Roguelikes and tactical RPGs are both pretty common fare in the gaming landscape, but whereas most roguelikes are content to stick with a more traditional action-oriented approach, some of the most interesting experiments in the space come as a result of applying their mechanics to other styles of play. Like so many other popular genres, roguelikes are a matter of constant refinements to tried and true methods, so in order to stand apart, one has to really fire on all cylinders and push the boundaries of what’s possible in the typical space, or it has to try something totally different to prove itself a worthy contender. Star Renegades is notable for taking the latter approach, to the extent that in many respects it seems to have been designed as a tactical RPG first and a roguelike second. It’s a bold play that has worked for other notable games in the past, but the approach relies heavily on the core combat mechanics being really strong to succeed.
In Star Renegades, you command a band of rebels fighting for survival against an inter-dimensional Empire hellbent not just on conquering worlds, but entire realities. They have mastered the power of shifting across dimensions to increase their power to extents greater than mere galactic domination could ever possibly provide, and your plucky bunch of rogues and robots happen to belong to a resistance faction that has accidentally discovered how to resist them. Rather than performing direct reality hopping of your own (a-la Into the Breach), instead you’re able to send a drone through a rift into another reality to deliver a message to parallel selves just before the empire arrives to gather your forces and try again. It’s effectively a time-loop, but with the added twist of infinite realities and exploiting the very nature of the Empire’s path of destruction as your primary hope for survival.
You’ll control a party of characters that make up a variety of typical RPG archetypes, adapted to fit the sci-fi future setting that goes heavy on cybernetics and robots, all drenched in neon-tinged cyan and magenta to paint a gorgeous synthwave dystopia. Each of these characters has a range of abilities that they’ll unlock as they level up during a run (you spend DNA points gathered from fallen foes to pay for those levels), giving them more diverse skills and making them ever more viable in combat the longer your run lasts. You’ll have the opportunity to shake up your party’s style every time you start fresh, which allows a lot of room for experimentation with different play styles in combat. You’ll also have to make tough choices about which party members to lavish upgrades and equipment on, and which can afford to wait.
Your runs involve traversing an overworld map, choosing branching paths to pick your fights and also your rewards. As you continue to press forward down one path, alternate routes may close down, so depending on whether you need more currency or equipment or healing, you’ll have to plot your routes in advance, and be able to react to unexpected changes from fights with nastier-than-expected foes. You’ll work your way through a variety of rank-and-file enemies, sub-bosses, and ultimately some form of big bad waiting at the end of any given map. I’m not gonna lie, those boss fights are pretty damned hard, especially in the early stages of the game, and it’s fairly apparent this is a rogue like in which you’re more or less required to fail a lot of runs before you can succeed.
Combat in rounds plays out similarly to turn-based JRPG combat, selecting each character’s action from a menu of abilities. Each ability has a different type and the potential to shift your target’s position on the attack timeline. Much like Into the Breach, Star Renegades tells you in advance what your enemies intend to do, and so each round of combat involves you not just planning on how you’re going to pummel your foes into submission, but how you might be able to offset their advances and possibly disable them for the entire round.
By now you may have started to pick up on a through line, but in case you haven’t, I’ll lay it out. Star Renegades is very uniquely its own thing, but that thing is very much the amalgamation of a whole lot of ideas from many games across almost every genre. You’ll see a lot of elements of other roguelikes, but there are a whole mess of concepts lifted from all over the place. There’s RPG combat, there’s time-loop fueled meta progression, there’s a full-on take on the Nemesis system (any of those big bads who trounce you will be back to hassle you again in another reality), there’s relationship/affinity building, there might even be a kart racer in there somewhere if you look close enough. It’s a lot to take in, and the way these systems are layered on top of one another can be a bit overwhelming, which is probably why it takes a good two hours to complete all all of the tutorial content and your first run.
Sometimes, the varied systems work well together. There’s a camp mechanic on one of the varieties of maps that allows your party members to use ability cards on one another to grant buffs or heal lost hit points, and engaging in that activity helps build a relationship bond between characters that will in turn confer additional bonuses to them as that bond increases. It’s a nice break from the normal flow of combat and you can get some interesting flavor text or back story about each of your rebels as you spend time with them. Sometimes, the systems get to be a little much to keep track of, which is something I find to be particularly true in combat.
There are a lot of combat mechanics at play here. So many, in fact, that at a certain point I just kind of zone out and have to see what happens because I can’t keep track of all of the nuance. There are different attack types that enemies have resistances or weaknesses to which you need to exploit. There are stun abilities, counter attacks, and overwatch states to mind. You are almost always looking for chances to push your foes off of the time gauge and BREAK them each round, except they are immune to being broken the next time so maybe you need to amortize your damage across multiple rounds. Also it can take multiple successful hits to completely BREAK an enemy (see: big beefy robot bois), so you have to plan your attack order correctly to make sure you don’t take a huge flame cannon to the face before you can get around to hitting them enough to have stopped them in the first place. Sometimes, there’s literally nothing you can do but brace for impact and hope the enemy squad’s actions next round will leave you more of an opening to work with.
That last one really gets me when it happens, because I can’t ever tell for sure if the deck was truly stacked against me, or if there was something I could have done to better affect the outcome. There are plenty of scenarios where you can out play the enemy AI, and in fact most fights feel like a walk in the park. The tougher fights though against elites and bosses are another story, and require a lot more strategic thinking, especially when they have multiple units on the field with them. It’s worth mentioning here that every unit has a pool of shield points and health points. Shields can often be easily recovered through character abilities or passive bonuses, but once your shields are gone, damage drains your health pool, and THAT stuff doesn’t just come back with ease. Shields will fully recharge between battles, but your health pool retains damage sustained in fights unless you can find a healing station or use cards during camping. That means you also have to plan your route through the overworld and your timing of your camping sessions to set yourself up with as much health as possible before you take on a planet’s boss.
Star Renegades really wants you to think through your plans in advance, both in combat and out of it. In a lot of ways, that does work for me and I think having to plan your meta strategy in broad terms can be fun and engaging, but sometimes I just wanna hit some robots with a big chunky electrosword, and that’s all well and good until I fight a cyber wolf that absolutely tears my entire party apart and sends me packing to the next dimension, leaving me to wonder where it all went wrong.
Between runs you’ll have the opportunity to unlock things with some currencies that persist across space and time, so as you fail your way through the game you’ll open up access to more rebels, more passive abilities, and more weapons. Theoretically, this puts you in a position to get stronger over time, combined with your own journey of personal growth and understanding of the game, so that you can at some point have a great run across all four planets and the Empire’s big scary space cruiser and achieve victory.
There’s a lot to like about Star Renegades, and probably at the top of my list are its art, music, and overall presentation. For all of the complexity of its mechanics, it’s a gorgeous game to look at and listen to. Everything is rendered in wonderfully detailed, high-fidelity pixel art that evokes all the right parts of your sci-fi nostalgia while still looking truly excellent and super fluid in motion. Lots of great effects in combat add to the excellent artwork of the characters, and there’s just an overall level of detail here that you don’t typically see in most games using this art style. The music is also a high point, featuring some solid synth jams that offer an excellent acoustic backdrop your engagements. I honestly think a huge part of why this game works as well as it does is owed largely to the quality of the artwork, the UI design, and the soundtrack for creating a cohesive realization of the game’s setting. The combat and the concept of the reactive time battle system work because they’re presented so strongly and represented so well by the visuals. So, bravo to the artists and designers here.
I think that Star Renegades gets a whole lot of things right, and it plays in an interesting space in the way it tries to cherry pick ideas from a lot of other successful games. Most of these mechanics are designed in a way so that they feed well into one another, and despite its complexity, combat still feels really good once you get into the groove with it. I’d be interested to see a version of Star Renegades with some of the excess fat trimmed down, if that were possible. Just a little more streamlining or editorializing of the mechanics could really benefit the game, because for me it’s something I’ll usually only play one or two runs at a time, and I think it could potentially benefit from a faster overall cadence. Still, it does an impressive job of juggling a lot of ideas at once and mostly keeping all of them up in the air. It’s not my favorite rogue like or RPG of the year, but it’s definitely unique and fun enough that it warrants some of your time.
A Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes