by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Evil in the New World
This may sound like virtue signalling, but I've always been someone that needs to play the good guy. I always pick the good dialogue options. I'll pick a paladin before I pick a thief. The worst thing I think I've done in a game is to punch someone mid-sentence in Mass Effect, and even that one felt off for me. I'm more honourable in games than in real life, and I don't really have a good reason for why. Given this, Rogue Lords felt like jumping into the opposite deep end. This gorgeous roguelike sees players stepping into giant cloven shoes and playing to enact the plan of Satan himself.
Rogue Lords is set in a vaguely colonial amalgamation of the would-be United States a decade after the famous monster hunter Van Helsing (so what if he wasn't invented until the 1800s?) succeeded in stopping Beelzebub from overtaking the New World. As the Devil is wont to do, he refuses to go quietly into that goodnight and instead spends his time plotting a bigger and better attack on everything righteous.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
The game's mechanics function remarkably similarly to Slay the Spire. Gameplay focuses on navigating through a branching pathway, each branch of which contains a combat encounter, event, shop, rest area, or unknown node. There are bosses and elite encounters, and players pick up skills and items that augment their characters. If players die, they make progress towards unlocking new abilities and items for their characters. The similarity is actually a little uncanny, but hey, at least the developers chose to imitate one of the best games in the genre.
That isn't to say that nothing in Rogue Lords is unique. Players control a team of three different characters in combat, and each one has its own health bar and set of skills. The whole team shares an action point pool, and abilities use both a spent/unspent and cooldown mechanic. The individual characters don't have as much variance in their available playstyles as they could have, but combining different units with different skills does open the door to some interesting theory crafting. Also unique is that characters have two separate health meters to worry about: hit points and spirit points. Characters can be taken out if either is depleted, which further complicates team building.
The biggest twist that Rogue Lords throws into the mix is its Devil Mode. Obviously, Lucifer isn't famous for playing by the rules. To reflect this, players can "pause" the game and cheat. It obviously isn't really cheating, but Devil Mode enables some pretty darned powerful options. Is a friendly character full of debuffs? Enter Devil Mode and drag the debuff over to an enemy instead. Did an attack not quite do enough damage? Pause and drag the enemy health bar down to zero. Stuck in a bad place on the advancement map? Make a portal to a different encounter. It seems overpowered at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that Rogue Lords has been balanced to necessitate this feature. I struggled early on with the game because I was too conservative with my Devil Mode abilities. The mode drains life from the player's overall health pool, so it shouldn't be used without reason, but players can't be afraid to go all in to survive a difficult situation.
Narrative Encounters and Beautiful Visuals
Rogue Lords isn't all about combat, though. While fighting is the main draw, narrative events with dialogue and action choices spice up gameplay runs. In addition to their combat skills, each character also has stats in attributes such as Stealth, Occult, and Terror. Encounters present the player with scenarios like plague-infested bodies or a scared young demon hunter and let them choose a few options to determine the situation's outcome. Some options are simply available, but others require attribute checks and reward the player with various resources or buffs. The results of these encounters don't generally make or break a game, but they do offer some fun flavour and welcome resources for successful advancement.
The icing on this already tasty cake is that the game looks drop-dead beautiful. I'll admit that I'm always a huge fan of the colonial gothic look, but the art direction in Rogue Lords really does a lot of heavy lifting to give the game its own unique look and feel. Party members consist of famous horror icons from pop culture and folklore, such as the starting trio of Dracula, Bloody Mary, and the Headless Horseman. The way each character moves gives each a strong sense of personality, and combat animations are smooth and detailed. The overworld and backdrops look great too, and the music is suitably creepy.
Rogue Lords borrows quite a bit from other popular games, but it isn't really worse for wear because of it. Players looking for something completely fresh may be disappointed by the strong similarities with games like Slay the Spire and Darkest Dungeon, but the unique visual design and combat twists push this sternly into the "more of a good thing isn't a bad thing" category for me. If you like roguelikes and turn-based squad combat, this is the perfect game to spend some time with as we enter the early days of the Halloween season.
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Beautiful visual design, satisfying combat, unique gameplay twists.
May borrow a bit too much for the taste of some, sufferers from some swingy combat encounters and difficulty spikes.