Star Renegades was one of the very last games I played in the Before Times. Its incredible look caught my eye back in Boston at PAX East, between nervous conversations with my peers about every other 2020 event in the games industry getting canceled simultaneously. It grabbed me in a way every other pixel art pretty roguelike — of which there are too goddamn many — do not. Think Octopath Traveler with high-minded sci-fi instead of classic fantasy. Dead machine gods reach through the mantle of aliens worlds. A roguish Star-Lord knockoff twirls his rayguns to distract a foe while the two battle on the gigantic corpses. Power armor carries a heartbroken warrior over pink soil between the steel fingertips.
But then… people start talking. The dialogue is not nearly as considered as the world from which the text boxes spring. Nonplussed NPCs shriek in the aftermath of alien occupation with pithy, sarcastic jokes. They’re references to real-world events. One civilian says it’s their right to own nuclear material, like a Second Amendment ghoul, while another literally wishes the poor be ground into dust.
Text boxes are as old as time. Their just a way to section off words into discrete, digestible blurbs for a player that might only be here for turn-based combat. But the content of these crates is familiar in a different way. The pithy, digestible, satirical squares read more like my Twitter feed than a grand adventure. They look like first passes. They feel like the sorts of things I’d dash off in frustration — just to purge my latest brainworn birthed out of doomscrolling and a year that wants to kill us all.
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Put another way, it feels hasty. The writing does not feel intentionally part of the same exciting world as the art, characters, and even the high-stakes animated intro. Even the party members you randomly recruit over time shine with better bits of characterization.
There’s a camping mechanic pulled straight out of Darkest Dungeon. Wherein you can develop relationships between your heroes (the titular Star Renegades) while developing buffs. It’s a good system for investing in inherently disposable units. And you gain glints of personality, not just one-note gags. The Star-Lord type might share he grew up on a garbage planet while your armored tank was a rich girl — making an awkward end to campfire dinner. Or the religious fanatic android might tone down his fervor to show affection to a comrade.
But these are overridden by constantly reaching for the first available goof. A light nemesis system is dampened by plain villains. There’s a running gag about how constantly teleporting reduces their intelligence, making each lieutenant more of a clown than real competition.
That’s a shame, too. The combat in Star Renegades? Mwah! It demands so much more nuance than the mini-boss buffoons would have you believe.
It’s turn-based, but deterministic — increasingly the detail du jour among indie games, post Into the Breach. Every action is laid out on a timeline above the action. And each move has a certain amount of windup. If you hit an enemy faster than they can hit you, that’s an instant critical hit. Though crits hit different in Star Renegades. Besides extra damage, each attack might also shred armor, place a debuff, or most crucially of all push an enemy’s action back on the timeline.
If anyone gets pushed off the timeline altogether, they lose a turn. There’s a limit to how often you can wham someone into next week, of course, but careful play makes it a nonissue. You’ll slay your enemies before they know what hit them. And you’ll always know exactly how you fucked up that big robot so good. It’s a calculated, yet guttural sort of satisfaction. I’d be singing its praises a lot more if I wasn’t out of breath from all the sighing between encounters.
Nevertheless, Star Renegades sticks out in a year (decade?) of indie roguelikes. It doesn’t hit the high highs of Hades: a game which ironically marries impeccable action to better writing than the subgenre almost ever sees. But I liked it enough to write this article, didn’t I? That’s more than I can say for the dozen other games like it that launched on Steam in the time this took!