Produced by Level-5 as their new IP following on from the wonderful ‘Dark Chronicle’ (known as ‘Dark Cloud 2’ in America), and their last game for the aging PlayStation 2 hardware before making the switch to the next console generation, Rogue Galaxy is a strange beast that showcases the very best and at times the worst of Level-5’s unique style.
After the release of ‘Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King’, Level-5 had gone from a third-tier development studio to one of the better known names in the genre. They’d released some of the best games on a console crowded with RPGs, and intended to capitalise on this by stepping away from their experience with Dragon Quest to produce their own flagship IP. Rogue Galaxy was bred to be a contender with the likes of ‘Final Fantasy’, and unfortunately history has shown that this wasn’t the case. It is however a good swansong for the PS2.
Graphically, Rogue Galaxy employs a cell-shaded technique over 3D models that invokes an animated feel to the visual presentation and quickly became the trademark look for Level-5 on PS2 following their success with ‘Dark Cloud’. Character designs feature less cartoony proportions for playable characters than seen in the past however, and are spread across a number of rich and interesting body types. NPCs verge on the comical and show a mixture of animal, robot and human shapes that keeps crowded scenes interesting. Split across a number of different planets, each has a strong visual identity (ranging from desert, forest and industrial themes to name a few) however the sheer size of these locations show some of the games shortcomings. Environments look good but use a limited asset pool that is stretched to breaking point and features too much repetition over longer sessions, with some definite cases of copy/paste in terms of dungeon layout. Menus are very well structured, responsive and use flashing text to better draw attention to important facts. This is especially helpful when combined with the game’s skill-progression system. Ultimately this title’s visual style will appeal to anyone who enjoys the idea of a hammer-wielding muscle-man with a dog head on board an actual wooden pirate ship travelling through space. If that kind of crazy design choice intrigues you, you’ll feel right at home with Rogue Galaxy.
The game’s soundtrack was composed, arranged and produced by Tomohito Nishiura, who has always worked as Level-5’s primary musician and who displays a vivid mix of themes throughout the games run, neatly separating world with their soundtracks. Sound design as a whole is very strong in fact, with sound effects quickly feeding you a variety of information mid-battle, such as when using ranged weapons; which enables you to easily tell if you’ve hit an enemy off-screen, missed, run out of ammo, etc, with just the player having pressed square. There’s a lot of voice acting present in the game, and this has been directed to a very high standard, though the campy nature of the story and presence of names such as ‘Steve’ next to massive science fiction elements does sometimes undercut more intense moments with a comedy tone.
Opening on a desert world filled with the presence of a powerful military from a galaxy-spanning empire, we follow a young man by the name of Jaster Rogue, who lives with his adoptive parent and works an agricultural job on the struggling world of Rosa. He longs for adventure and is a fairly clichéd Luke Skywalker type at the outset of the game. A chance encounter with a famous bounty hunter named Desert Claw sees him help in fending off a beast that’s attacking the town and in the confusion that follows being mistaken for Desert Claw himself by a group of space pirates seeking to recruit him. Seeing a way off world and a path to a better life, Jaster quickly upkeeps this ruse and sets off to see the galaxy. What follows is a series of world-to-world events as you visit new locations and meet new allies, with the story slowly building toward a stronger central narrative that cumulates in a race for the galaxy. There’s a fair amount of tropes present in the games story, especially for those who enjoy the Sci-Fi genre or who have played earlier titles such as ‘Phantasy Star’ or ‘Star Ocean’, which both broke ground on RPGs in this setting, but the story is competently written and likable enough that you want to keep progressing forward. It can at times be set aside entirely while longer dungeons and exploration segments play out over hours however, which does produce some pacing issues, and without going into spoilers the game does end on a note that implies it was originally intended to leave with a cliffhanger and continue into a sequel before a decision was made to change this late into development.
Gameplay mixes heavy dungeon exploration with an active, party based combat system that employs random encounters. Battles are the focus here, with exploration itself featuring a series of platforming and puzzle solving elements (there’s a dedicated jump button and you can grab ledges), but little to find outside of chests and few objects that can be interacted with in the environment. The devs obviously appreciated the size of the environments which they were creating, because the game features save point to save point teleportation from as early as inside the first town. A few of the ranged weapons do feature secondary functions to aid in unlocking new areas in a ‘Legend of Zelda’ style system, but these are strictly dictated as to when and how they can be used by ? icons that also apply to keycards for locked doors and other key items. Items themselves are a massive part of the game, with character’s skill progression linked to individual boards that items you have collected are slotted into the unlock new talents of both a passive and active nature. Weapons (of which characters equip 2, a close and ranged weapon) also level and increase stats through use, with two maxed out weapons capable of being combined using a clever in-menu system (a character inhabits your inventory) to produce a new, stronger variant. Armour is entirely cosmetic in Rogue Galaxy, with most words featuring a local garb you can equip to update and fit in to the environment if you choose. You always travel with a party of 3; Jasper and two allies that are initially assigned to you entirely by the whims of the plot, making keeping your whole character pool armed and up to date a necessity. When battles occur the area you are in will quickly become a battleground, with chests, save points and NPCs vanishing to make way for the monsters and some scenery that monsters can be based into or thrown for extra damage. Your companions act independently, but pressing triangle does allow you to freeze the battle and issue direct commands to each using a traditional JRPG menu system, or with choices flashing up on the bottom of the screen for limited times to allow you to command them mid-flow in a fight. In these cases hitting the L1 or L2 button will select from one of two actions, or ignoring them will cause them to continue fighting according to the behaviour you’ve set for them. As the player you can directly control only one character at a time, but the game does let you choose which of the 3 this is. You can attack with your close combat weapon with the X button, fire your ranged with square and jump with circle (a valid tactic as some enemies require hitting at height or bounced on to reveal weak spots) while the triangle is still reserved for pausing and issuing orders. Attacking is halted when you run out of ammo (ranged only, requiring you to use another tactic while a counter recharges) or action points. You’re vulnerable in this state, which ticks back up to a full charge before you can act again, but successfully blocking an enemy attack instantly gives you a full charge. The combat in Rogue Galaxy is fun, tactical and frequent, and the game has a nasty habit of keeping healers out of your party for long periods so you will need to stock up on items to see you through – putting more of an emphasis on your inventory. A number of side quests and sub games do exist, with the most deep being an insect catching, breeding and battling simulator that is quite deep and satisfying but is a major time sink away from the main quest-line of the game.
Overall, Rogue Galaxy is a fun romp that is surprisingly next-gen for a PlayStation 2 game. Locations are massive and whilst hampered by limited assets (possibly because they were butting up against the confines of what the format would allow) they do give the distinct impression of whole seamless worlds with no loading screens. What the story lacks in drive and emotional hammering it more than makes up for in charm factor and the whole thing has a quality to it that’s impossible to deny. Whilst it never became the start of its own killer franchise, Rogue Galaxy deserved a sequel, and perhaps one day it will get one. We can only imagine how massive and immersive this would feel a few hardware generations down the line. As it stands, the HD re-release on PlayStation Network is easily available and at a bargain price, and the original PS2 release is surprisingly easy to find online. We recommend that you purchase it for your collection.