Star Renegades Review15 Sep 2020 0
Star Renegades Review
Released 08 Sep 2020
Two things really define how I entertained myself during childhood - sci-fi and JRPGs. Sci-fi is still a go-to entertainment pillar for me, with its usually optimistic promise of progress that helps us transcend our physical and existential limits. JRPGs have basically no space in my life anymore.
Though I appreciate and respect the turn-based combat that the old 16-bit era made famous, I no longer have the time for such lengthy adventures where grinding in random battles to get stronger outside of the context of progressing the story is an unspoken understanding.
So needless to say that Star Renegades, with it’s old-school aesthetic and modern take on the Final Fantasy-esque turn based battle, rang a few important bells for me all at once. Over a dozen hours in, Star Renegades still rings, but maybe not with the same crisp tone it did in those first few runs.
Its mash up of Into the Breach-style determinism in combat, with it’s FTL or Slay the Spire esque metagame decision making keeps the goal of saving all of reality a difficult and engaging one. But you stop seeing new things or getting new rewards earlier than most games like it, leaving the incentive to keep coming back after your first clear pretty light.
An Imperialist nation of conquerors hop from dimension to dimension to dominate each reality for their great Mother. As the only line of defense against it, your Renegades - a crack team of mercs ranging from robotic game hunters to gun happy conspiracy theorists - must infiltrate the enemy and stop them from gathering some space mcguffin off of three planets or die trying.
Each attempt is like a condensed JRPG quest, complete with globetrotting and strategic fighting. The former is hit or miss. Every map consists of large open spaces connected by gates that must be breached to liberate the zone behind it. You have a limited number of breaches per day, and a limited number of days to free as much of the planet as possible before the big boss of the planet approaches and must be dealt with. I loved the flow and decision making involved with picking the right ways to navigate a planet, balancing the risk of taking on several battles versus the gathering of useful resources and equipment. I didn’t love that most of the map’s points of interest, highlighted by question marks, were points for some minor dialogue moments but nothing more. Outside of random events like alien battlecruisers showing up every few runs, maps never had anything interesting or meaningful to find like alternative locations or pathways. Beautiful pixel art aside, it is largely just for show.
The latter is largely the opposite. Battles are dense with different attack types, elements, resistances, etc. In more difficult battles, where taking advantage of weaknesses is paramount, this can be a bit of a burden to sift through and prepare for. But the actual moment to moment tactical action is a largely satisfying dance up and down a familiar turn timeline. Unlike the games it resembles, actions don't happen as soon as a character’s turn is up in Star Renegades. Instead, every action costs a certain amount of time, and will plot the character on the timeline. If their attacks hit the target before the target can attack, it’ll do critical damage - usually meaning more damage and additional effects. For a limited number of strikes, it will also push the affected enemy further down the line, delaying their attack. If they’re pushed off the timeline, they are broken, and won't attack that turn.
I really dug this emphasis on delaying and deferring enemy attacks in order to open up big offensive attacks of my own. It, coupled with the diversity of abilities in each of the 13 potential character classes and the clever and difficult enemy encounters as your runs get longer, really creates a combat experience that will be hard to find anywhere else. I do wish that some of these characters felt more useful or powerful earlier. You start with a group of three, and as you progress from world to world you recruit additional members, up to a total of 6. You can spend points to level them up when you recruit them, often being able to skip right past their lower, weaker levels and right into the parts where they become powerful. I wish there was some sort of indication of when these characters really came into their own, outside of just simple trial and error. Or that they all felt at least a little more useful earlier.
Mitigating damage in combat is also important because as your shield bar will regenerate between battles, your health bar does not. So short of finding health regen pickups on the world map - which are usually few and far between - you are largely stuck with the health bar you have going into the next battle. This is always a point of tension in the game, but it's more persistent and feels more punishing when you just have a bad run, despite doing things to what you can only describe as perfect. Procedurally generated games always have ‘bad runs’ that feel like there’s nothing you could have done to prevent them, but Star Renegades can sometimes feel particularly bad in this regard. One bad battle can spell the start of an unrecoverable spiral to failure, regardless of how well the rest of the game was going. Some fights don’t even let you spiral, like the Chimera - boss of the second planet - who’s spike in difficulty seems largely out of nowhere and feels unfair.
Camping - which happens between days of planet liberation - is where your characters exchange goods and pleasantries in the form of cards. Some characters have cards that regain HP, some that buff damage or adds small abilities to attacks for a limited amount of battles. All will deepen the relationship between the characters doing the exchanging, and as that relationship grows, so will their passive abilities. They can also start to learn teamwork combo abilities a la Chrono Trigger that can be pretty devastating, but often require a lot of investment to create and execute that I found was rarely worth the time.
The combat and challenge of getting to the mothership was enough to keep me hooked for hours, but I found that the meta progression - the stuff that carries over from run to run - really didn’t so much to entice on its own. You’ll get to the bottom of the barrel of stuff to buy with the carry over currencies you earn pretty quickly. Classes will gain permanent stats as your intel tier goes up, but not in any order that you can control in any way. Outside of unlocking new classes to play, you won’t find much else new to do once you’ve cleared a few times.
That said, when you're into Star Renegades, there is plenty to get excited about. Even the most trivial battles feel like an interesting puzzle thanks to the truly special combat design. This can carry you for dozens of hours, since there's really nothing else like it out there right now. It’s so good that it helps mitigate some of the less consistent character balancing, difficulty spikes, and samey map presentation that many of its ilk wouldn’t be able to overcome.