Developer: Level 5/SCEJ
Submitted by: Retro Gamer
Well-versed in making action RPGs after creating the two Dark Cloud instalments, the major challenges that faced Level-5 with the development of Rogue Galaxy were creating the vast world and introducing a party-based combat system. The scale of the setting is intimidating compared to the Dark Cloud titles, taking place across multiple planets in sometimes massive locales – despite the technical superiority of its previous games, such as Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy’s mechanics were more demanding, and the choice to develop a sci-fi universe was a first for Level-5.
The Fukuoka-based studio was wary of the clichéd, hard sci-fi settings with dull colours, present in many modern videogames, so it decided to present Rogue Galaxy in the image of Level-5’s past titles, combining science fiction with fantasy to create something that felt new to players while being instantly recognisable to the developer’s cult fanbase. Level-5’s Akihiro Hino described some elements of Rogue Galaxy as a ‘parody’ of sci-fi in an interview, deliberately echoing blockbuster films in its tone, with main character Jaster meant to be an everyman, Luke Skywalker-type hero.
The RPG also reflects Hino’s desire to make ‘amusement park’-like design – while contemporaries were becoming streamlined and simplified, Rogue Galaxy’s in-depth character management was deliberately complex, the idea being that players should have many choices to explore within the mechanics of an RPG like this.
These days, when everyone heralds Skyrim and derides Final Fantasy, it seems that the Japanese style of RPG has somewhat fallen off of its creative perch. Rogue Galaxy, released here six years ago, doesn’t tell that story, merging real-time action combat with the extensive customisation and stunning worlds that Level-5 became notable for with the Dark Cloud series. This is a progressive action RPG that still feels so impressive today. The mechanics are up to date, the combat is aggressively tactical and the pastiche of different sci-fi influences is passionately presented to the player. As the sub-genre of JRPGs stands still, this ranks as one of the greats, and its ludicrously late release in the PS2’s lifecycle led to it being undeservedly overshadowed.
Clearly inspired in some degree by Skies Of Arcadia (the obvious comparison point is the Dorgenark, your vessel for travelling the galaxy, which is essentially an Arcadia-esque spaceboat) the look of Rogue Galaxy marries a whole range of visual references together, while also having lots in common with Level-5’s own Dark Chronicle. In many ways it feels like the summary of all Japanese RPGs released so far, a progressive action game while also being geographically ambitious.
Rogue Galaxy has you operating four characters at one time, and you can pause the action to dish out commands to each of them in a similar way to Final Fantasy XII, meaning that each battle has to be tackled as an overall tactical operation. Each hero is armed with their own character abilities, much like the character-specific attacks in Chrono Trigger, and using the strengths of the party in tandem is key to conquering even the lowlier random encounters.
In a neat touch that goes against the curve of traditional JRPGs, the combat and exploration work seamlessly together during these fights, another demonstration of Level-5’s forward-thinking philosophies within Rogue Galaxy. Behind the scenes, too, you can customise weapons through the malleable Fusion system to give you an edge; there’s so much to consider beyond the basic encounters and dungeon crawling.
But the magic of it comes in the pace and real-time style of the combat – as responsive as most hack-and-slash games, Rogue Galaxy is actually great fun to play, and functions beautifully as an action experience as players hunt out the weak spots of foes and choose the best ways to use the surrounding environments against them. The elements by themselves are familiar, but the way they all work together blends different genres in sound fashion.
The story’s a pretty straightforward Star Wars analogue with heavy anime influences, but the worlds themselves are extraordinary, filled with the kind of creature designs that offer players a cohesive sci-fi universe. It’s this approach to world-building we wish we could see more of modern videogames – but as a one-off, Rogue Galaxy stands out when it comes to the composition of its fictional backdrop on top of everything else.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Rogue Galaxy is a time-eating JRPG that holds up thanks to its future-proofed design ideas, while the cel-shaded visuals reiterate the importance of talented artists over powerful hardware. Turn-based RPGs are considered dinosaurs by today’s standards; Level-5 strived to create something that could stand up to real-time Western RPGs and succeeded admirably, offering a combat system that gives players the same level of party micromanagement that makes the best of those games so engrossing.
At the same time, however, it feels like a natural successor to the equally excellent Dark Chronicle, while also exploring an entirely new direction in the details of its design – Level-5 therefore ended up with a riskily multi-faceted RPG that had the capacity to please a wide range of players, yet poor timing meant that it only found a fraction of its potential audience. If you can find it, it’s well worth picking up today to see what you missed.