The Imperium Strikes Back
It was all going so well. In just my first run on Star Renegades, the upcoming tactical RPG roguelite from the creators of Halycon 6, I had the enemies in the palm of my hands. The Imperium walkers were being comfortably dispatched by my Valkyrie, Wynn Syphex, with her over-sized sword. My Saboteur, the dashing quick-witted Nodo Kalthoris, was leaping up into the air, slamming down in a hail of bullets onto the Adversary Firewulf, a hulking red tank spewing flame across the battlefield.
Well, that was all until I met Zolar Falensarano, the Trooper Lieutenant of the planet Menku. Flanked by his mechanical allies, Zolar laid down some Heavy fire that eviscerated my squad faster than my robotic Archon companion could repair our shields. Syphex fell first, and from there it was only a matter of time. The worst part about this crushing demise is knowing that Zolar will get a promotion for defeating me, moving him up the rankings of the Mother’s Hierarchy. He’ll face me again somewhere down the line, and when he does, he’ll be even more powerful than before.
Mercifully, my preview of Star Renegades ends there, forestalling that future encounter with Zolar. That doesn’t stop me from jumping back in for another go on Massive Damage Inc.’s exciting new JRPG roguelite. Several games in recent years have added roguelite aspects to otherwise unconnected genres, creating addictive loops that draw players to keep retrying again and again. Slay the Spire did it with card battling, Into the Breach with a grid-based tactics game, and most recently West of Dead with twin-stick cover shooters. Star Renegades looks to do the same thing for the JRPG genre.
Break It Down
On the surface, combat plays out similarly to those classic JRPG encounters, with party members taking it in turns to select from a handful of class-specific abilities and choosing the enemy to inflict their wrath upon. Area of effect attacks can target multiple enemies, and self-buffs can be used to recover Shields or block damage. Shields are a protective additional health bar that must be removed before damage can be done to Health or Armor, whilst Armor provides permanent damage absorption, unless broken with Armor Damage attacks or ignored with Armor Piercing. Shields are regained at the end of each combat, whilst Health and Armor are persistent unless recovered during camping or looting.
What sets the combat of Star Renegades apart from most JRPGs is the deterministic nature of its Reactive Time Battle System. This means that you can see the turn order (timeline) across the top of the screen, so you always know which enemy will be attacking when and how, as well as who on your team they will be targeting. The core combat loop revolves around manipulating this turn order. Attack abilities have individual execution times that determine where on the timeline they land. Light attacks, like Blitz, are “instant”, so they execute as soon as you select them, but all others will appear either before or after enemy actions. Choosing a Heavy attack, such as Cleave, might come later in the timeline, whilst a Normal attack, like Sunder, may come earlier.
Attacking before your opponents do is crucial as it enables the CRIT Bonuses of your attacks. These provide the true potential of your abilities, from increased damage, element damage types (for armor piercing) or, perhaps most crucially, Stagger. Stagger pushes the enemy’s turn further down the timeline, delaying their attacks to provide bigger windows for triggering your CRIT but also with the hopes that you can Break them. To Break an opponent means pushing them completely off the timeline tracker and, therefore, cancelling their attack for that round altogether. Stagger Limit prevents this from being done too repeatedly to the same enemy, but Break is an absolutely essential tactic for damage mitigation and surviving encounters. If only I had managed to Break that Zolar Falensarano more often, things might have gone differently!
Star Renegades wouldn’t be a true JRPG without screen-filling special attacks, and these come in the form of Combos. Party members who have built a strong Relationship can earn Combos together, which can only be triggered when enough Fury has been earned from landing successful CRITs and Breaks.
Know Your Adversary
The combat system is deep and intricate with layers upon strategic layers, and knowing all of these complexities is essential to surviving — as I discovered to my eventual detriment. Equally essential is knowing your opponents. The Imperium Adversaries you face on the battlefield each have their own strengths and weaknesses, which can be viewed at any time in the games’ Inspection Mode. Enemy units’ weaknesses can be exploited by using attacks of that type, like a Pokémon mix-and-match, whilst resistances and immunities let you know exactly what not to use. For example, I know that the PyroShower unit applies Burning damage-over-time with its primary attack, but that it is weak against Normal type attacks, such as my Valkyrie’s Slash. I also know it is resistant to Heavy attacks, so Cleave will be all but useless.
Knowing your enemies is a key aspect of Star Renegades’ approach. The Imperium Throne Room screen is essentially a visual hierarchy of the enemies you have faced — and will face. It is a welcome sight to see the Nemesis System from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor being used by another studio in an interesting way, and that is essentially what the Throne Room is to Star Renegades. Slaying enemies in combat will remove chess pieces from the Mother’s army, but being defeated by them earns them promotions and moves them up the ladder. This includes granting them new strengths and resistances to make them more challenging in your next encounter. I didn’t get to see much of this system in play during my preview run, but I am intrigued to see how these enemies will react to you in future playthroughs having defeated you once already. I am also curious about defeated enemies — can they return like the Orcs in Shadow of Mordor for one last stab at revenge?
This may all sound like a lot to take in, but during my preview time, Star Renegades drip-fed the information in a series of helpful tutorials. I quickly found my rhythm, with my Saboteur taking best advantage of Break to prevent damage and control the battlefield, my Valkyrie landing the big hits and breaking armor, and my Archon keeping everyone’s shields recharged. Combat is only a small part of the total Star Renegades package, though — its JRPG inspirations run even deeper.
A Ragtag Group
Between battles I navigated a world map not too dissimilar to the pixelated isometric maps of early-days Zelda or Final Fantasy. It is slightly clunky to navigate with a mouse and keyboard, and I would wager the game is designed with a control pad in mind, which feels a lot more natural to use.
Missions take place on a procedurally generated section of the world map and come with a mission timer to grant a sense of urgency. If you fail to achieve your goals in the allotted time, the mission (and thus, the planet) is lost. If you succeed, you must face down the planet boss — a deadly Behemoth unit. These Behemoths are huge, armored combat vehicles with heavy munitions, and Massive Damage promises six varieties of Behemoths to fight at release.
As my party of Renegades moved around the world map, I discovered a series of interesting loot, including credits (to be spent at merchants) and DNA (used to level up your heroes and unlock new abilities.) There is also Gear found around the maps that can be equipped to party members for buffs, such as damage and shield increases. I met NPCs to talk with that provided flavor and context to the wider universe. The dialogue between my party members was generally enjoyable, flavored with interesting personalities and situations. Nodo Kalthoris is your standard Nathan Fillion/Chris Pratt type, complete with swooshy fringe and witty repartee, whilst Xurx is a robot zealot, incapable of understanding his fleshy companion’s banter. I am intrigued to see how many unique conversations the game has to offer with the 45+ unlockable heroes at launch.
War Across Realities
In the Renegade base (the central headquarters between mission maps), I found a cantina, complete with strange aliens playing jazz instruments. This isn’t the only fun little nod that Star Renegades makes to its many sci-fi inspirations. Inside the cantina, I met a dog that I could pet. The dog, it turned out, was actually a hilarious talking alien that wasn’t just disturbed by my actions but was getting genuine social anxiety from people touching his head unexpectedly.
During my wandering, I was also able to set up camp, and it is during camping that your party truly interacts, getting to know one another and trading Camping Cards, which provide temporary combat buffs and improvements to Relationships. Relationships unlock permanent team-based Traits and powerful Combos in battle and eventually progeny too. I couldn’t see this element in my preview build, but I’m keen to understand how traits and abilities might be passed down to offspring of two existing characters.
This downtime was just a distraction from the wider events at play in Star Renegades’ universe. My party of Renegades are the remnants of the Star Union, now destroyed by an invasion of raiders from a parallel reality. With the help of Professor Zurek, her parallel reality counterpart, and a drone companion named J5T-1N, the rebel group must fight back the invasion of the mysterious artificial intelligence known only as Mother — to save not just their own reality but all realities.
All of this is realized in a beautiful pixel art style that swings wildly from being gorgeous to being too simple. Some of the hand-drawn backgrounds that feature remnants of the doomed Titan race that once populated the universe are distractingly attractive, whilst the animations and especially the visuals of the world map can be quite plain. Combat takes place in 2.5D, with the SNES-era sprites rotating slightly to reveal an extra dimension when attacking, and scenery in the world map is layered so as not to be entirely flat. Overall, the aesthetic is attractive, the science fiction realized in a range of interesting mechanical armaments, biological monstrosities, and glowing neon explosions, accompanied by a blistering Japanese-inspired 16-bit synthwave soundtrack that really hypes up every combat scenario.
The eccentric science fiction trappings are enticing, the world of Star Renegades stirring enough to want to come back to, and they complement the roguelite elements I alluded to earlier. Jumping across realities is the explanation for how you begin a new run after a total party wipe. Whilst credits and DNA are lost on death, Research points are a permanent currency that can be spent on persistent upgrades that carry over from one playthrough to the next. These include new Rebel heroes, class perks, and droid enhancements that provide a global bonus, such as access to more merchants or starting with an extra hero option. New Gear can also be added as lootable items to your in-game world via a Tier rating that levels up based on your progress on any given run.
What is interesting about my earlier defeat is that on subsequent runs, I would be better equipped. That battle with Zolar Falensarano may have been a cakewalk for a party that had different heroes, higher-tiered gear, and stronger Relationships. Like any good roguelite, I suspect that progress in Star Renegades will come through perseverance, and with 13 hero classes spread over 45+ unlockable heroes, and 50+ handcrafted maps filled with 30+ unique enemy classes, there’s a lot of variety to experience in each successive run. Different party compositions and ability loadouts is a tantalizing prospect as my preview is limited to just three playable heroes. Zolar would no doubt be a more powerful adversary when next we meet, moved up to the Commander tier of the Mother’s hierarchy, but I too would be better equipped to face him.
Star Renegades has exciting potential. During my time with it, I became deeply entrenched in learning the intricacies of its deep combat and interlocking systems and getting to know the ragtag bunch of Rebels at my command. It’s whetted my appetite for more, only briefly dangling the carrot in front of my eyes in this preview build. That carrot comes in the form of the Adversary hierarchy system and the potential for long-lasting blood feuds across multiple campaigns, the Progeny system that may let me breed a new generation of Renegades, and the roguelite elements that will let me unlock exciting new Gear and heroes to play with on successive runs.
Star Renegades releases September 8th. You can wishlist it on Steam now.
Gaming Respawn’s preview build of Star Renegades was provided by the publisher.