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Rogue Lords - battle of the badstards

By Ian Dransfield. Posted

Roguelikes could be described as devilish, and it seems Leikir Studio and Cyanide Studio have both taken this a bit more literally than expected with Rogue Lords. In this (would you believe it) roguelike, you play as the Devil himself, recruiting a band of evil-doers from the ranks of history’s greatest – Dracula, Bloody Mary, the Headless Horseman – to battle the mortal forces of good in a series of turn-based, tactical battles.

It’s a straightforward idea mechanically, with a few wild cards thrown in for good measure and all backed by sumptuous visuals, evoking the early day style of Tim Burton before he started shooting monkeys into space and lost his touch.

Players make their way in each run towards a selection of artefacts, which the Devil needs to wreak their revenge on the good-doers who foiled his last evil plan. This means making progress step by step, encountering events or battles as you go, and using the nefarious forces of evil in your battles – with the Devil acting as a fourth character in your team of three.

“[The Devil] can cheat at any time by modifying the game interface. He can change a life bar value, the probability of success of a narrative event, or even create paths on the map. The Devil does not play the same game as the rest of the world!” explains Jérémie Monedero, game director at Cyanide. The fact the Devil is able to cheat – though at the expense of an in-game currency, souls – all comes back to the original idea for Rogue Lords: a game where you played as history’s most evil fictional characters. But the original brief only went as far as that, so this is a game that has gone through a number of changes and iterations over the past five or six years.

“Originally it was a classic RPG but with fights quite close to those of today, and the action was set in an original science fiction universe,” says Monedero. “The universe, quite complicated to elaborate, was quickly replaced by this idea of the avenging Devil. And soon after, the theme of an imaginary New England shaped the current game. The fights of the initial concept were extremely related to the sci-fi universe we wanted to develop, so it was necessary to modify our intentions.

Combat is straightforward turn-based strategy, and makes up the backbone of the entire experience.

“We made small prototypes on our side and we even produced, with Leikir, a real prototype of the game, which was an XCOM-like, where the Devil was already bending the rules.” Through NACON purchasing Cyanide and the project being put on the back burner for a while, all Devilish roads have led to what we have now: a Gothic-inspired tale of nefarious deeds by nefarious characters, centred on deck-building-inspired (though deckless) combat.

Despite the grimdark-sounding content, Rogue Lords is rather light-hearted – not out-and-out comedy, of course, but it’s certainly not a sad slog through sadness.

“For me, the universe is more poetic than really horrific,” says Camille Lisoir, artistic director at Cyanide. “We wanted to create a dark tale – which was the code name of the game at the beginning – with a little bit of humour like you can find in Tim Burton’s movies, for example.” This, of course, has to be balanced with a combat system that is both accessible but deep – the sort of thing a roguelike lives or dies by, especially when so much of the heavy lifting is handled by this area of the game.

“We wanted to keep a simple game system where the player feels in control,” says Sébastien Perouffe, lead game designer at Leikir. “And as far as possible, we wanted to avoid systems with high random number generation or which create depth only by adding a lot of complexity. It took a lot of iteration and balancing to find the ‘formulas’ that work well, and build interesting enemies to face.”

It’s always nice to have options, especially when they’re all one form or another of evil.

Some important aspects to cover, according to Perouffe, included the need to give the player enough information without drowning them in it; to make sure even the most difficult of enemies were beatable by any configuration of the player’s team; making sure fights themselves are long enough for strategy to come into play, so it’s not just a one-and-done bite-sized battle; and making sure the player has the opportunity to impact the outcome of situations with decisions to be made and responses to be read. It’s a lot of work for a small team, especially in pandemic times, but it’s something Leikir CEO Aurélien Loos is confident the team has handled well.

“Depending on the needs of the production, we have between 14 and 20 people,” he says. “Covid-19 didn’t have a significant impact on production; we made the choice to start the home office one week before the lockdown in France, which gave us time to prepare to work remotely. We are fortunate to have a close-knit team that communicates well and is totally committed to the game. We keep a lot of attention on each other’s morale.

“Between the two lockdowns, we gave everyone the choice between coming back to work on-site or teleworking.” So not quite the march of death you may expect from other, bigger games, then. At least that bit’s not evil.

Genre: Devilry sim
Format: PC / PS4 / XBO / Switch
Developer: Leikir Studio, Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Nacon
Release: TBC 2021

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