The Warhammer franchise has always been fascinating to me. How a brand can land so many games in varied genres and have most of them be pretty decent to excellent is simply astounding in my mind. So far, the only types of games I haven’t seen it dabble with are probably pinball and color-matching puzzles.
All kidding aside, I do in fact have a lot of respect for Warhammer for what it did for fantasy role-playing originally, so when I got word that there would be a cRPG based on the 40,000 brand, I jumped at the chance to review it. And here we are, weeks after I started Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, unsurprisingly impressed with what I’ve seen so far.
In the lore of Warhammer 40,000, the role of the Rogue Trader is one I hadn’t heard of until this game. They’re a mixture of explorators and merchants that serve the Imperium’s will in order to carry their word onto the uncharted depths of space. It’s definitely a cool setting to have a game in, and with Owlcat Games at the helm, whose previous work, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, I deemed okay with some caveats, I can say I had plenty to look forward to.
Having plunked 30-ish odd hours into it, it’s safe to say I’m very into what it has to offer, albeit with reservations. The initial 10 were a test of patience for me, and will probably be for even the most dedicated of players. That’s because the game has plenty of layers to it, but it is very slow to get them all going, hence the painful initial hours.
Even with a gripping setting, one where you assume the titular role in the midst of chaos after the sudden loss of the previous one under mysterious circumstances, I found myself having to make a concentrated effort to keep going. At the outset, the only gameplay nook that there is to be fiddled with is the ground combat, which is very much X-COM-like, but deliberately slower-paced.
It’s not all bad, mind. You’re often outnumbered and the enemy tends to throw dozens of units at you so you can tear them apart in typical 40,000 fashion, which feels damn good the first couple of encounters. It’s the very methodical movement that makes it all slow to a crawl, with each of those dozen or more grunts making their move before you can dispatch them in fashion.
In terms of customizing your character, you’re able to roll with a pre-created set of archetypes, each specializing in one of the game’s combat roles, which boil down to one that’s more melee-focused, a buffer type who works to make your group stronger, and a soldier, who is an all-around jack-of-all-trades. Even if you aren’t 100% committed to your pick, there’s no reason to worry as the rest will be filled out by the rest of your party.
I especially liked how Rogue Trader doesn’t take long giving you more units to play with, and how their personalities complemented their roles. In 40,000, there’s an established societal order that somehow works under the tyrannical thumb of an all-powerful emperor, and it’s interesting to see the kinds of people that it generates through your team members.
For instance, one of them is a slightly mad caster that has visions which show her glimpses into the future sometimes. It’s up to you to decide if you should take her seriously. Another one is one of the techno-sages that has torn themselves from the order after being betrayed by his peers, heavily mutated and armed with some ridiculously powerful skills.
Those are only a couple of potential groupies, and none so far have felt like throwaway characters, even more so when it comes to role-playing, for as samey as they can ultimately be in combat, thanks to the game’s very contained and not at all power fantasy-y upgrade and skill systems. The buffs, for instance, don’t feel like anything substantial, and the classes tend to gel together thanks to the poorly explained loot.
The items that you get can usually be equipped by all, regardless of class, and when there are limitations, it’s required that you do your own research into finding out how it all works. Basically, some gear is in fact specialized, and can be equipped if a character, for instance, follows a certain personality trait, or is trained in a specific regiment.
In the latter case, you have to look for that when leveling them your party up, buried among other not at all explained skills and stats. As for the former, there’s not much you can do about it. Even if a party member is perfectly suited to wear said item, if they don’t comply with the requirement, tough luck. After a while, I stopped caring about the little that there is to choose in that regard and just picked whatever the game recommended, and when that wasn’t a possibility, I went with the next thing.
Thankfully, the rest of the actual RPG elements in the game work much better than the on-foot combat. Dialog choices are exciting to juggle around thanks to a three-way morality system that suits to your playstyle the further you get into the game, speccing your ‘Trader among a truly varied number of distinct roles, which have lasting consequences to how your adventure will go and for instance, who actually joins you and for what reason. You can be a total asshole who is loyal to a fault to your belief in the techno religion, someone who just wants to see the world on fire, or an unpredictable in-betweener.
Later on, when you’re finally given reins of your monstrous castle/spaceship to explore the fringes of deep space, Rogue Trader opens up and doles out its more gripping systems, such as actual ship-to-ship battle, where you can equip new weapons and mechanical do-dads in order to destroy everything in your way. Depending on your character’s personality, though, you might not even need to battle it out and win confrontations through sheer intimidation, which is just plain awesome.
Actual trading works similarly. I’ve gotten to a point where my protagonist is so good at what she does that more often than not, folks we run across when out and about don’t even bother giving her a price for items as they much prefer to appease her whims. Talk about not running away from actual tried and true role-playing, even when being an awful human being in the far-flung future. Owlcat Games, for as much as they tend to fumble a bit in gameplay, can be excellent storytellers, and Rogue Trader is no exception.
Not only that, but there’s also some management to be done, if you do so choose to keep the many locations you land in one piece. Deeming them worthy to be annexed to your efforts can prove to be beneficial in the short to long term as they can provide tangible benefits in the form of valuable loot, but as an outset, they have to be looked after and protected. Remember, space is as unruly as all hell, even more so when you’re far from the center of humanity’s reach.
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is a truly fascinating experience. After spending a few hours messing around with Baldur’s Gate 3 concurrently to this review, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better the combat would’ve been if Owlcat had decided to play it closer to Larian’s cRPG flavoring instead of Firaxis’. If only that aspect of the game were better, and elements such as loot would be better explained, then Rogue Trader would be an easy recommendation.
As it is, though, it’s a game that demands a higher than usual amount of patience and dedication from potential players in order for them to see all the good that there is to be enjoyed. Under Rogue Trader’s initially unintuitive and somewhat bland exterior lies a juicy filling just waiting to be savored. It’ll ultimately depend on just how much you’re willing to invest in it, and of course, trusting that what there is to be enjoyed here is something that you are looking for in a role-playing game, one that’s set in such a rich universe like Warhammer 40,000.