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The best roguelikes (and lites) to play: from Hades to Dead Cells

 (Vampire Survivors)
(Vampire Survivors)

Roguelike gaming is having a real moment. From the smash-hit that was 2019’s Hades (a sequel to which is due to follow later this year) to the brand-new No Return mode in The Last of Us Part 2: Remastered, it’s never been easier to pick up a console and dive in.

But this genre has been around for a long time. Originally used as a way to refer to games like the 1980 classic Rogue, it’s now come to mean any game that features dungeon crawling and permadeath, often with procedurally generated enemies.

It’s even spawned its own subgenre, roguelite games. Note the one letter difference. For the uninitiated, the differences are small, but they are basically this: roguelikes pit the player against waves of enemies, but upon their (inevitable) death, all progress is removed and the player starts again from square one.

Roguelites are a little bit kinder: when the player dies, they keep their progress, allowing them to level up their abilities and gear. In the name of fairness, we’ve rounded up our picks for the top roguelike games (classics and new) that people should try out, and for those that need easing in, there are a few roguelites thrown in for good measure – after all, how could we not include Hades?

Vampire Survivors

This was a surprise win at the 2023 Bafta Games Awards, but spend 10 minutes with this low-res dungeon crawler and you’ll quickly see why. There are no vampires in it, weirdly, but the game itself involves fighting off waves of monsters while collecting enough new loot and weapons to survive the night. Naturally it became a hit, and it’s still being upgraded by developers Poncle. The result is something criminally addictive.

Dead Cells

An iconic example of the genre. Play as a science experiment gone wrong – essentially a bunch of cells that have taken over a headless body – and attempt to break out of the dungeon in which you have been kept. Like in Hades, the end goal is escape, but to get there, you’ll likely die. A lot. The result is a frenetic, break-neck combat experience that lets you slowly upgrade weapons over the course of multiple runs. It’s tough, but every win is fought-for and feels doubly rewarding.

Returnal

It’s sudden death… but in space. Returnal follows the story of Selene, an astronaut who begins the game having crash landed on an alien planet crammed with shapeshifters and other vicious monsters. The aim of the game: to survive as long as humanly possible. When she dies, the player has to restart the game from the very beginning, which is a great incentive for dodging those attacks. Fortunately, she does have a massive arsenal of weaponry at her disposal.

The Binding of Isaac

This absolutely bonkers game involves using tears as weapons, sentient faeces and fighting Biblical monsters (yes, there’s a lot of weeping in this). You are Isaac, a boy trapped in something that looks a lot like Hell. The aim is to shoot through a series of randomly-generated dungeons. It was one of the first roguelikes that set the scene for all the modern games that followed. There have been better games, but this one is still a classic, and the story itself is heartbreakingly sad.

Slay The Spire

Ever wondered what a combat-based game would look like… as a card game? Welcome to Slay The Spire, which is a wonderfully unique addition to the collection. There are four central characters to choose from, and each one is tasked with fighting their way through rounds of combat to the top of the titular spire with the aim of defeating the boss. Every run starts with a hand of cards, which can be upgraded and added to over the course of several runs; different cards in the deck let the player attack, defend or buff themselves. It’s easier, and more fun, than it sounds.

Darkest Dungeon

Take a roguelike, but cross it with the Sims, and the end result will be something like Darkest Dungeon. Instead of controlling just the one, often ill-fated, character, the challenge is to take charge of an entire party of heroes, who have all been charged with investigating what’s lurking beneath a spooky old mansion. To make things more anxiety-inducing, the combat is paired with a Stress mechanic, which applies individually to each member of the party and means that soothing them is as much of a priority as destroying the monsters. Which is hard, because the game itself is brutally difficult.

Spelunky

For a game that was released all the way back in 2008, Spelunky sure does hold up well. Part of that is down to the Mario-esque graphics, and part of it is down to the gameplay. The hero is a spelunker – or cave explorer – who must find his way through a cave system by killing and looting indiscriminately. The game is difficult – dying is depressingly commonplace – but there are incentives to keep playing, such as the random loot boxes, ever-changing enemies and surprise appearances from a mysterious ghosts.

Roguelite

Dust & Neon

This game combines both roguelike and lite elements for a unique playing experience. Set in a futuristic Wild West (complete with ghost towns, saloons and corrals), there’s an extra twist when it comes to the (many) shootouts that pepper the game, in that each round of ammo must be loaded separately into the gun. This makes it unbelievably stressful to play, but there is some good news. When he inevitably dies, the Gunslinger keeps his character progression, though he does lose all his weapons. Boo.

Hades

This dungeon-crawler is the game that got many people into the roguelike genre. Players assume the role of Zagreus, the son of Hades, whom we meet attempting to fight his way out of the Underworld to join his cousins on Olympus. But unfortunately for him, Hades isn’t about to let that happen. With a great story, a fascinating game mechanic (dying is actively encouraged, to make a change from the norm) and constant incentive to switch up your playstyle, it’s one for the ages.

Cult of the Lamb

The cutest roguelite game on this list by far. Become a cuddly leader of lost souls as the titular Lamb, whose job is to battle their way through a series of dungeons to kill heretic gods and free The One Who Waits, as well as collecting a farm's worth of cuddly critters to serve as followers. There are dungeons here (and regular updates from the developers mean the playthroughs keep changing) but there is also a management element to this – followers have to be kept happy, well fed and brainwashed lest they defect. Unless, of course, you kill them.