Amid all the hype and excitement for Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s easy to forget all the other worthwhile computer role-playing games. Case in point, Owlcat Games’ Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, a turn-based role-playing take on Games Workshop’s despondent sci-fi universe. Considering the up-and-down quality of Warhammer titles – even recently, like with Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin – Rogue Trader offered some hope.
Considering Owlcat’s Pathfinder titles, there was anticipation for the first turn-based CRPG in the 40K universe. Even with more polish required and other minor issues, Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader does justice to the setting while offering a complex role-playing experience with compelling combat and story-telling.
"It’s all pretty overwhelming, especially if you’ve never played an RPG from Owlcat. While it’s explained quite well, you still need to spend some time with a build and scope out the different options."
The concept of a Rogue Trader in the 40K universe is of an individual entrusted by The Imperium of Man to venture into uncharted territory, discovering new worlds and establishing trade. They have a Voidship with thousands of crew members, amass untold wealth and hold sway over entire star systems, commanding awe wherever they go. Before you even jump in, a character creation suite is available.
You could opt for pre-generated characters to jump in immediately or create your own, customizing tattoos, augmentations, hairstyles, voices, portraits and more. There are also options for a Home World, which determine starting features and offer unique modifiers to your characteristics, on top of unlocking other unique features as you progress.
You also have origins, Triumphs and Darkest Hours, and that’s before selecting your starting class (known as an Archetype). It’s all pretty overwhelming, especially if you’ve never played an RPG from Owlcat. While it’s explained quite well, you still need to spend some time with a build and scope out the different options.
When the game starts, you’re one of the heirs to the von Valancius dynasty, with Theodora von Valancius Massimo af Scarus as the current Rogue Trader and venturing to the Kronus Expanse. However, mayhem strikes the Voidship during Warp travel, with various Heretics slaying crew members and attempting to gain control. Through some twists, you assume the role of Lord Captain and Rogue Trader for the ship, guiding it through the expanse while trying to cement your legacy. It’s easier said than done, especially given the damage to the ship and trying to fill various key posts.
"Convictions serve as the de facto Alignment system. Stay true to the Imperial way of doing things as Imperialis, embrace the heretical ways with Hereticus or be merciful with Benevolentia."
While Rogue Trader isn’t going to awe you with its graphical fidelity, the attention to detail is still unmistakably Warhammer, from the aesthetic to the character portraits. I also enjoyed the different camera angles during cutscenes, whether it’s sweeping views of locations or close-ups of scenes, which added to the immersion.
By comparison, the soundtrack is top-notch, alternating between dark, foreboding sounds and dramatic surging during key battles. It was odd to hear voice acting in some places and not in others, but given the sheer amount of text, it’s understandable. As such, whatever voice work is present sounds good, bringing each character to life in a believable fashion.
Thankfully, you’re not doing it alone. Initially, Abelard Werserian, Seneschal to Theodora, is on your side and a strong Warrior that can frontline and soak up damage. It’s not long before Idira Tlass, a somewhat irreverent but determined Psyker, and Argenta, a solemn member of Adepta Sororitas, join the crew. Their personalities play off each other well, whether it’s Abelard’s stringent adherence to order and the Imperium’s will – sometimes at the cost of atrocities – or Idira’s teasing enigmatic words that make you wonder how much further the Warp needs to push.
Others join your cause and add their own opinions to different matters and revelations while reacting to your actions. Convictions serve as the de facto Alignment system. Stay true to the Imperial way of doing things as Imperialis, embrace the heretical ways with Hereticus or be merciful with Benevolentia. Depending on your choices, more dialogue options and events open up. Of course, you also have options for Logic, Coercion and more during conversations, gaining experience to select new Abilities, passives or additional modifiers to characteristics.
"As I began to understand each character’s Archetype, fill out different roles and unlock more options, it started to come together in great ways."
The build variety is pretty extensive here, and even when opting for a Warrior to complement Abelard, I opted for a style that was about Reckless Strikes and crossing great distances with Charge while offering more Action and Movement Points to my allies. This is before even delving into the Tier 2 and Tier 3 Archetypes, which offer even more options as you get further along.
Unlike the Pathfinder games, which started as real-time-with-pause in Kingmaker before adding turn-based post-launch (Wrath of the Righteous launched with both), Rogue Trader is turn-based only. It also implements a cover system with half-cover and full-cover providing different defensive options. Ranged combatants need to factor in a weapon’s effective range since they have damage fall off and percentage to hit, and melee fighters need to account for dodging and parrying, which can negate your strikes entirely despite their guaranteed hit properties.
Admittedly, combat felt awkward as the XCOM fan in me attempted to play around cover. However, as I began to understand each character’s Archetype, fill out different roles and unlock more options, it started to come together in great ways. Argenta flourished in settings with multiple enemies, unleashing a hail of bullets and fire, while Abelard tanked things with nary a scratch.
Momentum plays a part as well since you can unleash powerful abilities once during battle, like Daring Breach to restore all AP and MP while having unlimited melee attacks for that turn. However, if you’re down but not quite out, and unable to generate momentum, you can opt for the Desperate Measures version of the ultimate with severe drawbacks. Whatever it takes to get back into the fight.
"While the details in environments are good their layouts can sometimes feel rudimentary, which is perhaps a consequence of trying to design different points to take cover."
Compound this with other mechanics like wounds and injuries, which accumulate on taking damage or getting knocked out and temporarily reduce your characteristics until you return to the Voidship. It can be annoying at first, especially when it isn’t possible to immediately go back, but think of this like a Long Rest in Baldur’s Gate 3.
Upon returning to your ship, you deal with different occurrences and events, from workers having a strike in Port 4 to the human souls of Servitors suddenly waking up in abject terror. There’s also friendly fire, and sometimes you have to weigh the pros and cons of chaining lightning to eliminate four enemies while your Warrior takes a bit of damage because they’re too close.
Another great feature of Rogue Trader, as seen in the Pathfinder games, is the extensive gameplay options. There are difficulty settings, but you can customize each option, from incoming damage and the damage required to receive injuries to dodge modifiers for enemies, separately. You can make it overwhelmingly punishing or much less so, even changing these options in the middle of gameplay. It’s also great to have sliders for adjusting animation speeds for your party and enemies, thus increasing the pace of battles.
Unfortunately, the experience isn’t without its faults. While the details in environments are good their layouts can sometimes feel rudimentary, which is perhaps a consequence of trying to design different points to take cover. Owlcat works around this to the best of its ability, resulting in some well-designed encounters. However, some aren’t quite up to snuff, like that one ambush where most enemies were on a rooftop while my party were on some stairs. Due to the sheer awkwardness of the layout, they had to make their way down and through a narrow alley, getting picked off easily but somehow landing some inexplicably cracked shots.
"While it can sometimes be challenging to wrap your head around, Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader still an enjoyable role-playing game and a much-needed win for the IP."
Another issue is the overall polish. While performance is solid throughout, save for a few dips in certain places, there is a fair bit of jank, and some annoying bugs can crop up. Sometimes, characters shoot into their cover inexplicably and waste a turn. Other times, abilities like Charge are executed but don’t damage an enemy, placing my character right next to them. Party AI can also be inexplicably dumb at times, triggering traps and taking damage en route to disabling them, making the automatic pause that occurs when they pop up completely useless.
There’s also the trading aspect. Along with picking up loot, you’ll also acquire items to send to your cargo. These can then be traded to different factions to level up their reputation and open up more options – a necessity given the pittance available at the start. Unfortunately, even when designating the dozens of weapons and armor discovered as cargo and trading them, the reputation gains don’t feel like they’re there sometimes.
Of course, you also have to manage resources mined from planets to develop colonies, and can even indulge in space battles with different characters assigned to unique duties as officers, with the Voidship having its own set of upgrades and quirks. It’s a lot to manage, though it’s all doled out at a fairly even pace. On a side note: The controls, UI and movement on Xbox Series X/S feel good, though there could be some improvements, like more camera movement options to get a better view of objects and encounters in front of you. Navigating the UI can take some getting used but feels intuitive enough over time.
Despite the jank, sometimes overwhelming complexity, and bugs, Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is a fun experience that taps into a unique power fantasy while presenting compelling combat, interesting characters and a well-paced story. While it can sometimes be challenging to wrap your head around, it’s still an enjoyable role-playing game and a much-needed win for the IP.
This game was reviewed on Xbox Series X.
Aesthetic is faithful to the franchise, with plenty of detail to pick out and a clean presentation. Awesome soundtrack that deftly captures the dark tones of the IP. Solid combat with robust cover mechanics and character-building. An extensive amount of enjoyable content, from random events to character quests, with interesting consequences to different decisions.
More polish is needed, both to clean up jank when exploring around and fix bugs, like companions walking into traps and certain Skills not working as intended. Environment layouts can feel rote at times, with some encounters feeling awkward. Reputation gains when trading don't feel substantial enough.