There’s a ton to love in the beautifully pixelated RPG roguelite Star Renegades. I just wish all of its ambitious ideas came together as elegantly as its art style.
In Star Renegades, the latest Steam game from Massive Damage, makers of the excellent Halcyon 6, you assemble a squad of charming cliches—the roguish bounty hunter, the cerebral android monk, the mech suit samurai—to battle against a trans-dimensional empire of automatons called the Imperium that’s hell bent on taking over every new quantum reality it discovers. Outnumbered and outgunned, your only advantage is a droid that can also dimension-hop, learning from each failed encounter and taking that knowledge and experience with it to the next slightly different reality to come under siege. It’s a cool scifi premise given shape and substance by the game’s terrific atmosphere and creepy robotic sound effects, but it’s also the source of a roguelite loop that can end up feeling just as tedious as any traditional RPG grind.
When you start a new run, you select a party of three heroes to level up from scratch while battling across a bunch of different maps spread out over four distinct worlds. Each map is an isometric labyrinth of small areas connected by gates. Some areas have turn-based fights against the Imperium. Others contain resources or treasure chests you can pick up to help you on your journey. Eventually you get to the objective and, usually following a boss fight, move onto the next map.
The setup feels a bit like playing a board game, especially on maps that have countdown timers for when “behemoths,” extra tough robotic foes, show up. Some gates need to be hacked, and after hacking three gates the day ends, forcing you to camp for the night before you can travel to the next zone. In addition to being a nice respite for characters to hang out together, camping also serves a gameplay purpose, allowing you to play a limited number of cards you’ve collected during the day to bestown buffs and stat increases on your party, as well as boost their affinity for one another, which unlocks further stat bonuses. This cycle forces you to pick and choose where you explore and who to fight before the behemoth shows up, though in the end I never felt like these decisions mattered that much.
Time also plays a key role in Star Renegades’ battles. A timeline at the top of the battle screen shows when each character and enemy will act. If someone gets hit before their turn, it will knock them back even further in the timeline. If it happens enough times during a single turn, they’ll lose the chance to act altogether. While something to guard against on your end, it’s also the key to winning battles in which you’re otherwise quite outmatched.
On top of this time mechanic, every character has armor and shielding in addition to health. Shielding takes damage first, and fully recovers at the end of a fight. Armor decreases incoming damage overall, is only restored at the end of the map. Health is the last to soak up damage, and can only be restored by using cards during camping or finding health packs while exploring the map.
Managing each meter carefully is the only way to survive for any length of time, and also the big complicating factor in choosing how to attack. In addition to trying to knock enemies back so they lose their turn, you also have to decide whether to take down their shields immediately, try to attack their armor directly, or rely on attacks that can pierce enemy defenses altogether and directly take down their health. Taken together, each of these elements makes Star Renegades approach to turn-based combat challenging, novel, and a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, those feelings started to wear off the more times I was looped back to the beginning and faced with puzzling through similar fights over and over again. The resources you accrue each time can be spent to unlock new characters and new equipment that will randomly spawn during your next attempt. Otherwise your characters’ levels, relationships, and existing loadouts are wiped out.
The game tries to make each new run feel a little bit more fresh with a take on Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system, where the enemy that killed you gets promoted and some time in the limelight. There’s no real story behind these enemies besides a string of one-liners though, and after a while it was hard to tell them apart. Only a few hours into Star Renegades (I’ve played five total so far) I was left wishing I could just approach its story and maps like the straightforward progression of the Octopath Travel-esque RPG throwback it otherwise resembles. Unlike some roguelites, where skill and experience can make up for being underpowered, I don’t get the sense my burgeoning squad of rebel fighters will have what it takes to crush the Imperium for good any time soon.
That doesn’t mean I’m ready to cast it aside completely. Its intriguing world building and lush graphical flourishes have me intent on one day liberating at least one of its realities from the robotic colonizers. I just hope the grind starts to even out at some point, or gets addressed in a future update somehow. Star Renegades has too many cool ideas to keep them hidden behind a discouraging wall of do-overs.