Review: Starward Rogue

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I’ve mentioned this before but I’m glad Arcen Games exists, even if I don’t really enjoy most of their games. Every one of their titles tends to venture beyond the normal bounds of game design, mashing such disparate concepts as open worlds, puzzles, and zombies into a single title. Starward Rogue has earned the distinction of their most enjoyable game for me, perhaps because it doesn’t go as far afield in design as the rest.

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Starward Rogue places you in a head attached to a robot body stomping around the Megalith, a giant construct sticking out of a star. You get to pick one of seven wildly different bodies, from close-combat flame-spewers to a clever thing that freezes time when you’re not moving. According to the tutorial you’re here to rescue some AI dude, but that never really comes up during runs. Each of those runs is a top-down descent through five randomly-generated levels, featuring rooms of all shapes and sizes and enemy configurations and deadly traps. Armed with your gun, missiles, energy cannon, and whatever upgrades and single-use items you can find, you have to blast your way through tons of enemies, bosses, and minibosses to… win, I suppose. I’ve beaten it a few times and you just get a stat screen.

If this all sounds a lot like Binding of Isaac, that’s because this is its manic sci-fi cousin. Your enemies are colorful drones and ships that will sling thousands of bullets at you in every arrangement imaginable. Much like the Touhou shmup games, bullets can curve, seek, chain, turn at right angles, form walls or fields or mazes, or perform even more dastardly maneuvers. That means you need to be prepared to do a lot of complex dodging and narrow escapes to survive a run. The health system is luckily quite generous, giving you a pool of health you can easily upgrade and also a shield or two (much harder to upgrade) that recharges for every room, essentially free hits. You also move quite fast and can freely sprint, which is a welcome addition and gives the game a much quicker pace than most.

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Aside from the coins and keys you’ll pick up, there are three classes of weapons, passive upgrades, and consumables to find. Weapons in particular tend to be few and far between but will completely change your style of play. Some guns fire through walls, some spread like flamethrowers, and some only work in melee range. Consumables can have similarly dramatic effects, like summoning temporary helpers and nuking everything in sight. You’ll also level up and earn perks, but until level 10 or so those perks won’t be very conspicuous, mostly being health or ammo upgrades. Oh, and there are permanent drone buddies you can find that provide some much-needed support, but can be easily confused with your foes.

And that brings me to my one real gripe with the game, the art style. Arcen tends to favor very bold, brash color schemes for their games, but too much variety in the palette can make important features hard to single out. Everything in Starward Rogue is brightly colored and detailed, but there’s no real theme to the enemies, helpers, or even you. In huge battles everything can start to blend together, even moreso with thousands of glowing bullets flying around. The camera and the pace of your robot help keep it distinctive but I’ve started skipping the drone familiars because they almost always confuse me and get me killed.

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The art style may be hit or miss, but the rest of the presentation is excellent. Arcen games often have somewhat shoddy menus and interfaces, but the ones here are clear and even a bit polished. All the information you need is readily available and easily navigable. There’s also been an impressive amount of post-launch patches which have cleared out a lot of early bugs and jank, and rebalanced whole swathes of the game to provide a more even challenge. They even added in fast-travel around the level to make backtracking and exploring essentially painless.

What really keeps me coming back is just how plain ol’ fun it is. The raw enjoyment of blasting hundreds of robots as you grow stronger and more unstoppable is in full force here. A pumping soundtrack helps keep you moving at breakneck speed as you look for the next boss to thrash. The difficulty is pretty even-handed as well, offering five different levels and ramping up steadily as you yourself grow stronger. With hundreds of enemies to encounter, tons of items to find, seven classes to master, and plenty of secrets to uncover, Starward Rogue is a worthy competitor in the arena of roguelike shooters.

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