HIGH Great mechanics, great characters.
LOW The boss of level 6.
WTF An extended streak of terrible luck running the final level.
I remember seeing Slay the Spire when it was shown for the first time at an expo. I’d heard some early buzz but it was in such a rough, early state that it was tough to get a sense of what it was. Fast-forward a few years and that clunky, unfinished thing became the most influential title in the roguelike deckbuilder genre in years — maybe ever.
I bring this up because Rogue Lords is another in a long line of roguelike deckbuilder Spire-likes which take much inspiration from that seminal title, but unlike mauch of the competition, it manages to expand on the base formula enough to carve out its own new space. It’s a tough trick to manage, but Leikir Studio pulled it off.
The premise? Satan – yes that Satan — wants to return to Earth, but first must gather power from six artifacts scattered throughout a Transylvania-esque world populated by fearful peasants and a fanatical inquisition. To collect the items, he employs nine “disciples” to go forth and prepare his return. It’s a fine premise and there are story bits sprinkled generously throughout the campaign, but like many games of this type, story is not the reason to play it. No, it’s about the mechanics.
At the beginning of the campaign, the player only has three disciples – Dracula, Bloody Mary and the White Lady. Since the game requires a team of three there isn’t much choice at this point, but that’s all right because the starters are more than capable.
A run begins on a map with several routes and branches, and the player will make numerous stops on the way to the boss. Along any path there are energy replenishing areas, ‘normal’ fights, fights against elite enemies, narrative choices and more. The player is free to look at the map at any time and plan which route seems best based on their current situation — would it be better to skip a battle and get to a shop, or would it be smarter to heal, fight a few foes and try one’s luck with a narrative event? Choosing routes is a huge part of each run’s overall success, and requires constant re-evaluation as things develop.
Of course, combat will be unavoidable no matter what route the player takes, so when it’s time for the disciples to enter battle, the screen is laid out like a traditional turn-based RPG with the player’s characters on the left and enemy characters on the right.
Every move enemies are planning is clearly telegraphed one turn ahead of time, so the player always knows exactly what’s about to happen and can respond. For example, if an enemy priestess is readying a spell, an icon will display above her head to signal that it’s coming up. This gives players a chance to try and prevent it from being cast, to change its target, or to put up a shield and negate its damage.
In order to perform defensive actions or to mount an attack of their own, the player has energy points to divide between the three disciples. Each ability has a certain cost — a quick strike might cost one point of energy, a defensive spell might cost two, and a powerful magic attack might cost three. The player can spend as much energy as they like in any order, and once they are satisfied, end the turn. Then, enemies perform their actions and things continue until the battle resolves. It’s pretty straightforward in this sense, but there are a few twists.
For starters, the theming and character design. Playing as bad guys is always interesting, and the characters in Rogue Lords are icons of horror – Lilith the succubus, Hecate the witch, Baron Samedi, and Dr. Frankenstein and his monster round out the crew on top of the starting trio. It’s a great group of fiends, and they all have their own flavor of play, so not only does the player have to learn each character, they also have to devise synergistic team compositions. Will the White Lady work well with Samedi’s psychological attacks, or would it be better to swap in a bloodthirsty Dracula and his ability to attack twice when low on health?
Along with those choices, players must also consider which abilities they want for each character, and of course, the roguelike nature of play means favorite powers aren’t always available. While every disciple starts with the same three basic abilities every time, picking up new skills and putting together a killer build is crucial.
While somee aspects may seem familiar to fans of the genre, Rogue Lords leans into its satanic concept by offering players a small amount of the dark lord’s power. It’s finite, but it can be used to alter, shift or even ‘cheat’ many aspects of play. Does an enemy have too much life? Subtract his health points. Get into a bad spot on the map? Summon a portal to warp away. Is an enemy spell going to wreck a character? Change its target.
Using Satan’s powers to tilt the scales in the player’s favor is a genuinely new idea in the genre, and it’s a great one. It takes a while to fully grasp the most effective ways to use it, and once the player has found a good rhythm with their characters, Satan’s overrides are often used only in a pinch – the difference between a win and a loss is sometimes just a point or two, so drastic expenditures aren’t often called for. But having the ability to give little nudges when an enemy is on the edge? It’s delicious.
I had a great time with Rogue Lords and found that it was pleasantly familiar while also giving me plenty of new concepts and twists to sink my teeth into. It’s generally successful at everything it attempts, but there are some areas where it could use a little more tweaking.
One thing I found annoying was an over-reliance on enemies that impose conditions or status effects – unless the player has the right countermeasures in place, they can end a run quickly. Even worse are enemies who gain permanent buffs when the player performs a certain action, so if they aren’t taken out in a hurry, they become too inflated to deal with. The worst of these is the boss of level 6, who rotates through a string of harsh conditions which can easily destroy a team who doesn’t know what they’re walking into. In such a situation, Rogue Lords feels less about building a great team and more about building a team to survive one particular fight.
Another issue is that the difficulty automatically rises as the player progresses in the campaign. It makes some sense to gradually up the challenge as the player comes to grips with the system and learns its intricacies, but I would have enjoyed staying at a lower difficulty in order to more easily experiment with different team builds and character compositions. And if nothing else, the option to lower the difficulty absolutely should have been made available post-credits. After winning the final battle I was ready to dive back in, but I didn’t want to keep playing at the highest difficulty, nor did I want to take on the unlocked “Inferno mode”. Just being able to play a more leisurely campaign without having to start a new file would have been appreciated.
As someone who plays all the roguelike deckbuilders that come to console, Rogue Lords is the best one to cross my path in quite some time. The art, characters and theming are all great, the mechanics are intricate and interesting, and although there are a few rough patches, the campaign can be completed without devoting hundreds and hundreds of failed runs to it. For anyone who enjoys the genre, this one’s fangs are satisfyingly sharp.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Leikir Studio and published by Nacon. It is currently available on PC, PS, XB and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 30 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Alcohol Reference, Blood, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes, and Use of Tobacco. The official description reads as follows: This is a role-playing game in which players assume the role of the Devil as he guides famous evil geniuses/villains (e.g., Dracula, Doctor Frankenstein) through various events and battles. Combat is turn-based, as players select attack moves/spells from a menu before watching figures briefly attack one another. Some attack moves result in splatters of blood; costumes and still images can also depict bloodstains. A handful of female characters wear low-cut tops that expose large amounts of their breasts/cleavage; one character’s biography references working in a brothel. During the course of the game, a character is frequently depicted smoking a cigar; text also references whisky, beer, ale houses, and alcohol dependence (e.g., “As long as they crave the sweet oblivion of drunkenness, the forces of Evil will never be defeated.”).
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This is a turn-based game that does not use any audio cues. Text accompanies all dialogue, but the text cannot be resized or altered. (See examples above.) I played almost the entire game on mute and had no issues. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. Things are pretty straightforward here — the left stick selects items in each menu, one face button confirms, one cancels, and one is used to activate “devil powers” during play.