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Recently I’ve discovered a few games that are clearly influenced by traditional roguelikes, and manage to use roguelike elements in a completely different genre with some impressive results. Transcendence is one such game, and it also happens to be completely free.

It’s a weird mix of styles. On the surface it appears to be a top-down space combat game that controls similarly to Asteroids, but features the kind of free-roaming, explore/trade/fight/upgrade gameplay popularized by Elite and continued by the likes of Freelancer and the X series. But play for a little while and you’ll soon see that Transcendence takes just as much inspiration from roguelikes.

The premise of the game is that a msyterious entity known as Domina has appeared in your dreams and commanded you to head to the Galactic Core. This has apparently happened to quite a few people recently, causing them to ditch their families and lives and start the dangerous expedition. Beginning with a choice of one of three ships, which include a fighter for those inclined towards combat, a freighter for those who prefer trading, and a yacht that’s about halfway between, the player sets off on his or her pilgrimage. No matter which ship you choose, though, the gameplay boils down to the same thing: Fly around the procedurally-generated star system you’re currently in, blow up all the hostile ships and stations you encounter, loot the wreckage for valuable items and equipment, and then head back to the friendly stations to sell it all and upgrade your ship.

The roguelike elements become apparent quickly. The star systems, which each feature a jump gate to the previous system and one the next system, operate very similarly to the dungeon floors of a roguelike, with the jump gates acting as the up and down stairs. As in roguelikes, Transcendence has you exploring each system, eliminating all the enemies and finding all the loot, and then proceeding to the next system. You ship’s fuel gauge operates in the same way as hunger systems in roguelikes, although in Transcendence you can upgrade your reactor to increase your fuel capacity. Also, different equipment can use more power, draining fuel more quickly, which is a nice and fitting change to the traditional mechanic. Transcendence even adapts the roguelike tradition of randomized potions and scrolls, by including chemical barrels that can be applied to the ship’s armor segments which can render them resistant or immune to certain types of damage if you’re lucky and damage or degrade them if you’re unlucky. Other items will affect a ship’s shields or computer systems instead, with similarly beneficial or harmful results. These elements all work surprisingly well despite being adapted into a different genre, and retain their innate appeal.

What also keeps Transcendence interesting is the huge amount of variety available. There are tons of weapons, armor and shields to be found or purchased, as well as many secondary items that can boost your ship’s performance in various ways. The huge arsenal in the game can inflict 16 different types of damage, and the various types of armor and shields each have their own resistances or weaknesses to each type. Plus, various weapons can often handle quite differently, from simple variations in range and firing speed, to weapons that fire clouds of particles or radiation, to auto-targeting turrets. Then there’s the variety in the game’s universe. While the early star systems consist mostly of Commonwealth stations and a few weak pirates, farther along there will be many more interesting factions to interact with. The Korolov Shipping company will hire you to escort freighters and fight the Charon Pirates. Black Market stations will let you trade in illegal goods and give you access to military equipment, if you can convince them to trust you. If you fight the Sung Slavers and free enough slaves, you might gain the trust of the Huari and have them help you in your quest. Farther out still, you might enlist in the Commonwealth military and help them in the war against the Ares Orthodoxy, a rival faction of humans who have embraced genetic engineering and consider themselves superior. In fact, nearly every faction you encounter is, or was, human, which is an interesting detail. The only actual alien species are the Iocrym, a mysterious race with much more advanced technology who are currently blocking the way out of human space. But you’ll need to get past them if you want to get to the Core.

Transcendence does have a few problems. Ships don’t seem to turn smoothly, but rather in small discrete increments, which makes it hard to aim at enemies. I found that I was unable to fire my thrusters, turn, and fire my weapon all at the same time, but that may have been a weakness of my keyboard rather than the game itself. The difficulty curve is fairly shallow, which is great the first time, but makes repeated plays somewhat tedious as you must slog through the easy early systems again. This is alleviated somewhat by the fact that the game does not feature perma-death, but rather lets you resurrect when you die at the cost of losing any progress you made in that system and resetting your score. But mostly, the actual exploration parts start to feel too similar. Find an enemy station, destroy the fighters guarding it, shell the station from afar, rinse and repeat. Later on things get quite tough and left me feeling helpless against overwhelming odds, especially when I was tackling some of the special events like defending the Huari against a Sung onslaught or leading an offensive against the Ares Orthodoxy.

Still, it’s a very interesting design and more than worth a look. While I haven’t found myself playing it in the long term, I definitely enjoyed my sessions with it, and since it’s free there’s really no reason not to check it out. You can download the game, read up on the background of the universe and find guides for new players on the official site. You can also check the forums there for more in-depth strategies. Happy flying!