Futility has Never Been so Fun
It’s been a while since I’ve come across a game that ended up in the same way that Star Renegades has. I’ve spent countless hours over the past few weeks learning the ropes, strategizing, and, of course, dying a lot. Normally I would call something like that frustrating—especially since this game is a rogue-like, turn-based RPG. And my journey across the game’s multiverse has been a lot of things, that’s for sure, but “frustrating” wasn’t one of them. On the contrary, I’d call the entire experience enjoyable. And, while that mixture of frustrating-yet-fun gameplay is something that every rogue-like should aspire to be, Star Renegades still managed to exceed my expectations in nearly every area.
Across the Universes
I’ll be singing Star Renegade‘s praises in most of this review, but, first, we’re going to tackle the one thing that this game handles in a less-than-stellar way; its writing. On a surface level, there isn’t anything egregious about the game’s writing, or even bad. It features a story about a universe-hopping robot named J5T-1N whose sole mission is to beat back the far-reaching clutches of the Imperium—a hive-mind of robots under the control of a mysterious and sinister entity known only as “MOTHER”—by guiding and assisting the heroes of whatever universe it’s currently in. As far as I’m concerned, Star Renegades did just fine with that. There’s just enough story to set up what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, but it’s not so intrusive that it mars the rest of the game in any way. And, on top of that, the concept of each run-through of the game being a different universe is really cool.
Star Renegade‘s story is certainly important, but it’s not actually where you’ll encounter the bulk of the game’s writing. That honor goes to the many tidbits of dialogue and pieces of lore that the player encounters on their journey. Once again, the fact that the game does this is just fine. In fact, I’d call it pretty normal for a rogue-like. But the actual content of said dialogue and lore is a different story.
I don’t know how this trend of feeling as though you absolutely need to inject comedy into your game has continued as long as it has, but it’s got to stop. Almost every part of this game’s writing leads up to some kind of joke or weird comment. Comedy is fine. Weirdness is fine. But in a game like Star Renegades—where almost everything has a sense of urgency and morbidity surrounding it—a “wacky fun-time” approach to your writing is not the way to go. You can’t just shoehorn in a bunch of low-brow jokes and expect it to turn out fine. I hate being this blunt, but it’s awful—and the fact that it’s juxtaposed to the rest of the game, which all feels very intelligently designed, makes it stand out even more. I’m not saying that trying to insert a consistently humorous tone is inherently bad, but it needs to be done subtlety if it’s going to be included in a game like this. And, as it stands, Star Renegades‘ approach to humor is, more often than not, about as subtle as a hammer to the head.
One Planet at Time
Hopefully, you weren’t expecting me to continue rampaging through the rest of this review, because I won’t be. Writing aside, everything about this game is really good. Star Renegades is a randomized, level-based, strategic, rogue-like, turn-based RPG, and is exactly as complicated as it sounds. So, to make things easier (mostly on myself), let’s break the game down a little bit.
Star Renegades is basically a strategic board game, with each planet is its own level—filled to the brim with danger, and what is quite possibly the best pixel art that I’ve ever seen. The goal of each level is to make it to a specifically marked spot on the world map within three days. But, of course, you can’t just walk there, danger-free—that would be too easy. The Imperium, in their seeming omnipotence, has already essentially taken over each planet and has segmented the world by setting up barriers everywhere. Fortunately, J5T-1N is capable of destroying these barriers. Unfortunately, it can only break three per day before needing to recharge—meaning that you’ve got nine turns to get where you need to be, lest you be mercilessly destroyed alongside the planet you’re trying to protect.
The strategic element utilized within this game is an excellent example of making something intelligent and complex out of something simple. There are plenty of areas that you can explore within each world, with a guaranteed number of spots containing money, upgrades, equipment, or supplies (which can heal or buff characters) that are all up for the taking, but, because of the restraints placed upon the player, you’ve got to be incredibly picky regarding where you’ll go and how you’ll get there. The limited number of turns, of course, is your biggest adversary, but it’s also important to keep an eye out for fights that you’ll be headed into.
While battles aren’t typically a bad thing, as you can get money and DNA (EXP) from them, the fact that you could potentially take HP or Armor damage—making already difficult battles even tougher—or just straight-up die means that you shouldn’t ever take what you’re doing lightly. To be fair, it does make the game feel a little slow for a roguelike, but also incredibly enjoyable if you’re into strategizing.
No Bots, Please
The board game-like strategy may be a major player within Star Renegades, but turn-based combat is king. The concept of a timeline mechanic within turn-based RPGs isn’t anything new; it’s a nice way to see when certain attacks will hit, and what the enemies are doing. This is true of Star Renegades as well, but it’s so much more important than that. Despite very much being a turn-based RPG, battles in this game don’t play out like they would in most other RPGs. There’s really no such thing as an “easy” battle. Sure, some of the early game battles don’t pose much of a threat—and this is especially true once you get the hang of gameplay—but if you simply rely on mindlessly attacking opponents, the only place that you’ll be headed to is the next universe (which is bad).
Battles rely heavily upon timeline manipulation. Enemies are able to be pushed back on the timeline by certain attacks, and, once pushed back far enough, they Break—meaning that they can’t do anything for that turn. But, as always, there’s a catch. An enemy can only be delayed so many times before they develop Break immunity, and the only way to undo that is to let them take their turn (although it’s not like you have a say in the matter, anyway). This means that Breaking an enemy is less a question of if you can do it, but how you should go about doing it. It’s surprisingly complex; I don’t remember the last time I had to plan out each individual turn like I did in this game. But it’s also incredibly addictive. I never found myself growing tired of seeing successfully executed attack combinations go off, and being able to out-wit bosses always felt especially rewarding.
Classes are also very important, although, admittedly, it might take you a few runs to get a handle on how a lot of them work (or are best utilized). Since stats aren’t really a thing in this game, picking classes basically comes down to what you want your party to be able to do (there are plenty of ways to play the game!), and how well they synergize with each other. Balance is crucial in this game, and it really forces you to think long and hard about who you want to bring with you on your run.
There’s a lot that I could talk about when it comes to combat; so much more than the small amount that I’ve touched upon. If I talked about everything that I wanted to, this review would go on forever. So, instead, I’m going to condense everything as tightly as possible by saying that Star Renegades’ combat system is two things; insanely frustrating, and insanely fun. You’re going to get absolutely thrashed at some point or another, but that’s okay. It’s not necessarily meant to be beaten in your first playthrough. Or your second. Or your third. But that’s the beauty of it. I can honestly say that with every loss I became more competent with and confident of what I was doing. I learned more about my enemies, and more about my characters. And then, when I finally managed to defeat the last boss, it truly felt like a triumph. I had worked hard to win, and it really felt like I deserved that victory. And, if you ask me, that’s what a good rogue-like—RPG-based or not—is supposed to do for the player.
To Infinity, and Beyond
Star Renegades stands out as a shining example of what a rogue-like RPG should be. It’s unbending in its insistence that the player not only come to understand the intricacies of its rules, but master them, yet provides enough resources to make sure that players who really want to reach the end eventually do. I may have gone into this game as a reviewer, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t come out of it as an honest-to-goodness fan—even if the writing does rub me the wrong way.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Raw Fury; Developer: Massive Damage, Inc.; Players: 1; Released: September 8, 2020; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10+; MSRP: $24.99
Full disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.