Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader Review – The Emperor of CRPGs?

9/10

Rogue Trader is a near-perfect encapsulation of 40k. Its dark-but-pulpy story puts you in the position to make tough choices with no right answers, its combat is a healthy mix of TTRPG and game balance, and the amount of content on display is jaw-dropping. The Emperor has blessed Owlcat Games.

Collectively, I’ve devoted a lot of time to Warhammer 40k. Whether it be the original wargame, the Black Library collection of books, the various video games over the years, or my true obsession: the RPGs like Dark Heresy and Imperium Maledictum, Warhammer 40k remains one of my favorite universes in fiction even years after the edge has worn off. But, it has struggled to capture me the same way lately. The wargame is too expensive and time-intensive to still grab me, the fiction has stagnated for years, and the recent Cubicle 7 RPGs just don’t have enough content and support to live up to the older Fantasy Flight games yet. Boltgun earlier this year surprised me, but a story-light DOOM clone doesn’t exactly scratch the itch for meaningful stories in the grim darkness of the 41st millennia. 

In comes Warhammer 40k: Rogue Trader, 40k’s first CRPG and one of its best products in years. By virtue of being a CRPG, Rogue Trader already had a leg up, allowing it to borrow mechanics from the tabletop RPGs and the many RTS video games that they’ve released over the years, as well as take whatever it needs from the extensive (and I mean extensive) lore of 40k to craft a unique, compelling narrative. Given how naturally CRPGs synergize with what 40k is, then, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised to report just how good Rogue Trader is, but even within that, I’m still blown away.

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As with any good CRPG, the focus of Rogue Trader is really on its story. And stories in 40k can be tough to take seriously, especially for the 80+ hours that Rogue Trader takes to complete. The universe is dark and horrifically dystopian to the point of literal parody. And, to make matters worse, there aren’t exactly good guys to cheer for in the fiction. Whether you work for the fascist, genocidal, xenophobic Imperium of Man (which, as a Rogue Trader, you most likely will) or decide to fall to the heretical temptation of Chaos, you will not only find yourself in an oppressively – almost excessively – bleak universe, but you also must act as some kind of villain within that universe. Goodness be damned, this is 40k.

And that would make for tricky storytelling… If Owlcat Games didn’t lean into it. But they do, and it results in a deliciously satisfying experience that is both authentic to 40k, and extremely fun and interesting to play. You see, you play as a Rogue Trader – a mix of an admiral, a ship captain, a dynastic elite, and a monarch – who has recently taken over a country-sized starship after the untimely demise of your predecessor. And the thing about Rogue Traders is that, unlike the more staunchly militant Space Marines that the franchise often fixates on, they operate on the fringes of loyalty to the God Emperor and his spawn, allowing you a greater freedom than basically any other character in the fiction to choose your path.

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While individual choices do have many branching paths, much of what you do will fall into one of three mindsets: Dogmatic, where you devoutly worship the Emperor and fight at cleansing the galaxy in his name; Heretical, where you spurn his grace and instead seek power and influence from the horrors of Chaos and the Warp; and Iconoclast, where you choose to emphasize the protection of humanity and the preservation of life. 

The first two fit right in with 40k’s bleak morality – working for authoritarian fascist regimes and destructive, conquering forces of nature isn’t exactly “good guy” behavior – but the third isn’t as much of a departure as it might seem – something you will quickly realize when the Iconoclast figurehead wants to buckle down on your oppressed serfs in the lower decks, for instance, in order to prevent riot No matter what choices you make, characters will oppose you, and conflicts will spring up. Planets will be destroyed, innocent citizens will be slaughtered, and your heavy boot will press down on the necks of those underneath you. 

Even when there are “less bad” choices, there are no “good” choices, and those “less bad” choices often have more devastating effects in the long run. This isn’t a universe for heroes, at least not of that kind. 

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And that makes for a rich, fun, and surprisingly complex story, full of twists and turns, enemies and allies, and, overall, a grim darkness that pulsates with pulpy, villainous energy. All written out in long, delicious prose and dialogue that really sells the setting and the gravity of your story, straddling the line between melodrama and authenticity that 40k is made for.

And we haven’t even touched on the gameplay yet. In only so many words: I can say for sure that the gameplay in Rogue Trader is exactly what fans of the tabletop RPGs will want. It is intensely combat focused – fitting for the universe, and fitting for a game where rich dialog already accounts for so much – and takes heavy inspiration from several 40k RPGs in the past. The bulk of the rules borrows from the crunchy-but-intuitive Wrath and Glory and Imperium Maledictum systems, but there is still some notable influence from the older Dark Heresy and – yes – Rogue Trader RPGs. Those, combined with several innovations only possible in a digital format, create a dynamic, versatile, and incredibly tactical game that requires focus, forethought, and an overwhelming commitment to violence.

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Most combat scenarios in Rogue Trader pit you against enemies larger in number and stature than yourself – you will regularly be outnumbered on a scale of 3:1 or worse, sometimes spearheaded by enemies 3 times tougher than you. And so, it is only through clever use of the myriad weapons, abilities, archetypes, and talents that you will be able to come out ahead against xeno and heretic alike.

This does run up against one of my criticisms of the game – aside from a general bugginess that is hard to ignore – and that is that it isn’t exactly beginner friendly. I am a veteran of 40k and its many RPGs, and even I struggled at first to grapple with the giant list of talents that the game offers on level-up, even at the very start, as well as its dozens of intersecting glossary terms that aren’t always the most intuitively worded. Compared to Baldur’s Gate 3 – and forgive me for that – Rogue Trader has a bit of content overload; it makes for incredibly dynamic characters and tactics, but it will take some time for most players to get used to its gargantuan amount of content.

That said, once you get it, you really get it. The combat flows well once you’ve got your tactics and maneuvers down, and you’ll be able to quickly adjust to ever-more-difficult encounters using the many tricks up your sleeve. And, if it ever seems like you are steamrolling through enemies too easily, very customizable difficulty settings means that you can tailor the challenge to what you need (and it can get really hard).

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I haven’t even touched on the other gameplay systems: the simplified inventory that puts other CRPGs (yes, even that one) to shame. The well-done (if not always well-balanced) space combat. The streamlining of always using your most proficient character for skill checks. The in-depth character creation that you can use whenever to fill out your party. The intuitive economy that does away with currency in favor of an easier, more abstract mechanic. All of it. I could ramble on for hours and hours about everything that Rogue Trader does right. 

Even if there are some caveats to be found that keep it from being a perfect experience,  it is still the best classic-formula CRPG I’ve played in years, the best 40k story I’ve experienced in years, and – at over 100 hours on a pretty completionist run – the most content I’ve had to chew through in years. Warhammer 40k: Rogue Trader gets a 9/10 from us; the Emperor Protects the CRPG renaissance.


This review is a transcript from our video review on YouTube.


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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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