Rogue Trader was always my favorite of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop RPGs. It’s already fun to be an agent of the Inquisition or a Space Marine, but space privateering that merges 40k lore with Star Trek’s intrepid-crew formula? Yes, please!
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is instantly familiar to anyone who’s played an isometric RPG – which, thanks to a certain other game that launched this year, is now roughly every gamer on the planet. Owlcat does a great job translating the genre’s hallmarks into the grim darkness of the far future.
In Warhammer 40K lore, Rogue Traders are spacefaring merchants whose families have been given special privileges and leeway within the strict laws of the Imperium of Man. Ostensibly, their job is to facilitate trade between the Imperium’s vast star systems, but most are more than willing to engage in some criminal activity on the side. Rogue Traders have the authority to supersede planetary governors and commandeer troops, which means they’ve become very rich and very powerful over the millennia.
The player character in Rogue Trader is a distant relative of prestigious Rogue Trader Theodora Von Valancius, who now finds themselves second in line to Theodora’s dynasty and fortune after another claimant was disinherited. Within an hour of gameplay, everyone ahead of you for the Lord Captain’s chair is dead, and you now find yourself one of the most influential people in the Koronus Expanse.
What follows is a quest of power, politics, and religion as you establish yourself as a new player in the local systems. If you’re already well-versed in the 40K setting, you’ll feel right at home. If you’re new to the franchise, you don’t have to scramble for a wiki to find out what a Tech-Priest does. Rogue Trader has plenty of dialogue options to help you get accustomed, with helpful tooltips for lore as well as gameplay.
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Owlcat Games’ creative director Alexander Mishulin said that his team’s new CRPG was directly inspired by their tabletop campaigns. Having now played the complete version of the game, I really see what he meant. The gameplay mechanics, particularly character stats and task resolutions, are immediately familiar to anyone who’s played the pen-and-paper version. The frontier setting of the Koronus Expanse also comes directly from the tabletop game.
A given stat represents the base percentage chance that an associated task will succeed. Considering that 50 and above is considered good, this seems like it would be hard to complete most tasks, but don’t worry – all but the hardest tasks include a bonus, ensuring that skilled characters will usually have no trouble and unskilled characters at least have a chance.
In combat, most attacks and support abilities check for a characteristic bonus, which is simply the tens digit of the stat in question. For example, if a melee attack deals extra damage equal to a character’s Strength Bonus, and their Strength is 55, then the attack will deal 5 extra damage.
Despite the expansiveness of the setting, which comprises several star systems, Rogue Trader is more linear than most CRPGs. The open-world element is largely reduced to deciding in which order you’d like to do quests. Much of the roleplaying comes from dialogue choices, all of which are flavorful and in keeping with the setting.
Combat is where Rogue Trader really shines; and that’s good, because there’s a lot of it. There is only war in the 41st Millennium, after all. The game does an excellent job of balancing melee and ranged specializations, and there’s more than enough character customization to tailor your party to the play style you want.
Battles are turn-based, with each combatant receiving a limited number of movement and action points on their turn. In most cases, characters are limited to one attack per turn, with the rest of their AP dedicated to preparing the ground with status effects. Powers that lift the attack limit are rare, but form a cornerstone of player strategy. Likewise, the Officer Archetype lets teammates take actions out of order, creating exciting options for support and teamwork-based builds in singleplayer and co-op alike. Grenades, burst-fire, and daring melee assaults all have a part to play, making even basic battles against cultists and criminals exciting.
While it’s clear that the combat system was built with experienced players in mind, there are multiple difficulty levels, along with the ability to customize them, that let you tailor the experience. Sliders let you decide how effective cover is, whether enemies get stat bonuses, and even adjust the importance of armor to damage calculation.
On Normal and below, you can usually get away with simple attacks and the occasional Heroic Act, an ultimate ability that can heavily swing a fight your way. On higher difficulties, you’ll need to make much more use of support abilities, priming foes for a kill-shot with debuffs and making effective use of cover to ensure your own survival.
Rogue Trader plays it safe for the most part, with most of the gameplay consisting of exploring a location, finding loot, fighting some hostiles, then having a conversation. The story is generally predictable, especially for players familiar with the setting, but many side quests – notably a roleplaying challenge where the Lord Captain is asked to adjudicate a deceased pirate’s last will – expertly play with classic tropes in Warhammer 40,000’s unique style.
While most of the game is standard fare for CRPGs, an innovation that stands out is its economy system, which simulates the vast wealth at the Lord Captain’s disposal without just becoming a free-for-all. The dynasty’s wealth is tracked by Profit Factor; if you have enough of it, you can simply take what you want from vendors. However, they’ll only offer higher-tier items if you have a good reputation with them, earned by delivering cargo they need or completing quests for them.
The game introduces more systems, each building on one another, as it progresses, but never to the point where you feel overwhelmed. At 80-100 hours of playtime, Rogue Trader understands that it doesn’t need to rush. While that number might be daunting to players with busy schedules, each mission feels like an individual episode that can be completed in an hour or two.
If you’re a 40K fan or just looking for a combat-heavy RPG outside of the normal fantasy fare, Rogue Trader will make a welcome addition to your library. It dives deeper into the setting and lore than any other video game to date, showing that it’s clearly a game by fans, for fans. Owlcat gave us multiple Pathfinder RPGs – hopefully, we’ll see more adventures in the Koronus Expanse in the future as well.
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