There came a time a while back when I burned out on The Binding of Isaac and started looking around for a similar game to fill the void, to make up for the fun I used to have with that game. After long consideration and playing a LOT of mediocre games (and some very few great ones, such as Deathstate), if I were to have to pick just one game to take Isaac’s place, it would be the vastly-underrated Starward Rogue, which combines bullet hell shmups and a sci-fi setting with Isaac-like trappings to great effect.
There are lots of games that try to mimic the formula Isaac pioneered, that of a roguelite with random item drops that you clear room by procedurally-generated room (with occasional shops, secret rooms, and minibosses). Starward Rogue sets itself apart as one of the good ones by its respect for the player’s time. Put simply, Starward Rogue likes you, and wants you to have fun with your time. In places, it even surpasses its inspirations.
Too often, lesser Isaac-likes perhaps inadvertently focus on the brutal item RNG that makes Isaac a pain at times. Item pools in these games are full of neutral or actively bad picks, leading to frustration when you don’t get items conducive to a winning run. Conversely, the good picks synergize so well that a win is basically completely assured when you get the right roll of the dice. Player skill serves only to increasingly turn what would have been losing runs into merely boring slogs. Starward Rogue’s item pool, however, is much more tempered. It’s full of meaningful choices between good items, with nothing actively bad outside of a selection of optional, secret items designed for challenge runs. I’m not even sure if “bad” is the right way to describe these items, since they all change the game quite dramatically upon pickup, often giving an entirely different experience. The vast majority of items are passive upgrades, but you also have a good selection of primary weapons, energy weapons, missile launchers, one-time consumables, and one-at-a-time passive attachments to choose from. It cannot be overstated how much this goes toward ensuring that every single run is enjoyable and feels empowering, giving you choices while retaining the RNG in a way that ensures the game’s longevity. You’re never stuck feeling ripped off when an upgrade or weapon appears.
Whereas Isaac will routinely and literally lock you out of the fun by not giving you keys to open treasure rooms, Starward Rogue bears no such grudges. You get a choice of powerups with every level up, simply by killing enemies and finding XP drops. Not leveling fast enough? You can purchase XP at shops for a small fee, no matter their other stock. And even though keycards are a thing in this game, and there are plenty of locked doors, it never feels like you’re being stonewalled out of the actual experience of the game by these doors, because there are also plenty of items and shops unlocked out in the open for you. This leads to a very nice balance where the player is still carefully considering what to spend keycards on, but is never entirely blocked from enjoying the thrill of finding cool new items and stores.
Starward Rogue is not coy about telling you what you need to know. Item descriptions are well-written and concise, conveying the necessary information to make good choices without any real trial and error. The map (along with the colors of door frames, and tooltips when you stand next to locked doors) tells you what rooms are beyond the doors of your current room, preventing you from walking blind into a miniboss or spending precious keycards only to find out it’s not a shop you wanted. In most games like this, you have a tab open in a web browser so you can look up item descriptions and what certain rooms do, even as a veteran player. Not so, here. This is an incredibly considerate set of design choices, again contributing to the overall feel that the player is choosing their path and directing their run to a certain extent.
The game’s variable difficulty is also much appreciated. This is not a game that wants to shut anyone out, providing Easy and Very Easy difficulties to allow inexperienced players to gain skill gradually. On the flipside, Normal, Hard, and Misery difficulties provide a level of challenge fit for any danmaku nerd with a string of 1CCs around their belt. At time of writing, Misery’s description reads that it is in the process of development, but the difficulty is selectable (and brutal). This may be a potential oversight.
Whereas many Isaac-lites provide a sizeable roster of characters that are largely the same and do not change the overall playstyle of the game, Starward Rogue’s roster is small at 7 characters, but highly varied in style. While weapons, attachments, and powerups are customizable, several of these mechs have built-in properties that change the way the game is played fairly dramatically. Redshift is by far the coolest of these, in my opinion, turning the game into Superhot (where time only moves when you move or shoot). But there’s also the Humble mech, with money-powered weapons, or the Indigo mech, which uses barrier mines and magnetic missiles.
Worth mentioning are two big quality of life features that reflect the overall design philosophy of respect for the player: the dash and the teleport pads. Every mech has the ability to run MUCH faster by holding down a button (LT on an Xbox controller by default), which is not only useful in combat to outrun enemies and bullets from time to time, but also extremely great as a time saver when backtracking through cleared rooms. Teleport pads are also included throughout each floor, networked together. So, for example, if you’re a few rooms before the boss and realize you want to check out the inventory of that shop you found earlier again, you don’t have to run all the way there and back again. You can just teleport around in a big loop until you get to where you need to be, very quickly. Together, these features completely eliminate tedious backtracking, leading to a much better pace.
Finally, we come to the core gameplay, and what’s here is a treat. At its heart, the game is a bullet hell shoot-em-up with roguelite RPG elements. Enemies and bosses fire large, beautiful patterns that must be dodged in tight spaces, often with minimal player movement. There are hazards in the rooms themselves, such as lasers, spikes (shards of glass? it’s hard to tell), and mines, that must also be avoided while fighting. For veterans of either danmaku STGs or Isaac-likes, Starward Rogue provides a very welcome twist on those genres. Enemies have good amounts of health to let you enjoy shooting them and dodging their patterns, without feeling like bullet sponges. It should be said that this game avoids many of the common pitfalls of Isaac-likes, by drawing its controls and game feel directly from twin-stick shooters. So, no pulling a trigger button and messing up your aim every time you fire, and your shots are chunky enough that you don’t need to be pinpoint accurate for the most part. This is a carefully-tuned game on all counts, and they’ve absolutely nailed the game feel.
The soundtrack is excellent if you enjoy EDM, though it bears mentioning that there are only like, 3 tracks, maybe 4. They really bump, but they might get repetitive to some players. The graphical style is crisp and clean, with nice bright bullets that make shooting and dodging intuitive. If I have one complaint here, it’s that there’s not much animation to any of the models. Boss intros in particular are kind of hilariously lackluster, just a still sprite that zooms in toward the camera for a second and then you’re in the fight, serving to undercut the tension of the coming battle. But, you can’t have it all, I suppose. It’s such a carefully-balanced and fun game, I can’t help but forgive it its few flaws.