Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader Review – The Heavens Are Calling

Yeah, yeah, we know: 41st Millennium, grim future, only war. If somebody doesn’t have an instant recognition of the Warhammer 40K universe at this point, with its “space Gothic” aesthetic and its somewhat over-the-top and hyperviolent style of space opera, they’ve been living off the grid for a long time. Yet, for all that, there’s been a lot of side projects and different perspectives of the 40K setting. One of these was the tabletop RPG Rogue Trader, part of a series that put you in different roles “behind the lines” of the ever-present conflicts of the Imperium. Owlcat Games, having done an excellent job translating the Pathfinder TTRPG into a CRPG (twice!), takes a shot at this very iconic setting and lands a solid hit.

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader puts you in the role of a Rogue Trader. These individuals roam the frontiers of the Imperium and beyond, bearing an Imperial Warrant authorizing their efforts. They’re kind of the “mirror universe” version of Star Trek: seeking new worlds for the glory of the Emperor, facilitating trade among those colonies which haven’t quite been fully developed, and doing a lot of things which would get the average person shot for heresy or treason. As a result, they’re fabulously wealthy, they’re tremendously powerful, they’re virtually untouchable by any legal organ of the Imperium, and they’re ruthless as hell. Your adventure starts as a distant scion of the von Valancius dynasty, a Rogue Trader line operating in the Koronus Expanse, summoned by Lord-Captain Theodora von Valancius to possibly be confirmed as her heir. But an attempted mutiny strands your ship in a remote system. It’s up to you to fix the ship, find replacement officers, keep the morale of the crew from dropping, and properly take your place in the big chair.

You can ride a tank. You can even have a tank in your trophy room. You cannot deploy the tank.

Visually speaking, Rogue Trader nails the 40K aesthetic perfectly. From the general appearance right down to the fine details, Owlcat’s artists have brought the look and feel of the wargame (and its myriad supplements) to life. Character models are nicely done, almost suggesting miniatures brought to life. The various pieces of gear you throw on to the character sheet have their own accurate representations, from the generic autopistols and flak vests to the exotic named weapons and armor with their own distinctive shapes and markings. Visual effects are excellent across the board. You can expect a lot of gory dismemberment, burning flesh, and enemies vaporizing in a cloud of plasma alongside glowing candles and glorious starscapes.

The user interface keeps to the aesthetic without letting it get in the way. Open world traversal is easily handled and smoothly animated, while the tactical RPG combat sections lay out movement, area of effect zones, and sightlines very clearly. My only complaint there is when the movement squares seem to blend in to certain environments, a minor quibble since it doesn’t come up often. Cutscenes are handled entirely “in-game” and are generally framed well. They may not be as dynamic as a prerendered CG clip, but they keep the player immersed. Even the “storybook” vignettes where you have to make choices in response to certain events stick to the 40K aesthetic without compromising either the storytelling or visual appeal.

“Mummy, will you tell me another story about the Rogue Trader?”
“Not till you’ve finished your corpse starch pudding!”

The audio on Rogue Trader is equally top notch. You’ll hear a lot of grunts, groans, growls, and piteous (or maddened) shrieks from the various creatures and human NPCs which hints at your relative level of physical (and sometimes metaphysical) danger. There’s plenty of “pew-pew” with weapons of every size, from the stubbiest of stub revolvers to the massive main guns of your voidship. Other environmental audio cues are more subdued, but still help enhance and individualize the zones you traverse. Your retinue companions each have their own distinctive voices, and each of them is a delight to listen to, even if they’re proving just how terribly screwed up they are. The soundtrack is grim and grand, as you would expect, though it feels a little thin compared to other 40K titles like Darktide. About the only problems I really experienced were a couple of maps where voice lines from companion barks seemed unusually muted going through interior spaces. Additionally, certain cutscenes seem to have audio which cuts off or doesn’t match the subtitles that are playing. Not fatal, but slightly off.

Gameplay isn’t just the meat and potatoes of Rogue Trader. It’s the meat, the potatoes, the aperitif, the soup course, the cheese course, the vegetable dishes, the wine pairings, the dessert course, and the post-meal cognac and cigars. There’s just a mind-boggling amount of stuff happening. At it’s core, Rogue Trader is a CRPG in the classic tradition: isometric perspective, a large roster of companion characters to build a party with, character progression, loads of gear items to build up your crew into an unstoppable force of badassery, and an expansive character creator. Combat is handled in a tactical RPG fashion, with characters and enemies moving over a grid, getting behind various pieces of cover, or moving into position to affect a large area with cone weapons like flamers and provide allies with bonuses.

“Heresy grows from idleness. As you can see, we’ve been very busy.”

The systems draw pretty heavily from the tabletop RPG as far as stats go, though some of the calculations they make seem a little more arcane than the last time I cracked open the Rogue Trader book. Owlcat even managed to squeeze in some Mass Effect-style space exploration, having you chart new warp routes between the stars of the Koronus Expanse and pick fights with any hostile fleets that might have showed up. Space combat uses a similar turn-based grid system, though it’s got some tweaks which make it sufficiently different enough to require your attention. In some 40 hours of play, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s going on and how far you can go. Yet it’s grabbed my attention by the throat and pulled me along with hardly any resistance. The only other game which managed that feat this year was Baldur’s Gate 3.

For all that, Rogue Trader is not without problems. The biggest one I ran into involves cover and how damage is calculated. Certain battle encounters don’t seem to be providing the protection they’re indicating, particularly from what appear to be area-of-effect attacks which should splash against the opposite side and not damage a target behind it. An early encounter also seemed to show similar problems with a direct attack going straight through a stretch of “full” cover despite a character being right behind it. There’s the always dreaded and obnoxious “missing a certain shot” moment (not as bad as XCOM, but still more often than it really has a right to be) along with its annoying little brother, the “dumb luck you got hit” moments on a low or zero chance within a cone. Aside from that, players who aren’t familiar with the setting (and some players who are) might get a little overwhelmed by the amount of information getting thrown at them, and at the options for building and refining characters. Some might argue that there’s too much going on, between space exploration, learning how skill checks are handled, the various powers and abilities and the way they’re laid out for character advancement. It’s not what you’d call nice and neat. There’s also the matter of your inability to make second attempts at certain skill checks. Basically, if you miss it, you’ve blown it, and you have no hope of trying again short of scum saving. Which, being fair, is kind of encouraged.

Clearly, the phrase “noblesse oblige” needs to be introduced into the Koronus Expanse.

Under certain circumstances, the performance on Rogue Trader seems to slip a little bit. Saving and loading seems to take increasingly longer as time goes on, and I believe a save file corrupted on me shortly after a big boss fight. When it runs well, it runs really well. But the growing save file times, as well as slowdowns when there’s a large number of enemies on the screen, are pain points which will probably be addressed as time goes on.

All in all, Owlcat Games has delivered a staggeringly good CRPG in Rogue Trader. If for some reason Baldur’s Gate 3 didn’t grab you, or you’re taking a break from it, you’ll find all the high adventure and deep storytelling you could ask for. Grab your laspistol, praise the Emperor, and chart your new destiny.

Axel reviewed Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader on PC with a review code.

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