Star Renegades has a lot of systems. Most roguelikes do, in order to give you enough variables to tweak to your advantage, but Star Renegades presents many of them up front. Health, shields, and armor alongside a battle timeline, with varying benefits to striking earlier or later, sometimes entailing status effects or elemental damage.
Outside of combat, you have to manage how much progression you can make each in-game day. Which sections of the map should you rush for, and which will eventually be closed off? Is it better to push forward into unnecessary danger for rewards, or simply engage the level-ending boss now? Also, how can I make my handsome space scoundrel fall in love with a dry, unfeeling robo-zealot?
Star Renegades tacks a lot of ideas on early, but all of it manages to fit together incredibly well. Despite seeming a little complex, Star Renegades has managed to stand out in the roguelike crowd, in a year replete with them.
An easy way of describing Star Renegades is that it's an RPG roguelike, a notable difference from the usual card games and action-platformers. It's more akin to Darkest Dungeon, utilizing a lot of the same concepts of open-map exploration and class synergies. Star Renegades focuses on the invasion of a techno-alien force that, in what seems like moments, burns its way through the galaxy, annihilating everything in its path. Controlling small robot helper J5T, you're sent back in time and into an alternate reality. The war will come for this reality too, but with J5T's help, you can prepare a force to deal with it.
Much like Into the Breach, failure only means heading to a new reality and starting over. Along the way you unlock bonuses, like new equipment that can drop and more combatants that can join the Renegades. A run will take you across three worlds, navigating overworlds where progression is broken up by the day-night cycle and culminates in a final fight against a massive behemoth.
The story is solid, for what there is of it. More captivating is the world these characters live and fight in—it's a blend of nature and tech, drenched in well-crafted pixel detail. Combat animations particularly remind me of the Game Boy Advance run of Fire Emblem games with the amount of detail and expression shown in finite pixels. When Wynne, the Valkyrie, leaps into the air and comes down spinning her blade around her, it's exciting and brutal. I found myself watching animations more than skipping them, just because of how fun they are to see play out.
The crux of Star Renegades is the combat. Your party members, starting at three and numbering up to six by endgame, line up in front and back rows on one side, and the enemy does the same on the opposing side of the screen. A timeline at the top shows the turn: every enemy move that will happen, and when it will happen, is laid out. This timeline is key to making it far in a Star Renegade run. If a character strikes another character before they act, it's dubbed a Crit, which can carry any number of benefits. It might shred more armor than usual, or return shields to the attacker. Most importantly, it might push the target's action further back on the timeline, Staggering their attack.
When an enemy is Staggered off the timeline, it's called a Break, and they lose their action that turn. This is incredibly crucial; later enemies have devastating attacks, and managing to Break them is what can buy you another turn, either to end combat faster or prepare for the barrage. A separate number dictates how many times an enemy can be Staggered before they will act, no matter whether they've been Crit or not, so you can't just "Break-lock" a particularly tough foe.
Managing this timeline and mastering how different classes can affect it is key to Star Renegades' appeal. My Saboteur didn't hit hard early, but his Blitz attack was invaluable; it was an instant action, so it almost always went first, and it applied a massive Stagger to foes. He'd Break a target, and then my Valkyrie—whose Cleave was devastating, but has a fairly long wind-up—would be free to slam it without repercussions.
Other classes focus on various aspects of combat. The Archon is a veritable shield battery, keeping enemies from piercing through my shields and causing more permanent health damage. The Aegis has been key to every one of my runs, as she can protect more vulnerable units from big hits and reflect damage back onto attackers.
These aspects change as you spend DNA to level up characters, too. At a later level, my Saboteur unlocked the ability to Plant Explosives, which he could then Detonate the next turn for an AOE attack on every enemy. Combined with a weapon that inflicted Burning effects on Crit, it meant that I could light the entire opposing force ablaze, albeit at the cost of two actions.
Different attack types can also vary your approach. Some foes might be vulnerable to Heavy attacks, like the Valkyrie's Cleave, but resist an AOE hit like the Archon's Discharge. The RPG combat is probably my favorite part of Star Renegades as a whole; the constant balancing act of risk and reward, timing out actions to play out the perfect turn feels incredibly good when it clicks, and it keeps evolving and presenting new challenges. For as few combat encounters as there were in most of my runs, it felt like I was constantly having to re-evaluate and update my approach depending on what the game threw at me.
And to be clear, it throws a lot. Enemies become stronger and stronger over time, and heaven help you if you encounter a souped-up Lieutenant. Star Renegades is one of the few games I've seen employ a system similar to the Nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor; each overworld hub has miniboss characters, which offer greater rewards but pose greater threats to your health. Lose to one, and it will get even more powerful. Let one retreat, and it might come back even stronger. Still, besting them nets you a lot of currency—both money and DNA, for gear and leveling up respectively, but metagame progression that lets you unlock more long-term benefits for future runs.
There are also some hidden Renegades, which are essentially the future progeny of current party members. When travelling through a world's map, you can only clear a few areas before needing to camp for the night. While you're at camp, you can use various cards to bolster your party's powers and recuperate after the day's fighting, as well as build relationships between characters.
Once they clear certain thresholds, companions can earn additional boons. And once certain pairs hit an even-higher threshold, they will create future offspring in a parallel reality, which can then join your party. It's very Fire Emblem: Awakening, but it is fun to try and make my rambunctious band of space misfits fall in love to see if they can make a super-baby.
Early on, Star Renegades feels like it has a lot to offer, though that can fall away fast. Over time, runs can start to melt together in your mind, and especially based on how far you get with each run, it can be easy to quickly clear your way through the larger metagame progression. I've only cleared the story once—the final few bosses can end a run fast—but I'm fast running out of things to keep me going for more. Additional variations on each class are my current goal, as those can change up the way I play by offering different ways of utilizing certain characters' arsenals, and have been the most exciting things to unlock so far. My biggest hope moving forward is that Massive Damage develops the content diversity a bit more, especially over the course of runs.
In a year with some incredibly stellar roguelikes, it's a testament to Star Renegades that its foundation alone can make it stand alongside them. I'm hopeful that more patches and future updates can give this game a longer tail for me, but even as-is, it's certainly worth an afternoon or two of your time. Plus, it's on Game Pass. This is low-commitment, high-return roguelike RPG fun.