If it isn't video games, Edie doesn't care about it. She's been playing games since the N64 era, and only spent enough time away from her 3DS to earn a Bachelor in Games Design from RMIT.
Rogue Lords is exactly the kind of game we love to watch crop up around October. Hiding behind this somewhat generic name is a turn-based roguelike that holds all the makings of a perfect Halloween game: It’s got a gothic, Dark-Ages setting full of vampires and witches, it’s got famous Halloween monsters like Dracula and the Headless Horseman, and, oh yeah! You play as the Devil. It’s the perfect setting to lead you to to the spooky season. Being the hero in video games is all very well, but every so often it’s nice to play as the unapologetic villain.
As the Devil, your goal is to take revenge on the demon hunter Van Helsing, who defeated 10 years ago and forced you underground. But now you’re making your comeback tour, and bringing all sorts of Halloween monsters with you – such as Dracula, The Headless Horseman, Bloody Mary, and more. These are the Devils’ Disciples, and they form your party members when you venture out into the world. In each chapter of the game, you will guide three of your Disciples through a randomly generated map and face a variety of different events in the form of combat encounters and narrative events.
The main game is divided into a series of chapters, each with its own mission to retrieve a powerful item that will help the Devil in his revenge quest. If you die, you can re-try the chapter you’re up to, but all of the collectables and skills you’ve gathered on your run will be lost. Each chapter is set up as a series of forked roads surrounded by dark and sinister forests, and the direction you choose to go in will lead you to a clearing with the next event waiting for you. While some Roguelikes don’t allow you to see what’s ahead, Rogue Lords displays a map on the corner of the screen that shows you how the path branches ahead. Being able to plan your route ahead adds another kind of strategy, as you can plan your actions around what you know is coming your way. The mix of combat, narrative events, combined with many chances to swap out your skills, makes an addictive gameplay loop.
Rogue Lords’ combat features a complex system that is nonetheless easy enough to get the hang of. You and your enemies have two separate health bars: HP, which is regular ol’ Health Points, and SP, which stands for Spirit Points. You can deplete either bar to kill your enemy – plus one extra attack to finish them off. Some of your disciples specialise in one kind of damage over the other, but each one has a range of skills that can be curated to form a devastating attack set for any occasion. Each ability will use up a number of your Action Points (AP) when used and when you’re out of AP you can’t use any more skills. In addition, you won’t be able to use that ability again until your Disciple recharges it. On top of that, there are more different status effects and debuffs than you can shake a stick at, so it can start to feel like a bit too much. But once you master everything the game has to teach you, combat becomes the best part of the game.
So far, so standard, when it comes to Roguelikes – but there’s one big thing that makes Rogue Lords different. And that’s the fact that you’re playing as the Devil, and the Devil doesn’t play by the rules.
Using your Demonic powers, you can literally change the state of the game in your favour. Does your disciple only have a 30% chance of succeeding at a narrative event? Or maybe they have a nasty status effect that you would rather disappear? Simply activate your demonic powers and give that status effect to your enemy instead. There are a number of things you can do with this power, which can instantly turn the tables in your favour.
Doing so uses up your ‘demonic essence’, and if you run out, then it’s game over and it’s back to the start of the chapter. This breaking of the fourth wall adds an excellent, never-seen-before element to the game’s challenge.
“This breaking of the fourth wall adds an excellent, never-seen-before element to the game…”
By the same token, what can and can’t be affected by your Devil powers feels a little arbitrary. You can drag down your enemy’s HP, recharge your skills, and even swap out an upcoming challenge on the map with a different one, but you can’t add AP or cancel incoming attacks.
It makes sense that the line must be drawn somewhere, but when the pretence is that your demonic powers can upturn the battlefield, it’s a little frustrating when your powers can’t do it in the way you need. Your powers already come at the cost of Demonic Essence, so it surely wouldn’t be game-breaking to add a few more functions.
The game is certainly difficult enough that it couldn’t hurt. Once each chapter is completed, enemies become hardier and start to come with innate status effects that can make short work of your party. This means that it’s certainly satisfying when you finally win against the chapter boss, but I can see it being a turn-off for some since there’s no option to tone it down a little. Since your Disciples don’t retain any skills or powers in between runs, there isn’t much you can do if you find yourself truly stuck. Fans of the classic Roguelike genre may relish this, but in this day and age, more players expect to be able to tone things down if they’re having a particularly tough time.
While in the overworld of each chapter, you can soak in the atmosphere provided by the game’s spooky soundtrack and grim visual style. As you travel through the chapter, there is a decent amount of background detail in the form of little settlements, shrines, and other creepy structures placed around the map to sell the idea of this gothic, horror-filled land.
The delightfully evil-sounding narration from the Devil himself sells this even further, as will the narrative events that frequently occur to your Disciples. Your Disciples can respond to the event in different ways, and their success will depend on their stat score in the given skill.
There are enough events that you will only occasionally run into the same event again, and never in the same run; these events are filled with the misery of the land’s inhabitants, with small plotlines that are dark enough to be dramatic but not so disturbing that it would count as genuine horror. There’s plenty of murder, sickness, evil cults, and ghostly possession, but it all stays safely behind the curtain of text.
Because of how detailed the overworld is, it’s actually a little disappointing to see how little there is to do in each clearing. A lot of the clearings are large enough that you’re almost incentivised to explore, the only thing you can interact with is the event. There will be the occasional optional event bundled in with the main one, but it never stopped feeling a little strange that all these windmills, castles, shrines, and farmlands are there only for window dressing. I would have liked to be able to at least destroy them for a few extra Souls, which you can trade to the Grim Preaper in exchange for a new skill or two. Without that, I’m not sure what the purpose of these large clearing spaces are.
As a last note, there are a few glitches present in the game that rear their heads every so often. Most are graphical in nature, and don’t interfere with gameplay. But once or twice it didn’t allow me to progress past a narrative event, meaning I had no choice to abandon the run. Hopefully, these will be patched out fairly quickly, but while they remain, might be the cause of a lost run or two.
Rogue Lords is a fine lead-up to the spooky season, with a genuinely addictive gameplay loop and a satisfying combat system. The ability to mess with the game’s own mechanics as the Devil is an absolutely inspired idea, and the experience is only made less than perfect by a few glitches that need patching out. The game would feel a little more complete if there were more to do in each chapter’s overworld, but what is there is a delightfully challenging roguelike. The inability to lower the difficulty may turn some people away, but other people will relish the challenge.