Starward Rogue is a top-down, twin-stick shooting rogue-like from state-side developers Arcen games. It’s a bit of a strange one this, as the game came out for PC back in 2015 albeit to a rather unsuccessful launch which was apparently so bad that it caused the studio to shed three employees (which was half the team).
You play as… er… the severed head of an alien hydra called Hydral who gets dropped into a mech so that they can take on the challenge of the ‘Megalith’ which is a five-floored (with two extra floors unlocked early on) tower full of enemies, traps and bosses. You’re on foot but the top-down viewpoint essentially makes this feel and play like any twin-stick shooter.
You have a choice of mechs who all have different strengths and weaknesses and the variety of them is a good indicator of how much choice and strategy is baked into Starward Rogue. While some are pretty standard, offering differing levels of offense and defense, some are really interesting such as the one that has weak firepower and so relies on a drone to do the heavy lifting or one that freezes time when you’re not moving.
The latter is particularly useful as there is another element to this game. Bullet hell. That game’s bosses throw bullet patterns at you that would be at home in any vertically-scrolling shoot ’em up. And so you’ll need to be on point with your movement in this game. Thankfully, the devs have implemented speed modifiers on the left shoulder buttons with L2 speeding you up and L1 slowing you down. It’s such a good gameplay choice that it really does need highlighting here.
After a brief tutorial, which doesn’t go into very much depth at all, you’ll be on your own in the Megalith. Each floor is made up of interconnected rooms which can be either battle arenas, shops or boss rooms and, like any good rogue-like, you’ll be best served if you go to every room and try to find items to aid your mission. It’s here that the game rather lets itself down though as not much is explained. For example, there’s a whole thing about finding health shards, but the game doesn’t explain how to (those blocks that need a missile to destroy them, look for the ones with blinking lights) and there are a lot of game mechanics to work out and understand.
You’ve got item shops, sacrifice shops, secret rooms (again, never explained), energy levels, keys, primary weapons, secondary weapons, missiles, attachments, mods and even things called ‘Incredibilities.’ And really the game just seems to be content to leave you to it. This thread by the developer fleshes all that out and it’s pretty big but why am we having to Google this stuff? But while our initial impressions of the game were very poor because of all this (and reasons we’ll go into), once you get your head around all of it, the game starts to make sense and does get very enjoyable.
As a rogue-like, there’s a degree of randomness to Starward Rogue. RNG is a key factor. What weapons and perks you get can really shape a run but, for the most part, progress is always good. We’ve never ended up in a situation with a terrible weapon (if you find one, you can always switch back) and most of the items/perks are pretty useful. Although we’re not sure why there are so many items that tell you either reveal the map or types of rooms in the map. They all pretty much do the same job. But anyway, it’s a lot of fun trying out all the different things you can find (although the trophy for finding every item is going to be a chore as there’s no checklist).
Combat in this game is good. You have to use good twin-stick skills if you want to succeed and, if things get too hairy, you can always try using cover and strategy to beat a room. The enemy variety is also pleasing and there are dozens of bosses to battle too. They’ve done the smart thing of making your guns shoot if you’re aiming (rather than having a fire button) which always makes us happy in twin-stick shooters. And when you’re weaving your way through tricky bullet patterns and chipping away at the bosses, it all feels pretty great. Starward Rogue is definitely a grower but again a lot of games from this little sub-genre are. They come in with a load of complexity but once you get used to them and they click they’re one of our favourite types of game (see also: Neonchrome).
It’s not all good news though. The game has been ported from the PC version very carelessly. It’s evident right away as the opening menu is horribly unresponsive and still mapped out like a PC game interface (note: this has now been patched). It’s the first thing you see and it’s completely broken which, in turn, makes us think that the game got next to no playtesting. The following screen with mech and difficulty selection is more responsive but still very unsuited to joypad selection. And when you throw in the game’s TINY text, it’s clear that not much time was spent reconsidering the UI for console players.
Also, visually the game is bit of a mixed bag. It’s very dark and sometimes it’s very hard to tell what is a background element and what isn’t. This can come back to bite you when you think you’re about to dodge a bullet but instead run right into an inky black wall. Again, playtesting. It’s never game ruining but in the moment it’s certainly annoying.
But overall we enjoyed Starward Rogue a lot, so much so that we’re probably going to attempt to beat all the trophies, even if they mainly involve beating each boss with a ‘perfect clear’ which means not getting hit (fine) and not using missiles or consumables (well, why even give us them then). The game definitely has some rough edges but it has the beating heart of a fun and compelling shooter in a genre that always adds some good depth, so we do recommend this one. And we never said ‘rouge’ once and that’s why you love us.
+ Compelling rogue-like mechanics
+ Decent range of difficulties
+ Lots of variety
- Plenty of unexplained mechanics