I’d like to recommend Star Renegades, but I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to. If I mention that it includes intra-party relationships that result in unlockable characters à la Fire Emblem, that sounds like a recommendation to Fire Emblem fans, but I hope those fans are also onboard with the roguelike structure and camping system of Darkest Dungeon, a variation of Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system, and the HD-2D aesthetic of Octopath Traveler. It must also be noted that the whole is less than the sum of its parts in this case, but only because those parts add up to such an unwieldy colossus of ideas and complexities that making a consistently solid version of it may not even be possible.
The battle system connecting all of this is both the most original aspect (at least in the sense that I don’t know of any other game that it’s directly borrowed from) and the one that I enjoyed the most. It’s a turn-based affair where both player and enemy characters’ actions are slotted into a timeline for each turn. If an attack connects before its target has acted that turn, it scores a critical hit for bonus damage and usually some special effects. The most important of these effects is Stagger, which knocks back the target’s position on the timeline, potentially into the next turn. The amount that enemies can be staggered drops each time it happens but rises every turn, striking a good balance between giving players some breathing room and eventually forcing them to take some hits.
Next, there are three stats that keep characters alive: health, shields, and armor. Health is the one that actually causes death when it reaches zero, but it’s also nearly impossible to recover during battle. Shields have to be depleted before health can be damaged, but they also regenerate after a battle and are fairly easy to restore in the middle of it. Armour softens attacks aimed at health and is similarly difficult to recover, but it’s also the hardest to damage. Interestingly, each of these has different defense ratings, and certain character classes and status effects can specialize in targeting one over the others.
But wait, there’s more! Characters can accumulate “fury” by staggering opponents, allowing them to pull off special moves and combination attacks with party members they have strong relationships with. Combatants can be weak to, resistant to, or empowered by certain attack types. Counter-attacks and attacks that cancel potential counter-attacks must be taken into account. Formation matters – characters in the back row can only be targeted by certain attacks. It’s complex, obviously, but it’s not unnecessarily so. Every aspect was given adequate space. Even the “Defend” command saw more use in this than in any other RPG I’ve played. Importantly, nearly everything you can do to enemies can be done to you as well, so timeline management is of paramount importance, creating a uniquely defensive system that’s intensely engaging.
Elsewhere, however, Star Renegades can feel like an Early Access title. The battle interface is highly uncooperative. Character sprites often overlap, making selection difficult, the controls for inspecting characters and abilities are inconsistent and unintuitive, and the whole thing is in desperate need of some tooltips. Most problematic for me is that the “turn preview” feature doesn’t take every combat element into account. It’s still extremely useful, but it feels decidedly unfinished as a result. The sprite issues also affect the overworld and are likely the result of the pixelated style being too detailed for its own good. Of course, it’s also lovely to look at, especially when it blends 2D art with 3D effects, so it’s possibly a worthwhile trade-off.
The narrative feels incomplete as well. The intro cinematic depicts events that never happen, and there are places where it looks like cutscenes should exist but fail to load. The support dialogues between party members are consistently entertaining, but the moments where there should be some emotional heft usually fall flat. I appreciate how the roguelike structure is justified by the premise (i.e. jump between timelines to combat a dimension-spanning empire), but the roguelike structure itself is somewhat alienating. Playthroughs of Star Renegades are long, so losing and reverting back to the beginning with only scant overall progress can feel like a massive setback. Conversely, I managed to beat the game on my first try, so I didn’t even see the roguelike mechanics and how they tie into the faux-Nemesis system until at least ten hours in.
I should clarify that the game isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite intolerant of mistakes. It just so happens that battle systems in which I can take as long as I want and see almost exactly what will happen during an upcoming turn are 100 percent my jam. But that’s actually part of what puts me in an odd position regarding its quality. I enjoyed the combat immensely, but my proficiency with it seems to have distorted my enjoyment of the game’s other features. The one appraisal I can say with universal confidence is that the audio is excellent, with amazing music and funky mechanical sound effects for the enemies. In the end, it’s worth giving Star Renegades a shot, because if it clicks with you, it could really click with you.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Raw Fury.
The scattershot influences of Star Renegades make for a complex and engaging experience that often seems to be barely holding it all together.