangerous dating and love in a dangerous space-time, in the week after Valentine’s Day this year, when it came out. Or I could have played it three weeks ago, when I scuttled all my other social responsibilities to go on six consecutive dates — that would have been fitting. Instead, I play it now, for no other reason than… I just sort of felt like it, I guess. Which now that I write it out isn’t a terrible metaphor for love and dating either — if not necessarily one that says great things about me.
Anyway, this review will be of the shortie variety, for two reasons: a) Roguemance is a fairly compact game, mechanically and aesthetically both, and b) I didn’t discover that my usual screenshotting methods weren’t working until like two hours in. The former more than the latter, obviously: I would never let my personal failures and hangups determine how seriously I’m willing and able to engage in any commitment.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, nah. Mechanical, lil’ bit.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
Roguemance is a game about dating your way towards saving the world.
Roguemance, if we really want to spin up our mechanical drill-bits, is a systems-light turn-based roguelike that sees you fighting across several distinct level sets, each about a dozen (potential) encounters long and sporting a boss fight at the end, with the goal of restoring a fractured Heart Island. The general flow moves like this: Each non-boss level in an area has you approach a two- or three-way road intersection, X ‘miles’ away from the upcoming boss. You pick one of these roads to travel, leading to some sort of encounter. Some of them might involve combat! Others might involve healing potions, helpful cat friends, or grabbing a pint down at the local pub.
I call Roguemance ‘systems-light’ because mechanically speaking, your character is defined by just three things: Your four combat moves, your hit points, and your gold. The latter two always start at 5 and 10, respectively, but your four moves are sort-of-chosen at game start: You pick one of three classes when you make your character, either Warrior or Wizard or Ninja, and that determines your starting moves.
Mechanically, that’s also all character creation is, but I do want to show off Roguemance‘s neat visual character creator, which allows for a wide range of skin tones, eyes, hair styles and colours, and dresses. Note also that none of any of it is locked to your character’s gender, because Roguemance doesn’t ask for your character’s gender and, in fact, doesn’t care.
Your combat moves are used in combat, which sometimes looks like this:
What you do in combat is this: You use all four of your combat moves over a period of four turns, in an order of your choosing. You rotate your options wheel until the option of your choice is on top, then hit spacebar (or similar buttons), at which point combat moves forward a turn. You can rotate as you like, and you can change your character’s facing from left to right and back as often as you want — but once a move is used, it gets greyed out. And you have to use all four moves before all of them become available again. That’s usually not that big a problem, but it can be.
What enemies do in combat is this: They use their moves in clockwise order, forever. That’s… that’s it, really. As soon as any enemy appears on-screen, you can predict with near-perfect accuracy any thing they’ll do at any point during the entire battle — I say near-perfect because some moves can mess with stuff, but by and large, monsters are predictable creatures.
As for what either of y’all’s moves actually do… Well, that’s up to you to find out. Moves have a name and an icon, and that’s it as far as description goes. Some icons are pretty straightforward: Swords / fireballs / shurikens are attacks, shield icons are probably defensive, arrows make you jump up, and sleepy zZz icons make the recipient skip a turn. But what about the kiss icon? The chain? The up-shield? The ghost? The game never tells you; have fun figuring that out yourself!
Combats have two possible outcomes. Either you lose all your hit points, in which case you die — and the default game setting is ‘permadeath on’, in case you were wondering how bad that is. Or you defeat all enemies, in which case you get a choice: Actually kill them all and gain extra gold, or grant them mercy to slowly increase your HP, as visualized by a smiling red heart — the happier and redder it gets, the closer you are to permanently gaining an extra hit point.
Apart from combat, there’s a range of other possible encounters. You can talk to cats you find on the road to get new abilities: Black cats let you swap one ability on your wheel with a ‘random’ one, to be revealed once the swap is complete, while orange cats let you purchase specific abilities — if you’ve got the gold. Gold is also used to buy healing potions, which restore your health to full, or to enter a nearby pub, which…
Here we got to one of Roguemance‘s most distinctive and theme-reinforcing gameplay systems: You can pick up partners during play. Combat partners, but also in a more general sense partners. It wouldn’t be a game about love if you couldn’t find people to go on dates with, would it?
In combat, your partner adds a small complication to an otherwise simple system, in that they’re technically on your team but you don’t control them directly. They’re their own person, after all. You can control their facing as well as yours, but otherwise, on your initial dates, partners follow the same clockwise-abilities playbook as enemies do. And that… can make things complicated. It’s still pretty much the same system as before, but suddenly there’s this one entity on the field that you don’t want to see dead.
And when I say your partner is ‘technically on your team’, what I mean is that for abilities this doesn’t matter. A thrown sword is a thrown sword, no matter the originator or the recipient. Which can be fun if you jump out of the way and one monster attacks another one, but it’s less fun if the monsters pull the same trick on you. Inversely, if you throw out a healing kiss but your partner goes intangible, there’s no rule saying that kiss can’t connect with and heal the monster behind them. There are a lot of ways you and your partner can accidentally mess each other up… but then there are also lots of ways you can really help each other out. Jumping over each other’s attacks, carefully blocking and reflecting shots, throwing each other kisses when the monsters are in the air, or the one monster in-between the two of you has been taken care of. Very appropriately, and almost definitely intentionally, combats in Roguemance feel like a hectic, barely-controlled attempt to figure out how you can be in sync with your partner, and even whether or not you can be in sync — it’s no coincidence combat encounters are called ‘dates’.
Stick with one partner long enough, and you eventually unlock the ability to sync your attack patterns: Instead of the partner goes clockwise every turn, their wheel is locked to yours, and you control both simultaneously. This can be a really powerful asset, assuming you understand all abilities right and you orient your own wheel correctly before engaging the link — it’s possible to break the link mid-combat, but doing so hurts your partner. It’s not a commitment you should engage in lightly: In the right circumstances it strengthens a good relationship, but in the wrong circumstances it might put the two of you at even stronger odds than before.
Outside of combat, your partner is still their own person. They’ll show a clear preference for one of the possible ‘date’ options for the current map. Acquiesce, and their love heart grows happier, eventually giving them permanent bonus HP just the way you get them; ignore them, and their heart grows sadder, which can eventually culminate in them leaving you if you’re bad enough about it. They’ve got preferences for sparing or killing enemies too. Are you sparing these slime beasts so your HP go up? Or killing them because that’ll make Hem happy?
You can take your partner on non-combat dates too. Buy them new random or specific abilities from the cats to adjust their skill wheel to yours. Feed them healing potions to keep them alive. You can even take them into the pub to pick up another partner, though I don’t know if they have preferences in that regard.
You can pick up multiple partners. Go nuts. It’s trickier to keep several people happy than just one: Different partners often prefer different dates, and even if they all like the same thing, you can only take one person into combat with you. It’s by no means impossible to have two or three date-friends, it just takes a lot more work. Unsurprisingly. Personally, I haven’t seen a situation in which it’s more beneficial to spread activity across several people than it is to focus all your HP-boosting love and attention on one well-attuned partner — but I assume the inevitable Roguemance expert player community will be able to tell you all about the relative value of keeping different partners with different skill wheels around. Or maybe you just like more than one person, that’s valid too.
It’s honestly interesting how well Roguemance manages to make its tiny pixel-art people feel like people. It didn’t happen all the time, but often I’d find myself assigning personalities to my partners, or even making predictions based on them. Ifyf always wanted to save the monsters, no matter how hard-won the battle. But Hem was a real battle-adrenaline junkie: He’d always run towards the biggest identifiable fight on the map, no matter how easy-going the other dates might be. And he’d always advocate we kill them… on the first map. Something on the second map cooled down his bloodlust, though not his lust for battle.
What can I say, though? Something attracted me to him.
The larger Roguemance story takes you through a number of heart island areas with names like ‘Morning Woods’ and ‘That Beach’, ultimately attempting to restore the island one boss victory at a time. I can’t actually tell you how many areas there are, because I’ve never managed to make it past the third: It turns out dating is dangerous and love can be lethal. By which I mean, Roguemance may start out simple, but ramps up in challenge and complexity fast — and if you don’t find a partner that you really sync with before the other shoe hits the ground, you’ll learn first-hand why it’s better to be single than in a bad relationship.
Relationship jokes aside, Roguemance is an interesting little game, with neat ludonarrative harmony, a cool graphical style, and an intentionally limited set of gameplay systems that still manages to be fun for a few hours. It’s in no way a major time-sink, hence the short review — counter to its own subject matter, it’s very much a game that gets less interesting the more consecutive time you spend with it. But as a lunch break game, or something to occupy your hands while you’re watching or listening to something else, it’s a cool diversion. Worth a shot, for seven Steam bucks — give it a look, if you’ve been wondering all this time what love is really supposed to be like.
Jarenth doesn’t have a lot of dating experience, okay. Don’t hold this against him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?