Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Rogue Lords benefits from an interesting premise, great visual design and some cool ideas that might not be wholly original, but also seldom feel derivative. That being said, the need for patience is real as Rogue Lords does demonstrate some of the more frustration qualities of the roguelike genre as well.
The story and overall introduction kick things off wonderfully. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for games like Overlord or Dungeons games that cast you in the role of the bad guy, and as the Devil himself? You are the apex villain. The developers have a lot of fun with this premise, sprinkling in well-known horrors such as Dracula, the Headless Horseman, Blood Mary and more as your principle characters.
The narrative revolves around how Van Helsing and his fellow demon hunters drove back the very Devil himself, claiming a great victory and providing a time of peace for mortals. Of course, the Devil is never truly beaten it seems, and he bides his time collecting souls and gathering his strength until… the souls stop coming to him and he has to send his loyal disciples back into the fray to figure out what is happening.
This backdrop is ably supported by game voice acting, colorful animations and period appropriate music as the stage is set in a gothic world from centuries ago. All of this dresses up a game that in many ways resembles other roguelike RPGs, with turn-based combat, procedurally generated maps and an almost certainty that you will die on many of your attempted runs through the game.
Some of the more unique aspects include how characters have health and spirit points – and while in many RPG’s something like ‘spirit points’ would be seen as a mana bar for casting spells, here it is viewed a second sort of health bar. In combat, the objective is to lower your opponent’s health or spirit to zero, at which point they are down – but not out – of the battle. You need to get one more killing blow in at that point, or risk that character rallying and still causing trouble.
Each run begins with you picking a trio of characters and then set out on the map where you have branching paths that sort of let you plot your path. You will have battles, lightweight roleplay interactions where you talk with / terrorize citizens, find nodes that let you replenish your resources a bit and more. The various ways you can advance progression on any given run are varied and interesting, from improving skills, boosting stats, building / acquiring artifacts and more.
By and large gameplay is what you would expect. Conversations are just option-oriented. When you start combat you choose what kind of attack you make, which yields different boons when you are done. Combat is a turn-based affair where you use skills that burn up action points that limit how many activities your characters can perform in a given turn. All three of your characters have their health and spirit bars as mentioned above, but unlike your opponents – they don’t die initially. Instead they draw off of a pool of demonic power that you have in your reserve. Not only does this serve as a sort of back-up life pool, but it plays into another feature as well.
This one really interesting feature that felt completely fresh to me was the ‘Devil Mode’, which is a sort of glorified cheat mode. The way it is handled is wildly amusing as you can use it to boost your odds on a conversation event to changing combat parameters in unnatural ways. For example, I had an early encounter where my characters found corpses and they could extract a small amount of energy for them, or with a 20% success rate, craft a powerful artifact from the corpse’s heart.
Or… employ this Devil Mode and you can jack that percentage to a 100% value if you want – at the cost of your demonic power reserves. Or in combat, you can do things like manipulate hit or spirit points, or steal a character’s negative debuff and swap it with an opponent’s active boon and suddenly you’ve flipped the script and turned a weakness into a strength. Thematically speaking, this is a fun feature that plays right into the notion that the devil doesn’t play by the rules.
Admittedly, early on I was incredibly conservative in my use of this ability, and made my adventure harder than necessary – at least initially. I then found a pretty good balance in managing that demonic power resource and how to leverage the Devil Mode options effectively. That becomes part of Rogue Lords’ difficulty curve. However, some of where Rogue Lords fell down for me was later in the game. I just felt like a lot of my progression did not carry over quite as much as I would have liked, and this made subsequent runs harder to the point of not just frustrating, but also kind of… boring.
The reason for this, is because counting stats become quite large, and gameplay is less about attacking and more about buffs and debuffs, turning what were five minute battles earlier in the game into sometimes twenty minute slogs. That is probably my biggest issue with Rogue Lords – that the pacing began to bog down for me and that ‘one more encounter’ kind of gameplay hook that was so addicting in the game’s earlier hours, became more of a ‘more of this again?’ kind of vibe at times. This did not happen all of the time, but it occurred just often enough for me to be notable.
Rogue Lords is a solid overall RPG roguelike with an interesting theme and a really cool mechanic in its Devil Mode. These things help to separate Rogue Lords from the pack, but unfortunately some uneven difficulty spikes and combat’s pacing slowing down in later runs takes a bit of the shine off the game’s longevity. It’s still worth playing until that happens.Score: 7.5 / 10