Quick Look – Rogue Lords (Humble Choice – March 2023)

It seems like every other game that blips across my radar lately is waving the “roguelite” flag. My personal experiences with them have been mixed, at best, and yet I keep trying. I selected Rogue Lords to look at from the March Humble Choice for a few reasons. First, the aesthetic is very much up my alley. Secondly, I was hoping for something new to play in short bursts on the steam deck. Thirdly, well, is because no one else picked it.

In this dark fantasy turn-based roguelite, you play as the devil, leading his disciples across the land to get rid of all those pesky demon hunters and get some revenge. It has a retail price of $24.99 and an overall Steam rating of Mostly Positive at the time of this Quick Look.

Although I had hoped to play Rogue Lords on the Steam Deck, I didn’t think to check about compatibility until after the fact. It’s unsupported. However, since quite a few unsupported games seem to work just fine, I thought I’d give it a whirl. Unfortunately, on default settings, the cut scenes were broken. By this I mean there was voice over, and subtitles, but no pictures. Rather than tinker, I decided just to play this one at the PC (although for those who prefer to tinker, it has a ProtonDB Rating of Platinum, and reportedly works just fine with ProtonGE).

After the introductory expository cut scene, Rogue Lords forces you into a fairly lengthy, unskippable, and super hand-hold-y tutorial. Now, I like a tutorial. I don’t even hate a mandatory tutorial. But I detest a tutorial that doesn’t let you make a single mistake all the way through, and then dumps you into an unwinnable battle. Which is precisely what this one does.

The main takeaway I got from the tutorial level is this. You are the devil, and you have a limited (but rechargeable) amount of power which you can use to cheat. And I do mean cheat. You can recharge your disciples abilities. You can fill up their resource bars. You can steal buffs from your opponents or slide your debuffs onto them. The game is actually designed expecting you to cheat early and often. I feel kind of personally weird about cheating, even in single player games, for myself but when the it’s part of the game design? I actually think I kind of like it.

It makes sense, after all. You’re the ultimate bad guy, sending your bad guy minions to do bad guy things. Why would you follow the rules if you didn’t have to? However, if that mechanic makes you feel icky and you think you’d prefer to just not use it, you’re best off skipping the game entirely. I’m not 100% sure it is mandatory, but I will tell you this – it feels mandatory.

Otherwise, this is a neat twist on a very old formula. You have action points that you can split between any of your characters. You start out with five per round, and abilities generally cost 1-2 points. Action points refresh to full between turns, but your abilities don’t – if you want to use something more than once a battle (spoiler, you absolutely will want to use something more than once a battle), you’ll need to recharge that ability. Each character comes with a “recharge” ability that costs action points to use – I found myself using Dracula’s most often since it recharges everyone’s abilities, or you use your cheat currency to do it one ability at a time.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t have a fantastic effect on pacing, and the pacing is already not great. In what I can only assume is an attempt to make players appreciate the art, you need to lumber manually through each map section. Story segments (indicated by an open book on the mini map) feature oh-so-slow scrolling text with voiceover. You can click to make the text appear instantly, and there’s a way to turn off the voiceover if you’d prefer to read, but it’s also really easy to accidentally get too clicky and skip the story segment all together. Not that I did that. Not more than once anyway.

And while the tutorial map had a reasonable amount of nodes, the first actual map seemed to stretch on forever. So many encounters. So much walking. If you’re looking for a short session roguelite this is not it. In fact, it looked like there was no way to save during a run (a personal pet peeve of mine in roguelites), so I ended up frustration quitting when I realized that there was no way I was going to have time to completely the whole map in a single sitting. I can understand no manual or autosave during an actual combat, but not anywhere during a whole run?

Except that the game does save, presumably upon entering a new section of the map. It just doesn’t tell you that anywhere.

While there are more things I like so far about Rogue Lords than not, the things I found annoying I found really really annoying. I do appreciate that there is a difficulty option (and yes, I’m playing on Apprentice, which is easy, and yes, I’m still not having an easy time of it), but I would have preferred more customization than “easy or normal”. I cannot fathom how they came to the decision that RP walking through each map segment, completely with impassable terrain features, was a good idea.

On the other hand, the cheat mechanic is fun, and – at least for me, who’s not a huge roguelite player – unique. The art and sound design is great. There are unlockable characters, but the three you start with are all functionally different enough to not just feel like Generic Bad Guys. If you’re patient, and a fan of turn based strategy, dark fantasy settings, and just being plain evil, this might be worth a few hours of your time.

But if you’re expecting a fast-paced roguelite, one that’s tough but fair, this isn’t likely to scratch that itch.

As for value, this isn’t a title that’s seen many deep discounts (and none at all on Steam itself), so if this one has been on your wish list, it might be worth grabbing the bundle for, and definitely if there’s at least one or two other games that strike your fancy. That said, it is a second row title, which is where they tend to drop all the niche indie games, so if there’s nothing on the top row that’s appealing, Rogue Lords isn’t the type of game that’s going to carry the bundle on its (admittedly very very evil) shoulders.

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