Rogue Invader

PC, Mac

Add one to the teetering pile of games I’m absolutely terrible at but can’t stop playing. Rogue Invader is a really splendid roguelite scrolling shooter, where you attempt to overthrow an alien army with one soldier at a time.

The rationale for this is rather excellent: humans have all but won the war against the Zenos, with just the enemy’s home planet remaining as a haven for their evil leader. But, wouldn’t you know it, in all the fighting to take back the Terran territories from these invaders, they’ve only got one gun left!

That is an excellent justification for why you can only send in one soldier at a time. Even sillier, the Zenos’ planet is one of those places that constantly rearranges its layout, which of course the natives have evolved to expect, but means that each time the humans send down another grunt, everything looks different. Yes! All games: make the most ridiculous rationales for your daftest tropes possible.

So it is that one at a time, you run a human soldier from left to right through Rogue Invader‘s black-and-white levels. Along the way you have a handful of items called Beamers, that let you send back items to your ship, that can then be utilized by the next sacrificial lamb, or used for research to improve the sort of tech you can manufacture on board. So you might beam up alien weaponry to re-use or research, or pick up biological matter, scrap metal, bits of rock, etc, and then use those elements to build weapons or equipment to aid the next run.

Should that next run end in your spectacularly failing very early on, then yes, those new items are lost to the ever-changing surface of the planet, and you will shout at your screen, and possibly thump the window. Quickly, you’ll start to see your soldiers as troublingly disposable, setting out on runs just to collect one particular item to beam back, so you can set yourself up for a better run later. At which point the game reveals that the more runs you take, the more time the Zenos have to blast at your flotilla of Terran ships, reducing your air-striking abilities.

Then you’ll do an amazing run, get further than you ever have before, and be surprised by an attack and realise you forgot to beam back anything useful. Shout, thump, try again. Don’t do nearly as well the next three runs, and begin to wonder if you’re cut out for this career at all. Go off to make a coffee, come back to it in a bit.

I love how much is going on here. The game rather ridiculously describes itself as “1-Bit”, which it obviously is not. That’s not what grayscale means, developers. Stop saying it. In fact, Rogue Invader is actually in gorgeous 3D in places, the cutscenes a real treat to watch. The levels look great, and I very quickly stopped noticing that it’s not in colour, just like watching a top-quality olde worlde movie.

You can not only craft weapons, armour, equipment and even flotilla upgrades, but you can more specifically design your own versions of weapons, adding in mods you’ve researched from analysing returned items. As you gain more items, you can set off on a run with a pocket full of grenades, an auto-turret, and some hefty armour. Or run in with next to nothing, to do a quick shopping trip.

On top of that, it borrows ideas from Rogue Legacy, having each soldier have unique traits, both positive and negative. You might have a unit who can carry less weight or move more slowly, or one that can throw grenades farther or have weapons cool down more quickly. Or indeed a combination of positive and negative attributes. Then there are the differing conditions on the planet’s surface. Each is a massive pain in the bum. Sometimes there’s a lightning storm, making you more likely to be struck the more metal you’re carrying. Other times bloody great sand worms might burst from the soil, based on noise and vibrations they can hear.

It’s worth noting this isn’t the cheapest game. It fully deserves to be $20, and I’ve had at least that much enjoyment from it in a few days, but I do suspect it’d sell an awful lot more than twice as well if it were half the price.

I imagine, if I were significantly less terrible at it, that I’d be discovering so much more. But I’m not, although I have a great time with it. And I’m getting better! Finding ways to shorten the journey, getting better at the set-pieces, learning the best equipment to craft for a run. It would be silly to directly compare this to Returnal, given the enormous difference in scale, but I can’t help but be reminded of it. That sense of enjoying failing at the earliest stages, with a constant sense of improving as I do.

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