Old school roguelike Rift Wizard is no looker, but it's a tactical slaughterfest so deep you could drown

Rift Wizard, a pixel art roguelike with surprising depth

The end comes. I'm standing on a narrow ridge, precipices to either side, fire drakes bathing me in flames. The end also comes with me trapped in the crook of a cavern passage, fae thorns in front and behind, a troll beating me from the side. 

In addition: Clubbed to death by ogres in a hellish plane of rune-inscribed rocks; flamed and lightning'd to a crisp by chaos chimera; goblin'd into pulp in a foetid swamp. The list goes on.

As it is in most roguelikes, but especially capital-R Rogue-likes, death is generally inevitable in Rift Wizard, and it comes in many forms. Most of those are found in its startlingly long bestiary of 541 different monsters—though Rift Wizard sports simple pixel sprites that make it look like an authentic-to-a-fault take on Rogue, it's really a deeply open tactical arena battle wizard-building sim.

In each run you zap, blast, 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 at random shrines). It's an immense arsenal. You're on a quest to murder a bad wizard called Mordred—if you've played Hoplite on mobile (and if you haven't, you really should), Rift Wizard hits a similar note of deep-thought slaughter ballet, but far broader in scope and a lot more chaotic, all about interplays between those spells.

So far I've only got to realm 10, and I'm blaming 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's resurrected as a skeleton that fights for me. Doing damage to gain minions which deal more damage is maths I can't resist. 

I love the exhilarating deathball momentum that you can get with a necromancer in Diablo, but in Rift Wizard I haven't felt that sense of power yet. My skellies' health is locked to the health of the creature they once were, and even with the Hungry Dead skill, which gives my skellies a ranged attack which also heals them, they just don't seem to last.

I try another starter spell on a new run: Wolf. Necromancy is really about gaining minions, and I liked 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, which each let me place a wolf on an empty tile nearby. Stronger and tougher than a skelly, a pack of wolves is effective. But they can do better. 

...when your mind breaks through the symbols, that's when you realise the power of games that channel Rogue

You start a run with 1SP to spend on your first spell. In the first realm you'll find three more SP, which you can spend on buying more spells, upgrading existing spells, or on permanent skills. I upgrade my wolves so they hit harder, and later buy Minion Regeneration, which heals my wolves 2HP per turn. I go on to raise the number of Wolf casts I get, but it still takes many casts to amass an army of wolves each level and I find myself buying Fireball so I can do some killing when my wolves aren't delivering.

That's when I see Flame Gate. This 3SP spell summons a fire elemental at the location I subsequently cast fire spells. So: Flame Gate then Fireball, and simply by raining destruction I get a small army of ranged and fairly hardy minions that aren't harmed by my Fireball's blast radius. It's like Death Bolt's damage-plus-minion solution except I'm pelting enemies with fiery explosions. 

The explosions are just brief pixelated blooms, but it's at moments of revelation like this that Rift Wizard's 30x30 tile play space and two-frame animated monsters come alive as threats, a place, and a world. Just as Brogue's coloured ASCII becomes a network of caverns and mouldering dungeons, when your mind breaks through the symbols, that's when you realise the power of games that channel Rogue.

However, as soon as I try to use Flame Gate, I realise I've not considered the fine print. The effect ends as soon as I do something other than cast Fireball, so I should only use it when I know I'll be able to spam fire and not have to move or need to swig potions, which leaves me open to ranged attacks. With only four charges and costing a precious turn to use, timing Flame Gate turns out tricky. 

Another issue is that my fire elementals only last nine turns before they dematerialise, so my armies have a knack for failing to exist when I need them. But still. When I find that perfect moment to hit Flame Gate, command an inferno and gain a phalanx of unstoppable raging fire elementals, it feels great. And when I fluff it, it feels like my fault. 

So, all in, right? I'm six Realms deep and my build seems stronger than any I've yet tried. I've spent 2SP on extending my fire elementals' lives from nine turns to 16 and 6SP on raising their damage and range. We blaze our way through a realm with mushroom men and asshole egg enemies that keep teleporting me out of position, and then in Realm 7, I notice the 5SP skill Pyrophilia, which heals my elementals whenever they see enemies take fire damage. Irresistible.

We're unstoppable until I misclick. I've cleared Realm 7 and I accidentally walk into 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 Realm 8. Portals show the enemies, items and shrines I'll encounter on the other side, and while my powers are awesome, I've no mana potions left and my remaining charges are dwindling. 

I find myself starting Realm 8 in a level with no mana potions, filled with spike beasts and bat dragons. Poor from buying Pyrophilia and having failed to pick up SP from the previous level, I can't buy a new spell. The end is agonisingly slow. The swarms of bats the dragons breathe at me are no match for either my fireballs or my elementals, but I steadily run out of casts and then they nip me to death. Nice try, fire wizard.

Perhaps it's time for something new. Death Shock to zap clumps of monsters with both lightning and dark-type schools? Try resisting that combo. Poisoning monsters with Toxin Burst and then using Combust Poison to deal fire damage all around them? The pathways of power that run through all the spells, skills and shrines in Rift Wizard crisscross a world to explore, and I've only wandered a single trail.

Rift Wizard may look humble, but the only way a single developer could possibly make a game with such complex interactions between spells, effects, and monsters is with such simple-seeming pixels. Pop it all into prettied 3D and the delicious chaos of a troop of raised fire elementals ranging against bat-breathing dragons becomes impossible to read. The way Rogue—and its successors Nethack and Brogue—lay out their entire dungeons in a single screen of ASCII clarity is good design, if you're able to believe in what it's telling you. Rift Wizard knows that magic, and revels in it. What a delight.