Rogue Summoner Review: Pocket Monster Chess

Rogue Summoner is available on PC

You can find a video version of this review here: Rogue Summoner Review [Roguelike Game] – YouTube

Overview

Rogue Summoner is a traditional roguelike almost to the letter. That means permadeath, turn-based gameplay and no meta progression. The turn-based gameplay is a different breed though. It’s part auto battler and part tactics game with a dash of chess influence.

The key element is in the name. You’re able to summon any creature you vanquish, allowing you to use them against the other beasties in each procedural dungeon. As the Summoner, your job is largely about planning your moves from the very first turn.

Rogue Summoner is more about planning than individual tactics.

You don’t control and move units directly in Rogue Summoner. Each creature has its own health, attack, movement speed, and behaviors that play out the exact same way each turn. This gives Rogue Summoner a distinct puzzle feel, rather than that of a tactics game.

Summoner’s Gambit

The monsters in Rogue Summoner have little in common with organic creatures. They are more closely aligned with pieces on a game board. Each one has very specific attributes and behaviors, and you never directly tell them what to do. While the dungeons and enemy layout is procedural, the gameplay is very deterministic. There are no dice rolls, random numbers, or critical hits of any kind.

As a Summoner you have a limited amount of mana to summon creatures. When you summon monsters, you choose where they are placed and what direction they face, the rest is automatic. Monsters will always approach the closest enemy they are facing based on their own specific movement pattern.

Most monsters attack when they get close, but some use ranged or area attacks. If you win you regain some mana, and if you ever lose all your monsters and can’t summon more, you lose.

Once you know how a monster works, you can predict how they will act.

The real complication comes in the form of the Rush mechanic. In any other game, it would be a risk versus reward feature. In Rogue Summoner, it’s more about having confidence in your planning. Normally you can summon new creatures each turn, if a plan didn’t work out, you can recover.

When rushing, however, you only go by your initial plan. All the turns immediately play out and if you lose, that’s it, the runs over. Rushing is very much worthwhile, as it grants you extra mana if you win, and running out of mana is how you lose. It’s a very clever feature.

Learning how each and every monster works is the key to doing well. Since the game is deterministic and the stats and behaviors of every monster are set in stone, each procedurally generated encounter is its own contained puzzle.

Enemies also always go first when a turn begins. For example, Spiders have one health, one attack, and one movement. If you place your own Spider one space out of it’s range, your Spider will always win. The enemy Spider will move, but it won’t be close enough to attack, then your Spider will move right into melee range and destroy it. This is the fundamental truth of the game’s mechanics.

A Wolf Rider might only move in the shape of an L, not unlike that of a Knight in Chess. An Archer might move then shoot in the direction it’s facing, a shield-wielding piece might block the first attack it takes from the front.

You can find a lot of lore in the game.

Deeper stages can get incredibly intense with several types of pieces present at any given time. This can be further complicated by a variety of environmental effects. It can be incredibly satisfying to parse out the victory conditions and place the right creatures in the right places before watching it all play out.

Your Summoner can level up during a run, though nothing carries over between runs. You can increase your mana, monster storage, and other passive benefits. Potions can be looted and used to imbue your monsters with stat boosts, and runes can be found. Which are basically spells that can deal damage or support your minions. Both of which enhance the strategy, though the variety of either is somewhat lacking.

There are moments when you hit a nice stride with Rogue Summoner. When you’re deep into the later layers of a dungeon and every encounter is a brain-twisting puzzle to be solved. You have to strike a careful balance of summoning what you need to win, but always being sure that you’re going to carry enough mana for the next fight, and it’s genuinely fun a lot of the time.

However, Rogue Summoner is also plagued by odd design choices and what I consider a fundamental flaw with the game. Rogue Summoner is a game with no randomness in combat situations. That means the player needs to have perfect information in order to plan out their turn.

Rogue Summoner intentionally gates how every monster works behind an arbitrary number of kills. You must kill a monster 10 times to learn how the piece behaves. It’s not uncommon to fight your way through a dungeon, then simply lose because you have no idea how a new enemy moves, acts or functions.

You can’t view a monsters bestiary entry until you have killed 10 of them.

Those losses don’t feel good. It’s not like the game beat you in a fair manner. Rogue Summoner is a game that relies on you making a perfect plan. It’s very much like a board game, but one where you aren’t allowed to read all the rules until it’s kicked you in the teeth several times first.

The game is also super repetitive. There are several dungeons, all of which have a theme and a couple of endless dungeons. The themed ones only feature a handful of enemy types, and sure, the encounters are procedural, but the mechanics of the game make most early encounters painfully predictable.

I’d say around 90% of the early floors of any dungeon boil down to playing the exact same creatures you’re facing on a 1 to 1 basis, just slightly out of range. If the room has two Spiders, you play two Spiders, boom, you win.

You can level up various aspects of your Summoner during a run.

It can be mind-numbingly boring until you get to the deeper and more complex levels of a dungeon. Then whether you succeed or fail, you have to trudge through the early stages again.

The endless dungeons have a bit more enemy variety. But the early stages are still going to consist of just a couple of enemy types that you can mirror to win most of the time.

Verdict

Rogue Summoner is a clever game in a few ways with a cool aesthetic. I really enjoy the fact that every monster looks like a figurine from a tabletop game, and the gameplay fits the look, with monsters feeling like game pieces.

The Rush mechanic is great, and when the game is at its best, it feels like a solid brain teaser. A type of puzzle that shifts and changes in every room, so you can never truly solve it.

To get that far, you have to wade through a ton of predictable, repetition and you have to do that every single run. Early on, you will just start getting to the fun parts when the game will shut you down with a new monster you don’t know about yet, because it refuses to tell you until you have already beaten it several times.

Each room is it’s own puzzle.

It’s like playing Chess. But you don’t know how the Rook and Bishop moves, and you aren’t allowed to know until you have taken down 10 of them. It’s silly and feels counterintuitive to the game’s design.

Those two issues make Rogue Summoner difficult to outright recommend. To get to the meat, you will need to be patient and chew through the fat. Which is fine, the first couple of times. But after awhile your belly gets bloated, you start projectile vomiting everywhere, and no one wants to go to dinner with you anymore.

The heavy repetition and strange way it gatekeeps critical knowledge brings down an otherwise clever game about creating a successful battle plan by summoning monsters.

A copy of Rogue Summoner was provided by Gamecraft Studios via Indieboost.com for the purpose of review.

You might also be interested in my reviews of Crown Trick and Mortal Glory.

Pros

  • Clever plan and execute gameplay mechanic
  • Rush mechanic rewards confident one stroke planning
  • Several Themed Dungeons and two endless modes

Cons

  • Highly repetitive and mind numbingly easy in early stages
  • Holds back critical information behind an arbitrary kill count for each creature
  • Small amount of potion and rune types