Rogue Galaxy

It seems I’ve been on a big JRPG kick recently; chalk it up to having too much spare time on my hands thanks to shielding indoors from this never-ending global health crisis. Next on my very lengthy JRPGs list then is Rogue Galaxy.

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Rogue Galaxy (PS2, PS4 [reviewed])

Released Dec 2005 | Developed: Level-5 | Published: Sony

For me, Rogue Galaxy’s story will always be one of the dangers of hype. I can remember reading about it in gaming magazines in the early aughts; I was still only a teenager, and having grown up on JRPGs I was super excited for another anime-inspired lengthy RPG to sink into. I’d been spoiled of course; the 90’s were a paradise for a JRPG fan, and as a PS1 and handheld kid I’d cut my teeth on Final Fantasy and Pokemon. The PS2 era was no slouch either, with Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Quest VIII, and yet more neverending Final Fantasy releases alongside plenty of other series. So it was no surprise that I was excited for Rogue Galaxy when I saw it splashed across the pages of magazines.

With its bright cel-shaded visuals and gorgeous science-fantasy aesthetic it looked absolutely perfect – but then, it didn’t come out. For years it seemed Rogue Galaxy showed up in these magazines again and again, each time teasing a release only for silence to fall and nothing to happen. Though it saw a 2005 release, it was in Japan only and although it seemed for a while like a worldwide release was sure to follow, once again it remained only in pages and pictures. It wouldn’t be until late 2007, the tail-end of the PS2’s life, that Rogue Galaxy finally released in the UK. The hype I felt was immense: finally I’d get to play this thing! But as we all know, hype is poisonous; avoiding it is the very essence of patient gaming, understanding that overhyping a game leads to nothing but disappointment.

After all that it should come as no surprise when I tell you that Rogue Galaxy in no way lived up to its hype.

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Stop me if this plot sounds familiar at all. Our hero, Jaster Rogue, is a young lad  who lives on a desert planet under the oppressive control of an evil galactic empire who deploy white-armoured stormtroopers to keep planets in line. Poor Jaster, tired of eking a life out amidst the sands, dreams wistfully of a life among the stars when one day a mysterious old man appears, saves his life from a monster attack, and then gives him a magical sword that can cut through basically anything before disappearing. Jaster is quickly found by Steve and Simon (great fantasy names there, can’t wait for Dave and Bob to show up and join the party), a comedy relief duo composed of a tall, camp robot and his squat, boisterous counterpart. The pair mistake Jaster for the legendary hero Desert Claw after he uses his new sword to carve up a giant monster and recruit him onto the Dorgenark, an interstellar ship of pirates and smugglers and with that Jaster finally takes to the stars.

If it all sounds a bit Star Wars, well you’re not far off the mark; just you wait until we get to the annoying reptile-like alien who speaks funny and always seems to piss you off regardless of what he does (regrettably I am not joking about the Jar-Jar analog). Rogue Galaxy definitely took a few cues from the world’s favourite science-fantasy space opera though it is decidedly more anime here. Once those opening beats are done with and the game begins to hit its stride it does move away from Star Wars but it settles instead into pretty generic beats. A weapons corporation stokes the fires of war between two galactic civilizations and amidst the turmoil the pirate captain Dorgengoa gathers onto his ship a crew of the finest hunters he can find. His plan: to find a fabled lost planet and plunder it for all its riches. Unfortunately for him, the aforementioned weapons corporation, Daytron, has had the same idea, and the two begin a race against one another to decipher ancient clues left across the system and chart a path to their goal.

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Rogue Galaxy has a reasonably solid core plot but the execution sours things a little. As is so often the case, it’s not a totally poor showing but myriad little gripes cropped up as I played. The structure is almost episodic in nature, with each chapter having a singular objective but often it felt like the focus was lost as the crew bumble about on another escapade. The game repeatedly threatens to ramp up the intensity and then abruptly stops. This pattern is in place right from the start; our first chapter sets the scene as Jaster is mistaken for Desert Claw and escapes his home planet after saving the town and we get a rousing moment of preparation for exploring the galaxy before the ship suddenly crashes at the next planet over and we have to spend the next few hours dicking about in a jungle trying to find some fruit which is apparently a source of starship fuel. We arrive at a Coruscant-like ecumenopolis but then it turns out we simply need to fill out some travel paperwork and get thrown in prison for a pointless diversion. So much of the game feels afraid to advance the plot in any meaningful way, as if they were too committed to making a 40-hour JRPG that they couldn’t even consider the possibility of some smart editing.

The lack of editing even filters through into the world design. I’ve grumbled about boring JRPG dungeons before on here but Rogue Galaxy is one of the finest examples of bad dungeon building. During your playtime you will spend plenty of your time trudging through dungeons of varying sorts, but they are uniformly boring; despite the occasional creativity of the worlds you visit, it’s disappointing that any instance of plot requires you to trek through kilometres of bland corridors. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that each dungeon could have been easily cut by 2/3s simply by removing the copy-pasted rooms; as you work your way through them it’s easy to realise just how staggeringly lazy the developers were when it came to them. The undisputed nadir of this comes at the Gladius Towers, a twin dungeon where you have to begin in one tower, trudge through endless repeating corridors, crossing back and forth between them for 8 full floors and then once you’ve beaten on the game has the sheer audacity to make you do it all over again starting from the other pissing tower! On top of it, Jaster is so slow. He runs at a snail’s pace, lazily jogging through the game, and the end result is that the game’s runtime stretches out far beyond what content is here.

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While you’re slogging through the dungeons, you’re gonna come across some foes to throw down with. Although battles happen at random in the classic JRPG tradition, Rogue Galaxy uses a less-conventional real-time hack-and-slash system. You control only one character at a time while your other two party members act according to a pretty simplistic AI order, either attacking separate targets, attacking the same target, or not acting at all. These commands can be changed at any time during battle, which is helpful. You can also select specific abilities or items to be used by your party members during fights, so if you desperately need them to do something you’re not left in the lurch. I quite like that party members sometimes suggest which abilities or items they might use in that moment as you’re fighting, giving you a clear set of buttons to trigger that attack (either L1 or L2), while L3 lets you skip them entirely if they’re not needed. While it’s not always a system which gives you the best options at that moment, it strikes a solid balance between no interaction with your party and having to micromanage them.

Each party member has two weapons, one melee and one ranged. Both come with cooldowns to manage, as ranged weapons have limited ammo which takes time to refill during battle, and every action is governed by your AP, a larger bar which is eaten into with every move you make. Once it runs out, all you can do is defend until it refills although it auto-refills if you successfully block during this process. This helps keep the game pace a bit higher than it might otherwise have been, especially as mobs can swarm you so in the most hectic fights you barely ever notice your AP decreasing. While it’s not as clean or fluid a system as say, Kingdom Hearts, it’s still a decent combat system that reminds me perhaps most strongly of a Tales of game: at times kind of janky, but functional all the same.

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A fair portion of your time will be spent gathering random stuff from across the galaxy and then spending time squinting at the Revelation Flow. This is this game’s means of learning abilities, a sort of fusion of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X and the Licence Board from Final Fantasy XII. Each character has a board with slots that represent the passive and active abilities they can learn; to fill in those slots and learn their respective abilities, players need to gather items from the worlds they visit and place them into the correct spaces on the board, which then in turn unlocks more abilities to learn. Each character’s board has a unique set of items that they need, so you end up in a loop of collecting a load of junk, pausing the game to go into the menu and then spend minutes scrutinising the grid to see if anything new is unlockable yet. While it’s a perfectly fine idea, it’s also one which doesn’t make a lot of sense when you stop to think about it – like, how does giving someone a fire extinguisher, a chili pepper, and a cursed mask help them learn a skill? The systems it’s ripping off make sense in context: the spheres are an integral part of Final Fantasy X’s world, and the Licence Board is just straight up capitalism in action as you pay for the right to wear a new hat, but like a lot of Rogue Galaxy, this is just plain odd.

Rogue Galaxy also features a weapon fusion system for you to faff about with, and it’s equally nonsensical and/or whimsical. Pretty much every weapon your characters can wield can be fused with another to create a potentially more powerful new one; there are a couple of rules, such as you can only fuse like with like, so you can’t slap together one of Jaster’s guns with some of Kisala’s shoes (more’s the pity). You also need to level up your armaments before they can be fused at all, which means that you will find yourself having to switch to weaker weapons in order to level them up enough to be fused with your stronger ones, and any process which involves you making yourself less powerful only serves to extend the time you spend grinding. What makes this really weird though is the way in which the fusion happens. You might think it’s some sort of alchemy pot, a la Dragon Quest VIII, but you couldn’t be further from the truth; instead you feed weapons to a sentient magic frog who chews them up and spits out something new. The entire thing is handwaved as to how it happens, beyond magic. I’m not above a bit of whimsy, but Rogue Galaxy crosses the line into sheer absurdist nonsense; it’s almost as if the combination of being science-fantasy and anime seems to have lead to the developers thinking they have licence to do whatever but even within both of those realms there should be some sort of internal logic or consistency and Rogue Galaxy utterly lacks either.

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I’ve seen the soundtrack get some praise in various corners of the internet and I really cannot fathom it. Usually when I talk about soundtracks in these reviews I like to use it as a vehicle to highlight great pieces of music which I think not only complement the game exceptionally well but also can be wonderful to listen to outside of its given context. I tend not to chat about bad soundtracks because in my opinion dissecting good music is much more interesting, but I might make a quick exception here because goddamn this music is tedious.

Rogue Galaxy’s soundtrack was composed by Tomohito Nishiura, and the fact I find it disappointing is upsetting given how good some of Nishiura’s work is; you might know him better nowadays as the composer of the Professor Layton games. To give an idea of why I dislike Rogue Galaxy’s music so much, here is the theme to the first stage on Rosa, The Sandy Town. As far as a piece of town music goes, it’s so-so; there’s no emotion or weight behind the plinky guitar riff and the pace is kind of sluggish. What’s a bigger issue is this: it’s a pretty short piece of music, and it loops over, and over, and over, and over. There’s no variation – just whenever you’re running around Rosa out of combat this riff sounds out incessantly. You might spend an hour at the beginning of the game here, or a few more hours if you’re grinding. Hope you enjoy that one insipid 90-second loops sounding out all that time. It drives you nuts.

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The other world and dungeon themes suffer the same fate. At first listen, tracks like The Jungle of Juraika, The Prison, and Starship Factory might seem ok, but remember this game is long and slow. You can and will spend hours upon hours on these planets and frankly it won’t take long before you simply give in, mute the game, and listen to something else while you play. I mentioned the Gladius Towers dungeon earlier in the review; here’s the music for it. Enjoy it. It loops for hours.

I’d like to at least end this rant by highlighting at least one song I like, and that’s the battle theme, Brave Heart. It’s a bop.

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During my time spent writing this I came across countless comments from folk who remember Rogue Galaxy with a great fondness. I can’t say I share the sentiment. Rogue Galaxy does hit some notes well; the combat is quite good, there’s a lot of imagination, and, frankly, a big space-opera JRPG is always going to be something I like just a little bit no matter what. But it’s hard to ignore the flaws which crop up and harm the experience. Rogue Galaxy might these days be remembered as a cult classic by some, but as far as I’m concerned it makes more sense to consign it to the pile of JRPGs which tried but failed.

3/7 – MEDIOCRE.

A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.

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