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When Rogue Lords became available to review, we were feeling roguelike fatigue. Our calendar on the wall with ‘Days since the last roguelike’ was only showing a week or so, and we were hankering for something with a beginning, middle and end. Perhaps a story to lead us by the hand. But for all our moaning, Rogue Lords seemed to be offering something interesting: a roguelike mapped to a turn-based strategy game, and – more importantly – it was one where you got to be both evil and cheat. We had a chance to be the bad guys, and we were in.
Rogue Lords casts you as the Devil, looking to return to the world. Your bidding is done by three disciples, from Dracula to Bloody Mary and Dr Frankenstein, who work through several ‘books’ (individual campaigns), consisting of multiple chapters, before confronting Van Helsing and spilling his blood to summon you back to where you belong.
These books and chapters will be familiar to anyone with cursory experience of Slay the Spire: your three disciples are progressing along reasonably linear tracks, represented as a map, with the odd branching path to keep things interesting. There are various nodes along the map, with Death popping up to act as a shop, altars available to modify your abilities, events to offer random happenings, and – of course – the meat and potatoes, the game’s combat. Each book ends in a boss, and there are six books to complete in the campaign.
But, unlike Slay the Spire, the combat is a departure from card games and deckbuilding. Instead, what Rogue Lords offers is turn-based battles that have the rough outline of a JRPG. Heroes (sorry, anti-heroes) line up on the left, and your opponents line up on the right. Then it’s turn-taking time, as you are given a pot of action points to spend, and the freedom to spend them – pretty much – wherever you want. You can spaff them all on your single, most powerful character, for example, or you can spread the points around, attacking with everyone.
Factors will make this decision difficult. Use an ability and it goes on cooldown, meaning that – while you can choose the same disciple multiple times in one turn – they can’t just hammer the same power. You will have to keep an eye on each disciple, too, as they have two bars – HP and SP – and if either of them reaches zero, then they enter a ‘vulnerable’ state, which effectively means that any more hits on them leads to damage to you instead. You are wide open, and your ‘Demonic Essence’ begins to take a hit.
On their own, these mechanics are rather special. The double health bars represent physical and spiritual damage, and enemies might nibble away at either. Your abilities, too, might nibble them in exchange for increased potency. Managing both of the bars is an art, then, as the end of a battle replenishes them all. We found ourselves tanking with more robust disciples so that we could take advantage of disciples who get more powerful when their bars were precariously low. It felt like we were riding on a blade-edge.
Vulnerability is a bit good too. Rather than wiping your board and leaving you defenseless when something goes wrong, you are instead left with the means of getting out of the hole. Characters and their abilities remain, meaning you can rally. Often, in similar games, events snowball, and you have no chance of redemption. The disciples acting as barriers to your own health pool is also a neat touch, and it allows another fascinating mechanic to elbow its way in.
Your Demonic Essence doesn’t only represent your health: it represents your ability to cheat. You can expend a little demonic essence to basically fiddle with Rogue Lord’s programming. You can steal enemies, swap abilities or just boost characters’ life bars. Virtually nothing is out of reach. It’s an intriguing addition to the game, and makes you wonder if other games will crib it. The joy of tinkering with the rulesets rarely got old.
If there’s a criticism here, it’s that it never quite feels central to the game. To cheat, you need to spend Essence, and spending it is extremely prohibitive. You are carving it out of your life pool, and this makes you more likely to lose. It becomes a nuclear option, a safety net that you only use when the enemies are overrunning you and your disciples. Considering that it’s so fun to use, it’s a shame that Rogue Lords pushes you away.
In short bursts, Rogue Lords is a joy to play, and we found ourselves nodding along in appreciation at the ways in which it subverts the traditional turn-based battler. Final Fantasy, this is not. But it’s hard to play Rogue Lords in short bursts, and it’s where the fantastic gothic house starts to wobble and teeter a bit.
Combat in Rogue Lords isn’t a quick affair. Enemies are sponges and there are often a fair number of them. As is often the curse of the turn-based RPG, it’s all too easy to switch off and pull off the same moves every time, as the enemies absorb attacks and – often – don’t reply with meaningful threat. It’s a bit of a time-sink.
Worse, the chapters and books are interminably long. There are far too many beats on the journey, and we’d have settled for runs that are a quarter or a third of the length they are here. You can easily be playing a single run for a couple of hours, and that was too much for us. The rewards are heavily weighted to completion, with new characters only being dropped for completing books, so dropping out midway really isn’t an option. And there’s an argument that – beyond the characters – the rewards aren’t proportional to the effort you put in. We found ourselves grinding to unlock things, putting in hour after hour.
Carve out the filler, and Rogue Lords would have been a recommendation. It has a puckish, fascinating approach to both turn-based RPGs and the Slay the Spire-style roguelike, and we marveled at some of the ideas that were crowbarred in (cheating being top of our list). But Rogue Lords more than outstays its welcome, with battles and runs that take more than double the amount of time that they should. With some editing, Rogue Lords would have got the blood flowing. Too often, we found our blood boiling.
You can buy Rogue Lords from the Xbox Store