The old-fashioned roguelike Rift Wizard isn’t a spectator, but it’s a tactical slaughter so deep you might drown
The end is coming. I stand on a narrow ridge, precipices on either side, fiery dragons bathing me in flames. The end also comes with me trapped in the hollow of a cave passage, fae thorns in front and behind, a troll beating me to the side.
In addition: clubbed to death by ogres in a hellish plane of rune-etched rocks; flamed and flash to a crisp chimera by chaos; goblin mush in a foul swamp. The list goes on.
As is the case with most roguelikes, but especially uppercase Rogue-likes, death is usually inevitable in Rift Wizard, and it comes in many forms. Most of them are found in his surprisingly long bestiary of 541 different monsters. sim.
With each race, you zap, detonate, disintegrate, bless, curse and poison your way through 25 randomly generated levels called realms, crafting your mage from a menu that currently lists 135 spells and 26 skills across 16 schools of magic. (not to mention all the effects you’ll find in Random Shrines). It’s a huge arsenal. You’re on a quest to assassinate an evil wizard named Mordred – if you’ve played Hoplite on mobile (and if you haven’t, you really should), Rift Wizard strikes a similar note of massacre ballet deeply in touch. larger and much more chaotic, all about the interactions between these spells.
So far I’ve only reached realm 10, and I blame necromancy. One of Rift Wizard’s starting spells is a beauty called Death Bolt, which deals damage to its target and if the target dies, it is resurrected as a skeleton fighting for me. Do damage to gain minions that inflict Following damage is math that I can’t resist.
I love the exhilarating deathball momentum you can get with a necromancer in Diablo, but in Rift Wizard I haven’t felt that sense of power yet. The health of my skellies is tied to the health of the creature they once were, and even with the Hungry Dead skill, which gives my skellies a ranged attack that also heals them, they just don’t seem to last.
I try another starting spell on a new run: Wolf. Necromancy is really all about winning minions, and I loved being a hunter in World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, where I could direct my pets to deal and take damage for me. The Wolf spell comes with 12 charges, each of which allows me to place a wolf on an empty tile nearby. Stronger and more resilient than a skelly, a wolf pack is effective. But they can do better.
You start a race with 1SP to spend on your first spell. In the first realm, you’ll find three additional SPs, which you can spend to buy more spells, upgrade existing spells, or gain permanent skills. I upgrade my Wolves to hit harder, and later I buy Minion Regeneration, which heals my Wolves for 2 HP per turn. I keep increasing the number of wolf throws I get, but it still takes a lot of throws to amass an army of wolves on each level and I find myself buying Fireball so I can kill when my wolves aren’t delivering.
That’s when I see Flame Gate. This 3SP spell summons a fire elemental where I next cast fire spells. So: Flame Gate then Fireball, and just by raining destruction down, I get a small army of ranged, pretty tough minions who aren’t harmed by my Fireball’s blast ray. It’s like Death Bolt’s more minion damage fix, except I bomb enemies with fiery blasts.
Explosions are just brief pixelated blooms, but it’s at revealing moments like this that Rift Wizard’s 30×30 tile play space and two-picture animated monsters come to life as threats, location and world. Just as Brogue’s colorful ASCII becomes a network of moldy caves and dungeons, when your mind pierces the symbols, that’s when you realize the power of the games that channel Rogue.
However, as soon as I try to use Flame Gate, I realize that I haven’t taken the fine print into account. The effect ends as soon as I do anything other than cast Fireball, so I should only use it when I know I’ll be able to spam fire and won’t have to move or drink potions, which leaves me open to ranged attacks. With just four charges and costing a precious lap to use, timing Flame Gate is proving tricky.
Another issue is that my Fire Elementals only last for nine turns before dematerializing, so my armies have a knack for not existing when I need them. But stay. When I find that perfect moment to strike Flame Gate, command Hell, and earn a phalanx of Unstoppable Raging Fire Elementals, it feels good. And when I inflate it, it’s like my fault.
So, all figured out, right? I’m six realms deep and my build feels stronger than anything I’ve tried yet. I spent 2 SP to extend the life of my Fire Elementals from nine turns to 16 and 6 SP to increase their damage and range. We make our way through a realm with mushroom men and asshole egg enemies that keep teleporting me out of position, then in realm 7 I notice the 5SP skill Pyrophilia, which heals my elementals every time that they see enemies taking fire damage. Irresistible.
We are unstoppable until I make a wrong click. I completed kingdom 7 and accidentally enter one of the rift portals that lead to the next level before picking up all the items and reviewing which rift I’m going to choose for kingdom 8. The portals show enemies, objects and shrines. I will meet on the other side, and while my powers are impressive, I have run out of mana potions and my remaining charges are decreasing.
I find myself starting Kingdom 8 in a level with no mana potions, filled with spiked beasts and bat dragons. Poor to have bought Pyrophilia and not having managed to recover the SP of the previous level, I cannot buy a new spell. The end is terribly slow. The swarms of bats that the dragons blow at me are no match for my fireballs or elementals, but I regularly miss throws and they bite me to death. Nice try, fire wizard.
Maybe it’s time for something new. Death Shock to take down groups of monsters with lightning-type and dark-type schools? Try to resist this combo. Poison monsters with Toxin Burst then use Combust Poison to inflict fire damage all around them? The Paths of Power that run through all of Rift Wizard’s spells, skills, and shrines crisscross a world to explore, and I’ve only walked one trail.
Rift Wizard might seem humble, but the only way for a single developer to create a game with such complex interactions between spells, effects, and monsters is with such simple pixels. Bring it all into pretty 3D and the delightful chaos of a troop of raised fire elementals opposing bat-breathing dragons becomes impossible to read. The way Rogue – and his successors Nethack and Brogue – organize their entire dungeons on a single ASCII clarity screen is a good design, if you’re able to believe what he’s telling you. Rift Wizard knows this magic and revel in it. What a delight.