A Paladin’s Steam Review: Starward Rogue. Shooting Into The Sun.

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Let’s take a look at Arcen Game’s latest title: Starward Rogue. A unique meld of game mechanics that might interest bullet hell fans.

  • Genre: Top Down Rogue-lite Bullet Hell. Single Player Only.
  • Developed & Published by: Arcen Games
  • Platform: Windows, Mac OS and Linux.
  • Business Model: Single Purchase.
  • Free Press Key Provided by Arcen Games.

Preamble

Arcen Games has had a difficult couple of years since their launch of The Last Federation in 2014. In 2015, Arcen attempted to release a 4X strategy called Stars Beyond Reach. However, due to game mechanic problems that showed up late in the development cycle, the project has been left on the backburner. It’ll eventually release, at least they hope it will, but the financial strain between not releasing a game and having poor sales required Arcen to let go of a bunch of people. Even a successful launch of Starward Rogue was not enough. Still, Chris Park, its CEO, is soldering on and I hope his next project is a success.

Starward Rogue is a spin-off based on a combat system originally designed for The Last Federation. During TLF’s development cycle, they had originally gone with a real-time SHMUP system for when there was combat. It worked and certainly some enjoyed it. But, it was decided to be set aside, tabled as an idea for a future game and move to a more turn-based combat system. Which eventually turned into Starward Rogue as a smaller project.

I’ve been asked multiple times over the course of my playthrough what I think about Starward Rogue. The answer each time being “I’m not exactly sure”. It was a game that both compelled me and yet didn’t. I couldn’t ever figure out why until I really sat down and thought about it. I decided that was because SHMUPs/Bullet Hells really aren’t my thing. It’s a repeating cycle with me that I’ll get really attracted by the idea and style of SHMUPs but lose interest pretty quickly on for a variety of reasons ranging from “this is too hard” to “It’s pretty…but”. I’m kinda weird that way. 

Initial Overall Thoughts

My initial play sessions with Starward Rogue were a bit rough around the corners. Didn’t help that I participated in the late-BETA period when everything wasn’t quite intact yet. I believe the tutorial came after I left the BETA period (and then returned for the post launch experience) so I was a little lost on all of the items and functions of the game. It’s not that you can’t just drop in and start playing, but I was a little confused as to everything’s purpose. After spending more time with it post-launch and going through the tutorial, I figured out what was going on. It’s not a game that fools around with the player either. It’s entirely possible to die in the first room you enter if you brazenly run around and not avoid shots from enemies. But at the same time, the game strives to be fair so long as you’re paying attention and able to avoid shots. The procedural generation engine has had a lot of tweaks post launch and there are far less brutal rooms that used to exist in the initial launch. The game seems reasonably packed with content with plenty of mechs to choose from, difficulty curves that not only affect health and damage but also the patterns that bosses put out as well. There’s plenty of unique weapons to spice up the gameplay that can be found pretty quickly. All in all, as far as the base game is concerned, I’m impressed. 

Gameplay Examination

In Starward Rogue there are seven mechs you can choose from. These mechs let you choose your playstyle starting out going into the main campaign. Ranging from the middle of the road white mech with plenty of health and easy to use weapons to the flame tank that spits out fire in a large cone to a time mech where the enemies only move when you do. Each mech has three weapons: the main weapon that doesn’t use ammo for less damage, a secondary energy weapon that generally does more damage at the cost of energy ammo (that’s recharged everytime you enter a new room) and the missile weapon whose ammo has to be picked up but its useful for clearing obstacles and tougher enemies. There are attachments that usually give your mech a good benefit and then items that are super weapons ranging from literal nukes to teleporters. Mechs have health and shields that can be increased from item pickups or leveling up. There are health shards that can be collected to increase your health, keys that unlock chests and doors to merchents and credits to purchase those items. 

And of course, you’re free to use any approach you wish to each level. Maybe straight running for the boss or exploring every nook and cranny. As the game is based on skillshots and avoiding incoming bullets, it rewards exploration and skill very evenly. A lot of this game is careful dodging of bullet patterns which may require running or slowing down to give yourself time and agility to avoid them. 

Narrative Talk

The story takes place long after the events of The Last Federation. The last Hydral from that game is exploring an odd prison structure stuck into the side of a sun. How that structure can exist is a mystery to gamers and physicists alike. (It’s still visually striking and pretty darn awesome to look at every time I load into the game). Upon encountering the Hydral, he seems to recognize you from a time long, long ago. And so, in an effort to explore this strange structure, he offers to let you control a mech via a severed head of his. His can regrow so it’s no problem to keep growing and severing them for this endeavor. Still, that’s got to hurt at least a little bit. Especially given how many times I died and restarted. There’s an AI called “Rodney” in the depths of this prison whose motives are unclear and you have to go into this imposing place to find out what’s going on. Defeat bosses, continue growing stronger and traverse the multiple levels to win. 

Despite playing ~11 hours of the game, I never really got to experience more of the story after the tutorial. Mostly because I had a difficult time making progress. This isn’t exactly my genre and I’m pretty rubbish at it. So, even on really easy mode, I had a tricky time with it. As such, there’s not a lot of story and doesn’t seem to be a lot even if you do make it to the last level of the prison. It seems to exist to give a justification to the game’s existence. Which is fine, just don’t expect a story rich campaign in Starward Rogue. This is a much more mechanically and gameplay driven title.

PC Settings and Audio/Video

Game Options What the User Can Configure
Resolution Options & Windowed, Borderless and Fullscreen. All resolutions supported and custom windowed options as well.
V-Sync, sharpness and brightness customization. V-Sync on/off. Screen brightness, contrast, shader and zoom can be configured via slider.
Graphics Quality, Shadows, Reflections and other Effects. Graphics quality in general can be configured to low/medium/high depending on your RAM. Shadows, Reflections and other effects can be enabled/disabled.
Gamepad support. Customizable controls and Dead Zone Configuration.
Audio Options: Combat, Voice, Music and All. Audio sliders for each. With individual mute buttons for Sound, Voice and Music.
Savegame and Error Directory Location Can freely customize where your savegames are put.

Once again, the PC version of Starward Rogue is excellent with plenty of options to make your experience as accessible as possible. Always have to give kudos to developers that give the players options to make their playthrough as enjoyable as possible. The game is a colorful barrage of Sci-Fi, bullets and enemies but it’s not nearly within range of being overwhelming. If that doesn’t happen to be the case, there are options to turn down the barrage. The soundtrack is an odd blend of techno and electronic beat mix with some Sci-Fi elements mixed in there. I feel like there are far too few tracks so you end up hearing a lot of the same ones over and over again. They’re good songs, just a little bit more variety might have helped.

Final Thoughts

I think with Starward Rogue, it’s the combination of rogue-lite, dungeon crawling and bullet hell mechanics that make it enjoyable for me. Even if I may not enjoy the genre as a whole, it still combines into an enjoyable experience every run. The mechanics mix together in a way that only Arcen can do so well. However, I did find my enthusiasm tempered by the difficulty (which has more to do with my lack of skill) and the shortcuts Arcen had to take to ship Starward Rogue. The story is threadbare and mostly exists to justify why you’re there and why you’re exploring this dangerous place. The lack of multiplayer is also quite noticable and it’s one of those games I think I would have enjoyed as a co-op experience.

The game was launched in an iffy state with gun drops not working correctly and lots of content simply not spawning due to procedural engine bugs. However, Arcen and the volunteer staff did an admirable job of updating it with free content months after its release and fixing the game up. Such sacrifices I can’t ignore and have to give kudos for because the current state of Starward Rogue is very good now. Do I recommend Starward Rogue? Yes, but with the caveats as previous stated. It’s a love letter to bullet hells and its playerbase, mixed inside a dungeon crawling rogue like. It was clearly designed by players that understood that genre probably far better than I ever will and there’s plenty of substantial content as a result. I personally would have liked more story content to give me a reason to keep coming back to it and others may want more progression mechanics to keep them coming back. Still, I think they did an admirable job with what they had and what’s here is still worth checking out.

Thanks for reading this review! If you want to read more, feel free to check them out. Otherwise sharing this post also helps.

-KingIsaacLinksr

3 Comments:

  1. I just bought this one, too! I like it a lot so far. And I’ve never been able to get into bullet hell games. It actually has less bullet hell in it than I’d have thought from reviews and promo material.

    I like that it’s a binding of Isaac style game with thematic elements that actually let me play. Time will tell if it’s another “A Valley Without Wind” for me where I really like it at first, but then can’t stand it after a while.

  2. Nice review there! I do wish we could have gotten more story stuff in, since I know people tend to like that sort of thing, but… well, yeah, you know what happened, I bet. It’s a shame, too, the whole thing was written up as far as I know. What we’d like to do is inject that into it at a later date (part of a much larger update) but kinda unsure as to wether we can or not (would rather not take up Chris or Keith’s time with that). Well, I say “we” but it’d be the others doing that part, that bit is beyond me.

    Also, about the difficulty: If you have any specific comments or thoughts on that, by all means, let me know. Still trying to balance that out properly, and any bit of feedback helps. I’m not so good at spotting the problems myself. Things always seem too easy to me and then I go overboard with some of the pattern designs.

    Either way though, the review is much appreciated! You have a good writing style/format with these actually, I’ve read through a number of the ones you’ve written in the past on previous visits here.

    • Hey, thanks Misery! For some reason I didn’t get notified about this comment. How annoying. Anyway.

      I understand inserting story parts at this point is probably unlikely and I still think the game manages itself pretty well without it.

      I’m not sure if the difficulty is a lack of skill on my part, lack of patience to do certain rooms correctly or if I get too easily flustered over taking damage. Or if I just have tremendously bad luck. It’s probably a combination of those things. Plus, as stated in the review, Bullet hells are always something I think I like playing but am generally pretty terrible at. It wouldn’t surprise me if Starward Rogue was much the same way. *shrug*

      Also, thanks for the comment on the review style. I’m pretty happy with it these days, I think it accomplishes what I want. =)

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