When your first encounter with a game feels truly novel it's easy to be swept away, transported to your first years of gaming, trying to find the significance in every little detail. It helps when the creators of the game put a lot of thought and energy into how things are presented, but as with anything, familiarity sweeps away hangings and decorations, leaving you with the room itself. The transformation Star Renegades takes from overwhelming fever dream to turn-based tactical combat abattoir may last you to the end boss, but whether or not your time spent will feel worthwhile depends a lot on whether the game mechanisms have any lasting value to you. So let's primarily talk about those.
In Star Renegades you control a small squad of far-future misfits trying to repel an inter-dimensional invasion, with the action taking place across a trio of planets and then a final mothership. Your roster of potential members is fixed at the start, but slowly expands as you spend one of the game's currencies. Each character is also a class, with distinct abilities and specialities that make constructing a squad flexible if not always yielding an effective force. You move your squad between discrete nodes on the map, passing through barriers with clear indications of enemy encounters and rewards that lurk in other nodes with few surprises, collecting advantages, various currencies, and experience.
Combat is central to Star Renegades and does by and large not rely on dice rolls for it, though the system, in general, has a randomness that we'll go into later. All the stats are open and you are often confronted with a puzzle of sorts every round, with the speed of an action determining initiative order, and some actions and abilities altering that order. If a character hits an enemy before getting hit themselves, they get a crit effect that can reduce the target's armour, push its initiative order back, and other effects that make crits worthwhile to pursue or to avoid in the case of the enemy squad. Juggling an increasing list of abilities for each character and trying to eliminate the enemy before incurring too much harm is the core experience of the game, but especially early on, you may find round after round that you're picking the same action for every character.
After a set number of moves on the map, eventually, it will be time to camp. Cards each character has collected can be used to restore health and armour, something otherwise hard to do without rare items you may get in the field maybe once per map, as well as giving temporary or even permanent stat bonuses to others. Characters also reach affection tiers between them as cards are spent on each other, allowing for instant combination attacks using both characters, and permanent stat increases.
The enemies are varied, with a mix of peons and tougher characters. There are also enemy lieutenants with more personality, usually with some randomised strengths and weaknesses that you're told from the start. These traits can result in a slog or even defeat if your team is suboptimal. Should a lieutenant not die it will remain in that world, being promoted, and you'll see them on the map when you reach that world again. There are also a few world bosses that have more predictable tendencies you'll learn by trial and error, some of which will likely preclude certain squad combinations.
If your party is defeated you're sent to a zone to choose team members and start from the beginning planet again. The game expects you to lose, especially early on, with the currencies you gain allowing you to unlock new potential squaddies, weapons and items that will be seeded in later runs, and a few settings for a companion droid that may automatically restore some armour at camp, reveal small things to collect at night, or reveal extra merchants you can buy items from upon retaking one of the three worlds before the final level. A restarted world rearranges the nodes you travel through, the loot and enemies in each node, and which ones are timed during a given day to become inaccessible. Upon repeated plays, a lot of the visual noise can be filtered out and it takes little time to plan an approach.
While the player's success hinges heavily on learning how systems work and knowing what an enemy is likely to do, there is only so much planning that you can manage. Individual enemy squads draw from a pool of possibilities that may include enemies with inconvenient resistances, their attacks may be arranged in devastating combinations, gear drops may be suboptimal whether or not you foresaw exactly why a choice of gear would, and the world map can be arranged in a way that makes healing your already beleaguered squad difficult if not impossible as nodes get cut off or are guarded by tougher opponents. This leads to playthroughs that can last hours and end in slow defeat as it becomes clear that your setup or choices were inadequate, or the game's generated elements had the edge.
It's hard to deny that the puzzle of combat has the potential to be very compelling, whether or not there is ever a clean solution per se. In later worlds, the enemy can use the back row of their squad formation to shield members from some attacks, and as characters level their array of abilities can allow for a good deal of tactical leeway, assuming you manage to reach that point. Some of the most important tactical decisions happen at treasure chests, where you're given a choice of three things which may mean wind up saving or condemning you in later fights. And first things most people will notice about the game are the luscious visuals, sound, and music, all of which delivers a beautiful sensory explosion. Backgrounds during fights remind me of the animated, flavourful fare found in 2D fighting games, music is driving, the sounds and animation make combat impactful and rewarding even after hours of play, and combat animations can be fast-forwarded through if you wish. The irreverent humour and brief dialogues lend a unique character to the game but may not be to everyone's taste, though they can largely be clicked through.
Yet as we alluded to initially, as all the overtly beautiful stuff gets swept away by familiarity with the game, some things begin to grate, its personality slowly buried as you just tear through nodes looking for fights and a smattering of loot. You may be able to fast forward through individual combat rounds, but you still have to navigate through nodes adventure game-style, you still get to click through the enemy banter, participate in a few insignificant fights, struggle to properly give commands as the screen gets more cluttered with characters, puzzle through sometimes unclear effect interactions, and watch pretty level up screens that tell you what you already know. Replays often feel little different on a macro level, even if the particulars of combat can, if a sufficient amount of factors were different, still result in some interesting arrangements. The pressure to just sweep away a lot of what lends the game flavour leaves: choosing team builds, which item to take from a chest, who to level up, what risks to take on a map, which camp cards to use, and what individual actions to choose during a combat round, even if some choices wind up being obvious. Expecting more of a payoff in other areas may lead to disappointment, but if the machinery underneath still sounds interesting Star Renegade's comely packaging will only enhance your experience.
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