We get a lot of Warhammer video games. 40k ones especially. Mostly, these tend to be some variation on humans fighting monsters as it’s the obvious angle for an adaptation of a tabletop war game where space marines are by far the most popular faction. For my money though, the far more interesting aspect of humanity’s eternal war across the stars is found in the rotting, totalitarian oligarchy that is the Imperium of Man itself.
For the vast majority of Imperial citizens, daily life is to be but an ant in a hive the size of Everest. The propaganda machine will constantly tell you to live up to the ideals of glorious war heroes, but the reality is that your best hope is to simply work the same menial and back-breaking job that your parents did, and that their parents did before them, until you die at your post and are replaced by your children.
To my utter delight, Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is a CRPG that revels in the Imperial rot, and features robust turn-based tactical combat to boot.
In 40k lore, rogue traders are a combination of royal, explorer, and robber baron, sanctioned by the state to open new frontiers and expand the empire. Their dynasties wield tremendous influence and awe wherever they tread, and their role and status affords them a uniquely large degree of freedom from the ideological gaze of the Imperium itself (and if you don’t understand any of what I’m talking about here, in-game text and dialogue constantly highlights words and terms that give their in-universe explanation).
As the newly minted head of the von Valancius dynasty following a violent act of internal betrayal, it is up to you how you command your voidship and lead your clan across the galaxy. Do you want to be a paragon of the Imperial faith? Have at it. Do you want to walk the path of the heretic and embrace the whispers from the warp? Go nuts. Do you want to do what I’ve had an absolute ball doing, and play as a completely unhinged silver-tongued aristocrat who won’t speak to anybody before their seneschal announces them? I highly recommend it!
Although Rogue Trader doesn’t have nearly the budget nor level of systemic complexity of something like Baldur’s Gate 3, it more than makes up for it with sharp writing, constantly delightful roleplaying opportunities, and cleverly creative ways of doing cool things within its scope and scale. Environments are not especially large, and while models and details within them are reused constantly, they do tend to be presented with flavour text that’s updated to more appropriately reflect whatever scene they’re used in.
In scenes where particularly complex visual concepts need to be showcased, the game actually switches out from the 3D world entirely and over to short ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’-type book sequences with absolutely beautiful hand-drawn artwork. Rogue Trader is a game that encourages you to use your imagination to flesh out the world beyond what is given to you, which works perfectly well for a genre where your imagination is supposed to run wild anyway.
And that other thing the Warhammer 40,000 universe is widely known for – absolutely horrific violence – is offered up in heaps, too.
While your Trader and their retinue are out exploring on foot, they will constantly run afoul of cultists, creatures, uprising mobs and all manner of other angry beings that will need to be put firmly and brutally down.
Fights play out on a grid system where individual combatants take turns doing a limited series of actions in an order determined at the start of the encounter. During Rogue Trader’s opening hours, these feel quite simple, but they very quickly open up to a deeply satisfying level of complexity as your band of companions expands and levels up, unlocking new abilities and equipment options as they do.
Those who really get into number crunching and min-maxing builds will find an enormous amount to chew on here, while personally I’ve been enjoying just making choices that feel fluffy and fun. I’m sure it’s probably not the most effective decision to turn the Battle Sister companion into someone who just wants to charge forward lighting enemies on fire instead of laying down Bolter fire from cover, especially given how lastingly dangerous taking any sort of damage in return is, but damn if it isn’t wickedly entertaining every time.
As enjoyable as most fights are though, the sheer frequency at which they occur and the length they can take has felt like a drag at times – even while playing a character who is exceptionally good at talking their way out of situations, which has stopped several encounters before they even began. (I’m someone who always finds combat to be the absolute least engaging part of any RPG experience, even when I truly enjoy their combat systems, so take this as you will).
What’s been much more frustrating has been some of the technical issues – the number of times important text gets cut off by the user interface due to it scaling incorrectly, the often poor or seemingly non-existent ways that the game explains some of its systems, and the incredibly awkward way that controller support has been implemented, despite being designed as a multiplatform game.
Rogue Trader is broadly playable enough with a controller, but the experience of doing so is a constantly awkward and irritating one. There is an alternate interface for controller inputs, but there are just so many instances where its usability falls short.
I tested Rogue Trader on a PC, but because I often prefer the ergonomics of a controller, for entirely too many hours I’d assumed that you simply couldn’t interact with the environment during combat because there was no clean way to ‘mouse over’ a detected trap in the heat of battle. It turns out you absolutely can, of course, and very easily so with a mouse. I realised this accidentally, after I’d already slogged through too many fights where my band of largely short-range and melee-oriented characters had endured painfully long exchanges of gunfire, all because a lethal steam valve or mined floor was between us. The fact that you can’t hop back and forth between controller and mouse seamlessly on the fly makes the situation worse.
There are mechanics that I still don’t really understand even after dozens of hours, others that have yet to be explained at all, and environmental puzzles are frequently so obtuse that I pretty much entirely stopped bothering with them after the first few. Rogue Trader is a game both vast and dense, and it’s disappointing that the in-game encyclopaedia is so anaemic on these fronts when its universe and lore entries are so good.
Broken text, patchy tutorials, and messy controls feel like they should be complete deal-breakers in an RPG. However, I’m still so deeply enamoured with what Rogue Trader offers that these issues are ultimately ones I can put aside.
This is the Warhammer 40,000 experience that I’ve wanted from a video game for two decades. A game that gleefully wallows in the medieval futurism of its setting. A game that isn’t about winning wars on the battlefield, but focuses on all of the grim-dark insanity that goes on behind it all.
4 stars: ★★★★
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S
Developer: Owlcat Games
Publisher: Owlcat Games
Release Date: 7 December 2023
A PC copy of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a 5-point scale.