Oh, ho, ho, it’s magic.
To be a wizard is to be as powerful as you are irresponsible. Sure they can snap their fingers and produce fire, but that’s bush league pyromancy. Amateur hour. If what you need is some truly unhinged magical potential, look no further than Rift Wizard.
Rift Wizard’s central conceit is as traditional as its player character’s hat. You have awoken. You don’t remember much or how to cast anything, but you do remember Mordred. Mordred sucks. You hate him. You are going to kick his ass, because you are a wizard and wizards do that. How do you regain your lost prowess? By pondering orbs, of course! Snatch them up and you’ll be able to spend them to learn spells. Any spell. Literally any that exists, assuming you can afford it.
See, RW is considerably different from the modern roguelike. For one it’s much closer to a traditional rogue-inspired experience; no “lite” elements are present here. For two, it isn’t interested in gating off character growth. Rather than offering randomized items or pre-determined paths down what’s essentially an invisible tech tree, RW gives you the whole damn menu and lets you order everything on page 3 if you so choose. This degree of freedom is the game’s single most defining trait, the wild magical energy that brings its tiled grid to life, and it is invigorating.
The freedom to choose what kind of run you want to have from the very start eliminates the most subtly frustrating part of roguelikes: restart fatigue. Gone is the stress of having finished a run with a favorite build, win or lose, not knowing if or when you’ll see those pieces again. In RW if you have a particular build in mind or just feel like pivoting in any given direction, you can!
I cannot emphasize enough how liberating this is. Whether you want to be a beastmaster with enough summons to fill three zoos or a solitary spellcaster unleashing the force of a low-yield nuclear bomb, the options are always available to you. Instead of limitations the game offers incentives to change up your gameplan on the fly with magic circles that offer discounts on specific types of spells, shrines that buff spells you already have, items that offer a bevy of effects, and so on, but it never tells you what to do, and that’s wonderful.
Is RW a power fantasy game, then? Yes! Absolutely! It just also happens to be one that will kick you directly in your wizardly teeth more often than not. Your runs through early floors will often feel borderline effortless as the enemies are relatively forgiving and a single decent spell can stave them off, but as the learning curve turns into more of a wall and the sheer quantity of foes increases you’ll find yourself keeling over on repeat. It’s at this point that you’ll need to leverage RW’s turn based structure and take a moment to actually read what your enemies do, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they’re capable of. A good amount of this will be done when peeking into each rift before you step through it to appraise the situation and carefully choose which route you’ll take, a feature that far more roguelikes should offer.
My point is that the game rewards knowledge and knowledge is gained run to run. That’s not an inherently unique trait to this or any game, but RW offers unprecedented joy in its experimentation and failure. “Losing is Fun” is a mantra long-repeated by folks who play challenging games, Dwarf Fortress being the poster child, and RW leans in so far it looks like MJ in Smooth Criminal. But crucially, it’s also all telegraphed. Knowable. And eventually, manageable. You’ll get better, you’ll get further, and you’ll even maybe possibly eventually win! Mordred is an awful fight by the way, be ready for that. Just…take your time. You’ll be fine, eventually.
The game’s small sprites and retro style work in its favor on multiple levels: the game always runs smoothly despite having a ton going on at any given moment, the level is always completely legible at a glance (once you know what the enemies do), and it allows your imagination to fill in the blanks of every gratuitous magical encounter. Whether I square up with Mordred or trip over my own robes halfway to his lair, each run always produces an amazing story. You never just barely lose in this game; you make a mistake that gets you blown inside out by an enemy wizard, or gored by an especially angry lion, or smote by a laser beam from a literal angel. Every death is a tale, and they all belong depicted on the cover of an album or the side of a van.
Rift Wizard is a triumph of wizardly wonder, a celebration of magical violence like little else before it. It’s also the best roguelike to come out in several years. Dylan White had a vision and the result entertains and terrifies me in equal measure. I love this game, simple as, and will be playing it for a long time to come.
A Steam code was independently purchased for review.