Star Renegades provides a fresh and wholly original take on the roguelite format, and that is just one of its many successes. Those genre trappings are used with care, first and foremost focusing on its JRPG inspirations, wild sci-fi story, and unique interlocking abundance of systems.
Players command a squad of rebels taking up arms against the evil empire. That concept may sound awfully familiar, but Star Renegades goes places with it; this war in the stars is actually across multiple alternate parallel universes. The Imperium is being controlled by the mysterious artificial intelligence known only as Mother, but her hordes of cybernetic monstrosities badger your motley crew of Renegades, the remnants of the Star Union, at every step. With the help of Professor Zurek, her own alternate reality counterpart, and a drone companion named J5T-1N, the rebel group must fight back the invasion— to save not just their own reality but all realities.
Beleaguered planets are travelled on a “world map”, a pixelated isometric landscape not dissimilar to the kind you would find in a 2D Legend of Zelda game. Throughout the map are scattered various types of loot — stat-improving Gear can be found around the map or purchased for credits at vendors, whilst DNA levels characters up and provides buffs to health and new abilities for combat. And of course, the Mother’s hierarchy of Adversaries are there to get in your way.
Charting a course through this world map is the first step in liberating a planet and is reminiscent of FTL: Faster Than Light or Slay the Spire, where the risk of tackling a tougher route to your goal (a boss fight showdown with a powerful Behemoth unit) is balanced against the reward of the upgrades you will find along the way.
Battle encounters are where Star Renegades eschews its roguelite trappings in favor of a nod to the traditional JRPG style of combat and where it feels truly unique to any other roguelite you may have played.
Teams are made up from a possible 13 available classes, whose differing abilities determine your success or failure in combat. Party members take 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, block damage, or even guard or cover other teammates. Shields act as 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).
Time to Kill
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, how, and who. There is no random chance in Star Renegades’ encounters, the screen awash with information about the upcoming round for you to parse through.
The core combat loop revolves around manipulating the turn order to your favor. 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 might come later in the timeline, whilst a Normal attack 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, such as increased damage, 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.
Knowledge Is Power
Both teams are clustered into rows (front line and back line), which means taking out the front line in order to gain access to the back or using “target anyone” attacks to pick off key back line targets. This works both sides, allowing you to position your own weaker support units, like the Archon (who buffs shields on teammates) or the Marksman (essentially a glass cannon sniper with low shields and health but high damage output), behind your tankier crew members. These rows aren’t always clear mid-combat, and a visual grid for each row would have been a huge benefit here.
Understanding the battlefield is absolutely key to success or failure in Star Renegades, and there is no brute-forcing a win. At times, the game is honestly overwhelming, its difficulty punishing even the simplest of mistakes or oversights. With no in-game difficulty slider, this may prove a barrier to entry for some players, especially those less experienced with the turn-based style of battle.
Inspection Mode offers some insight, providing details into what an enemy Adversary is doing, as well as their traits — strengths, weaknesses, resistances, and immunities. Their strengths and immunities will force you to avoid certain attacks against them as they will either be non-effective or may even enrage the opponent. Weaknesses can be exploited, however, allowing you to select attack types that will bring down the enemies faster. For example, I know that the Firewulf mech unit applies Burning damage over time with its primary attack, but it is also weak against Normal type attacks, such as the Valkyrie’s Slash. I also know it is resistant to Heavy attacks, so Cleave will be all but useless.
The overlay is mostly excellent at providing information, even showing you the possible after-effects of an enemy attack without you having to do all of the number-crunching. This sometimes falls down, especially where you’ve used some abilities to change the effects of an enemy, but the previewed damage doesn’t account for these or where it previews the full damage of all opponents where you might be wanting to focus in on one. This leads to having to do some pretty intense mental mathematics mid-game. Sadly, the overlay is also chock full of icons and symbols, many of which are explained in the Tutorial menu, but many of which are not. A simple hover tooltip or explanations for some of the terms and icons on-screen would not have gone amiss, and without it I can foresee players wanting to have a Wiki open to double check the effect of some of the many different ability types and modifiers.
Adversary or Nemesis
The Adversary System also comes into play with enemy traits. I continue to be surprised by how few studios have adapted the revolutionary Nemesis system from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, so it’s great to see that exact system in Star Renegades. The Imperium Throne Room shows the full hierarchy of Mother’s cyber-monster minions and their respective ranks for each planet you will visit. Locating and defeating enemies will remove them from play, but losing to them grants them a promotion — meaning more strengths and immunities added to their trait pool, as well as a more miserable fight for you the next time you meet them.
The result is the acquisition of returning enemies that you will build memorable personal grudges towards. I fought one specific enemy Commander, Kell Carn, a handful of times, eventually learning his name (after he killed me twice…) and recalling his weakness to the Flurry attacks that my Enforcer was putting out. Carn had acquired immunities to many of my other attacks, so I focused this attack type to eventually defeat him. Many turns later, Mother resurrected his sorry ass, and I met him once more in final combat and, once again, exploited Flurry to bring him down.
The enemies in Mother’s hierarchy remain between game runs, therefore rewarding success by taking powerful pieces out of future attempts but punishing repeated failure with stronger recurring units. They are not the only persistent element to the otherwise run-based format of Star Renegades’ core loop though. Upon defeat or completing a run, you return to the Renegade base. Whilst credits and DNA are lost on death, Tech and Intel are permanent currencies that can be spent at the base on persistent upgrades that carry over from one playthrough to the next. These include new Rebel heroes, gear to be added to your game world, and droid enhancements that provide a global bonus, such as access to more merchants or starting with an extra hero option. Class perks that permanently enhance your existing classes can also be gained via an overall Tier rating that levels up based on your progress on any given run.
The roguelite element of Star Renegades is punishing. The game is challenging, and you are expected to die (in order to acquire new heroes, perks, and gear). But the transition from a full party of renegades with high level abilities to having just three with no abilities feels especially rough, making those early levels begin to really drag. Mixing up your starting party is the only way to add variety, and doing so is only possible to a point; with only two starting abilities, the effect is minimal early on, and a party consisting of only support heroes likely wouldn’t last long! The game’s replayability would be positively impacted with the option of multiple routes (a choice of planets) and additional unlocks that drastically change up gameplay.
Style and Substance
Star Renegades is as much about style as it is depth, its world 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. Lighting and shadows play across the sprites to gorgeous effect. Overall, the aesthetic is very 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. I have to make a special note of the beautiful anime-style FMV that opens the game, so well produced that it feels like it could be a section from a full anime show.
The writing also lends to this credibility; the Renegade base is full of NPCs to provide world-building, and almost every line of dialogue is written with a wry sense of humor that wields sarcasm, pop culture references, and puns with deftness. I found myself actually laughing out loud at some of the exchanges, especially those between party members, with each of the 13 character types feeling distinct and interesting. The Saboteur is your standard Nathan Fillion/Chris Pratt type, complete with swooshy fringe and witty repartee, whilst the Archon is a robot zealot incapable of understanding his fleshy companions’ banter. The Aegis is proud of her background as a thief, a nice contrast notable in her conversations with the self-help guru Commando. These conversations occur on the world map but also in Camp — enforced downtime after every three encounters, where your rebels exchange Camping Cards that provide temporary buffs but also improve Relationships, unlocking synergies between teammates, as well as combo attacks, the most powerful abilities in the game. Relationships can also lead to progeny, unlocking for future runs new character classes and variants on existing classes that have slightly different stats and abilities.
Star Renegades succeeds on a number of levels: as a roguelite with enticing unlocks and upgrades, as a JRPG with a deep turn-based combat system, and as a comedy and science fiction story full of colorful characters, witty writing, and a simple but effective core plot. Its difficulty can be frustrating for some players, especially those new to the genre, and this can lead to a feeling of repetition with the early stages of the game. But Star Renegades is never unfair, and its many interlaced systems make up a whole that is engaging, complex, and a joy to play.
Developer: Massive Damage
Publisher: Raw Fury
Release Date: 8th September 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Star Renegades was provided by the publisher.