It never occurred to me that we don’t really have any games worth playing set in the Middle East other than Assassin’s Creed I and Revelations if you count Turkey. I’m not gonna count something like COD because that isn’t about the Middle East or in any way presenting the culture of the region. That’s just shooting generic NPCs who fit the general American stereotype of Arab terrorist. This actually never crossed my mind until I got to play the recently released Rogue State. Little Red Dog Games, with the help of Black Shell Media, has created probably the only game I’ve ever played set in the modern Middle Eastern region of the world that didn’t vilify or debase the people while still presenting the current war torn and unstable political situation in a realistic yet respectful way.
Rogue State is best described as a point and click RPG with light RTS elements. It’s actually very hard to describe and quantify because it’s quite a serious and complicated game. You assume the role of de facto leader of a fictional Middle Eastern country that has just successfully completed a violent revolution and executed the former monarch. The game is essentially you trying to run a broken country in hopes of getting it out of the hole and to the top of the international stage. And it does quite a good job of simulating this situation. Almost too well to the point that the game can be quite stressful at times. But please don’t take that as a negative. Finish the review before you make a final decision because this is a rare gem in the point and click community.
The graphics are whatever. Firstly it only plays at one resolution in full screen mode that didn’t even stretch to fit my screen leaving me to play with black bars on the sides. The art style uses 2D images, most of which are still or only slightly animated, that look just slightly 3D. The game’s very simple as far as what you see, but because the bulk of the game takes place in an office anyway it’s not that big of a deal. Most of the time you’re looking at tables and charts because, as the “dictator” of a country, most of your time is spent making serious decisions about political policy and government spending. There are a couple other places you can go such as the war room and speech podium. These use similar 2D art with little to no movement. The only things that actually move in the game are people and really it’s just your character and your adviser with the occasional political ambassador over the phone or in your office.
I actually didn’t like the fact that your character has to walk around the room to access different screens. Making a call means walking to the phone. Changing the tax rate means walking to the finance book. Reading the paper means walking to the side table. It gives the game more character but it drastically slows down the gameplay. I wish there was an option to turn off movement animations and just keep the character at their desk. A big part of this comes from the top HUD. All the in-office options can be accessed either through clicking the corresponding item in the office or just clicking it’s icon at the top of the screen. The character will still walk over to the item regardless of what you click. You can turn the icons off which sort of removes the irritation but not once you get used to playing with the icons which are on as a default. I wouldn’t call this a flaw as much as a preference though, because this is how most point and clicks operate.
The bottom HUD, which cannot be turned off, displays your current political standing, resources, and current money/budget. It’s an ugly HUD, but also a highly efficient and sensible one. The menus are all very efficient and easy to interpret but they too aren’t very attractive. The game is much more about utility as opposed to beauty. But maybe that’s a good thing because it makes the setting seem more authentic. This is not a pretty situation so why should it be a pretty game? The only part about the graphics I actually don’t like is the people. They look odd to me. Their faces specifically.
The opening cutscene and credit art is really good. It’s done in very vibrant stills that are very graphic, as in violent, and stylized at the same time. The colors are mostly oranges and browns which really remind you of the region when playing the game. All in all the graphics are ok, but not the selling point of the game.
The sound in Rogue State is perfectly appropriate, but very underwhelming. The volume levels are not strong enough. You have the option to turn the sound down, but really you need to put some headphones on and crank it up because the game is just too low. The background music has a very ethnic feel that fits well, but because it’s so low you may not notice it anyway. The few sound effects such as the phone ringing are fine, but nothing to write home about. I guess authentic is the best word because it’s mostly just everyday sounds and the rabble of people. The voice acting is quite good and features a number of varying people both male and female. The sound ultimately does its job, but it’s not the most memorable thing in the game.
The writing is excellent. This, along with the gameplay, is why you should play this game. From the start, Rogue State feels very serious. The game never loses its atmosphere. The story is about the rise and possible fall of the newly freed Basenji and you are responsible for its well-being. Every move you make has consequences. The various factions respond to your decisions often with actual written or verbal responses. Each turn has an event which is very realistic and almost always a hindrance to your dream to build a great and powerful nation, assuming of course that is your dream. Each game has a slightly different story based on the decisions you make making each play a whole new plot. The characters involved change as well. Different countries become interactive in the region for each playthrough. And the events don’t recycle too frequently between plays. There’s not just one but a wealth of very well done stories to experience and shape in this game. And all the characters actually talk. There are subtitles for everything but you actually get to hear the characters speak and build relationships of sorts with them.
The plot is full of political turmoil such as the fact that your brother is vying to steal power from you and the fact that at any time you can be attacked by another country. Other factors are written in to challenge the power and stability of your regime as well. There is also a great amount of reading that you can choose to do in this game. Firstly the tutorials which are extremely well detailed and helpful, should you choose to read them all. But there’s also an encyclopedia that you can use to do research about various in game characters, elements, countries, and the political situation for your particular playthrough. All in all I give the writing maximum points. Little Red Dog Games did a phenomenal job.
And finally let’s discuss gameplay. The gameplay is tied directly to the writing which is why I chose to cover it so late in the review. At base level, the mechanics are simply point and click with the occasional sliding element which is the only mechanical problem I had with the game. At times the sliders didn’t respond perfectly. You must play with a mouse. Your goal is to survive as the “Glorious Leader of Basenji” for 60 turns. Each turn you can make up to four decisions/policy changes. The system works so that each time you make changes in a menu that counts as one decision. So if you open a menu and do nothing you still have four decisions you can make. If you open a menu and change two or more things that counts as only one decision. If you open a menu and change one thing, close it, then open it and change something else or reverse that decision it counts as having made two decisions. 60 turns is the equivalent of 5 years at the end of which you’ve beaten the game and can choose to turn over power to the democratic government or hold onto power and continue playing as dictator, benevolent or otherwise.
It’s a hard game. 60 turns sounds short but it really isn’t. My first playthrough I only made it to 19 turns before my brother led a coup and took control of the country. Every decision has consequences. The budget is constantly suffering. The parliament is so broken that no matter what you do at least one of the four listed factions will dislike you. Losing too much support from any one faction can lead to a coup. You also have to make decisions at the end of each turn during the events. These decisions can make or break you in one foul swoop but it never feels like it’s done in an unfair way. The only real drawback is that there’s no reloading a save. You keep one file at a time and whenever you continue you go back to where you left off. No changing already made decisions and when you lose you have to start over. Permadeath at its most painful. Games are long. Even just losing almost a third of the way to the end took me over an hour. It’s very stressful, which I think is a good thing here. You really want to keep your country running and you really worry about political turmoil, invasion, and coups. Not to mention so many choices are gambles. Rogue State does an amazing job of challenging the player by constantly putting on the pressure without ever seeming unfair.
You have to meet ambassadors, deal with American politics trying to imperialize your country, make trade agreements, set wages and tax rates among other financial decisions, build and oversee a military, and slowly develop the infrastructure of your country four decisions at a time. Each turn nets money based on your current budgeting plan, but it’s very hard to stay in the black or even just the green. It’s only by playing over and over that you really start to understand the system and how to properly run Basenji. You can also choose to be corrupt. You can steal government funds and deposit them in private offshore accounts. You can build up a police force and censor media. It has all the elements you would want to see in a game like this. Imagine a much simpler and more accessible version of Tropico. Genuinely great gameplay that I found super challenging yet truly enjoyable.
The game is one of the best for replay value I’ve ever seen in a plot focused game. Firstly the story changes every time. Second the decisions you make will most likely change at least somewhat every playthrough thus changing the outcome. And third there are unlockable perks that you must earn by collecting experience points through playing. These perks are permanent and will stay with you for all future playthroughs. Each game nets a number of experience points based on your results. You are scored at the end of each game and your high scores are recorded. There are also 22 achievements to satisfy your needs. It is a bit pricey at $13 but if you buy within the next day or two you can get the game for $10 which is an excellent price. This game is easily worth a good 15 – 20 hours if you take it seriously. Full credit for replay value with this one.
While the graphics and sound are a bit lacking, I have to say that Rogue State is a class act as far as indies go. I absolutely endorse it and can’t wait to play it more since I still haven’t successfully completed 60 turns. If you’re looking for something well done with a plot that won’t get repetitive and gameplay that will constantly force you to think from several angles, this is the game for you. Buy it while it’s on discount and enjoy it over and over again. Also note that the game is still technically being developed and patches are still rolling out based on user feedback so the game could get much better over time as well. Pretty much a must buy for strategy based RPG and point and click fans.
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