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Friday eXcursion: Starward Rogue

Starward Rogue (SR) is a roguelike-like/lite, top-down twin-stick shooter from Arcen Games. It features bullet hell-style gameplay, interesting enemies, and random upgrades galore. Would you like to know more?

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Like most games developed by Arcen, SR has plenty of personality and loads of lo-fi charm that we’ve come to expect from the mad geniuses behind The Last Federation and AI War: Fleet Command. The premise of SR a simple one: you are a mech exploring a randomly-generated space station lodged in the side of a star. Naturally, the station is basically overflowing with a variety of enemies and bosses who spew multiple patterns of brightly colored glowing bullets for you to dodge. You know, the way space stations that have become lodged in the side of a star usually do.

Just like the original Rogue, a very distant ancestor of SR, gameplay is a room-to-room combat affair. The steps are fairly straightforward – enter a room, navigate a variety of environmental hazards and obstacles, dodge bullets, shoot bad guys, and collect loot. Furthermore, SR incorporates the classic either/or choices that make many roguelikes so interesting.

Mechs & Weapons

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Just another day at the office!

SR offers seven different playable characters. They range from a basic, jack-of-all trades mech with decent levels of health and firepower, to a robot with time-based powers that causes the game to essentially become turn-based (i.e. enemies only move when you move). The mechs all start with different weapons, levels of defense, and varying ranges of fire. Once you choose your mech for a “run” (more on that later) and the desired difficulty level (there are five) the game begins.

Each mech begins with three basic weapons: a primary gun with unlimited ammunition (like lasers), a secondary weapon with limited ammunition (i.e. missiles), and a third “special” weapon that uses a limited energy pool. Finding new weapons during the course of a run through the station is pretty rare, but finding new weapon modifications is a pretty common occurrence. These modifications are normally for the primary weapon and give it new effects. For example, one adds a short-range poison burst that fires in all directions and does damage over time to any enemy it hits.

As you shoot bad guys, you earn XP for leveling up your mech. At first, this will earn you health upgrades or additional ammo capacity. Further down the line, you will earn Perks, which add a variety of effects onto your primary attack or percentage chances to avoid damage when hit by enemy fire. But you have to level up quite a few times before you are likely to have more than basic stat choices for your rewards.

The Station

The station consists of five floors (at first), which each have a boss that must be defeated in order to proceed to the next floor. The levels are, in traditional roguelike fashion, procedurally generated. Besides the boss, a level is likely to have 1-3 minibosses, a shop or two, and plenty of enemies and static defenses to be destroyed or dodged.

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It’s getting a little hot in here…

The layout of each floor of the space station is a fairly pedestrian, grid-based sequence of interconnected rooms. However, the rooms themselves are where things get interesting. It’s pretty rare to come across a plain square room that contains nothing but a few bad guys in SR. Most rooms are a challenge in and of themselves. Environmental hazards, like the station’s static defenses, are a common threat and can take out your mech all by themselves if you’re not watching where you’re going. Other rooms are almost puzzle-like, and sometimes you will have to figure out a network of short-range teleporters if you want to explore all parts of a room – all while dodging enemy fire and shooting back! Some rooms feature impassible obstacles that limit the space you have to maneuver. Then again, some obstacles can actually be destroyed, but only by using your secondary weapon that has limited ammunition. Often there are loot-filled containers taunting you from behind those destructible obstacles. Should you use your precious missiles and take a chance on that loot barrel? Or should you save your ammunition in case the mini-boss is in the next room? The decision will matter.

The Bad Guys

SR boasts a wide variety of enemies with enough shot mechanics and bullet patterns to boggle the mind. There are, of course, enemies that fire large spreads of bullets – but those are some of the least interesting bad guys. Then there are enemies who fire bouncing boomerang projectiles and others that fire shots that spew a cone of bullets behind them as they travel like the wake of a ship. Next are enemies that fire homing bullets that chase you, including around corners! There are even enemies that fire bullets that in turn fire bullets of their own.

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“Who’s Da Big Boss?”

Bosses and minibosses can literally fill the screen with a variety of shot patterns that you must carefully dodge. Some are equipped with helper drones that can attack you independently. Fortunately, the mech’s hitbox is actually a good bit smaller than its graphic – a good rule of thumb is to dodge with your head. Which is to say, bullets that pass through the mech’s body but not its head won’t count as a hit. While that may sound odd to non-shmup players, it is actually a common mechanic in bullet hell shooters and a critical tactic to learn if you want to be successful in SR.

Items & Loot

Speaking of making choices, SR dungeons have shops where you can spend some of that hard-earned cash. Loot normally takes the form of health pickups, money, or secondary weapon ammunition. The goods on offer in the shops often include health and ammunition, but they are randomized to a degree. That means that sometimes you can find a game-changing weapon or item for sale. The trouble is, you will almost never have enough money for everything you want.

Most levels of the station will have multiple shops, so it might be a good idea to find them all before you decide how to spend your limited cash. Of course, you can always choose to attack the shopkeeper mech in the store and take everything for free. The shopkeeper is easy to defeat and free items are nice but there is a downside – any other shops on the level may contain useless junk instead of whatever goodies were originally there before you decided to attack the shopkeeper.

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The shops can contain all sorts of wondrous items and the details would be an entire (long) article in itself. You can find gun modifications that give your primary weapon interesting secondary effects. There are consumable items that spawn temporary drones that help you in a particular room. And there is an entire category of passive items with constant effects called “Incredibilities” that can genuinely change how you play the game. Risky Assassin, for instance, jacks up your damage, increases your range, gives your shots the ability to bounce off walls, and comes with immunity to many kinds of environmental damage. The downside? If you equip Risky Assassin your mech only has one hit point and no shields at all.  

Gameplay

SR plays smooth as a baby’s bottom! Since the game is a top-down 2D affair, the system requirements are pretty low. Even if you’re playing the game on a toaster you should have a good experience. You can use a mouse and keyboard as well as a gamepad and all of the controls are completely customizable.

I played the game twin-stick style on my Xbox One controller for PC. I found the controls to be responsive on their default settings, but if you don’t, fear not! The thumbstick sensitivities can be adjusted quickly and easily from the options menu. I did not try out the mouse and keyboard controls because an old wrist injury makes WASD-based control schemes quite painful for me.

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Move, move, mooooooveee!!!!

Your mech does have a bit of momentum by default. That means that the mech moves an additional step or two after you stop giving the command to move via the controls. Fortunately, the game allows you to enable “shmup mode” which removes the momentum and makes the mech stop (and turn) on a dime. Personally, I recommend enabling this option, particularly if you are an old school shmup veteran and are used to that kind of control in shooting games.

The other thing worth pointing out is that, unlike traditional shmups, your mech can (under normal circumstances) take quite a bit of punishment before being perma-destroyed. No one-hit kills! Furthermore, you can upgrade your health and defenses as you go through the game if you equip the right items and make the right choices when leveling up.

The Metagame

Like some other popular roguelike-like/lite games of the recent past (Rogue Legacy and Spelunky come to mind), SR has a metagame of sorts that keeps track of your statistics and progress from run to run through the space station. Personally, I like this addition to the roguelike formula because it means that even if you don’t make it all the way through the end, your run isn’t a complete waste of time and effort. For instance, in SR, successfully completing three runs of the initial five floor space station unlocks the ability to attempt seven-floor versions of the station.

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Where can I get off this ride?

Otherwise, the metagame seems to mainly be a vehicle for keeping track of statistics rather than actually unlocking things or making your mechs more powerful. Who doesn’t like comparing their in-game accomplishments with their friends, right? There is some “unlocking” though – killing X amount of particular enemies can make more powerful versions of those enemies spawn in their place. But, as far as I can tell, the kind of metagame unlocks that games like Rogue Legacy feature are nowhere to be found in SR.

Conclusion

Overall, Starward Rogue is a solid twin-stick roguelike-like/lite shooter in the same vein as Nuclear Throne and The Binding of Isaac. If you liked those games you will find a lot to enjoy in SR. I would also recommend the game to fans of action-oriented, real-time roguelikes along the lines of Spelunky and Rogue Legacy. The action is smooth and can quickly become frantic with lots of bullets filling the screen from every direction. The music is an uncomplicated, but upbeat, synth-based selection. It’s nice and fits the theme of the game, but it does become repetitive after repeated runs through the station. The graphics are charming, colorful 2D pixel art reminiscent of the 16-bit era. The sprites are easy to parse, even when the action gets hectic. The game a lot of fun in short bursts and I can easily see myself going back to Starward Rogue over and over again.

TL;DR:Starward Rogue is a good top-down, twin-stick shooter roguelike-like/lite with nice, colorful 2D graphics and great, customizable controls. The game has a wide variety of enemies with an amazing number of shot patterns and types to keep you entertained. There are lots of items to find/buy that can really change how you play the game. Like any roguelike, your resources are limited, so choosing what, when, and how to upgrade your make can make the difference between a successful run and an early death.

You might like this game if:

  • You like top-down, twin-stick shooters
  • You like real time, action-oriented roguelikes
  • The phrase “bullet hell” makes you salivate and your trigger finger itch

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You don’t like games with perma-death
  • You don’t understand why anyone likes The Binding of Isaac
  • Your prayers to RNGesus usually go unanswered

Micah has played 10+ hours of Starward Rogue on a desktop with a FX-8320 CPU, GTX 970, and 16GB of RAM. The copy was provided to eXplorminate by the developers at no cost.

1 reply »

  1. A question for our esteemed author!

    I love love love love me some roguelike. But I’ve never played a bullet hell game that I’ve liked. Do you think someone like me would like this game, or would it leave me cold?

    Like

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