Rust Raiders is a roguelite deckbuilder that launched on Steam in Early Access a few days ago – I happened to find it while scoping out Steam’s recent releases, and seeing that it was just £3.99 I thought it would be a good candidate for our Bargain Bits series.
The deckbuilder genre really exploded a few years ago, with games like Slay the Spire gaining enormous traction, and it’s become a popular genre for indie creators to try their hand. Rust Raiders appears to be the first game by Overlord Studios, and at its current point in development some parts of the game are pretty rough. It’s not all bad news, though. Rust Raiders has all the bones of a good entry in the deckbuilding roguelite genre, and is currently totally playable. The scope for what the developers need to do to improve the wonky bits of the experience are pretty clear. That’s more than you can say for a lot of games in the sub-£5 early access bracket. I hope it gets some attention from deckbuilder enthusiasts – I’m no expert in the genre (pretty rubbish at them), and while I found the central mechanics of Rust Raiders enjoyable, it’d be a shame for it not to receive useful feedback from more experienced players.
The deckbuilder genre has grown progressively wilder over the years. While the genre’s most famous iterations involve building cards, progressing down tracks and basically playing a card game, we’ve gone from there to games like Loop Hero, One Step from Eden and Inscryption, which offer gameplay quite alien from the traditional card game format. Rust Raiders is a back-to-basics version of the genre’s biggest conventions – anyone familiar with a game like Slay the Spire will feel instantly at home. It’s not exceptionally original, but that’s not a massive problem with a game like this. You’re a robot pirate, aiming to take down the dastardly Captain LeCrank across (currently) 3 levels. There are random events on some spaces, enemies/mini-bosses on others, and a boss at the end of the level. You get currency you can spend in the store spaces to buy or remove cards, more cards for your deck, and Relics, permanent upgrades tied to your battery level.
The battery system is the game’s core feature. It integrates an energy system which you spend for powerful cards with a pool for moving around the levels. Crucially, your Relics also only activate at specific levels of battery or above, with the most powerful tied to the highest level. For instance, I had one Relic that would give me 6 defense points if I didn’t gain any defense at all during the turn – this meant that it was more efficient for me to avoid using a card that would give me 5 points at the cost of 10 battery. This adds an interesting extra layer to an otherwise fairly standard card game loop, where as well as considering how much you have you need to consider the individual effects of each Relic. You can play 3 cards in each turn, as well as recycling one card for 10 battery. The cards are colour-coded and have a functional type as well, bouncing off one another in a variety of special card effects. If you manage to play cards of all 3 colours in one turn, you get some energy back as well. This means that a well-constructed deck can really feel satisfying to use in concert with the right Relics, with multiple things to think about producing a little endorphin rush when you get it all right.
I played for about 3.5 hours in the slightly hungover and very overfed post-Christmas haze, and in that time I got one good run that took me all the way to the end. There’s maybe a bit of a snowballing problem; it only took a few lucky Relic drops from targeting mini-bosses and it felt like the rest of the game fell into my lap. Part of that would have been the learning curve – for the first few runs before I ‘got’ the essential mechanics like recycling cards or using card type combinations I struggled – but it’s not super uncommon in roguelikes to end up struggling for many runs in a row followed by one god-like run. This is maybe something for the developers to work out over time as they tweak the balance of the game, but to a degree it’s unavoidable when dealing with random generation of level layouts. All the hallmarks of satisfying (if standard) deckbuilders are here, with the exciting risk/reward of shooting for mini-bosses to claim extra goodies or going for random events at the treasure locations a particular highlight. Perhaps that I was able to reach the end in a few hours might indicate that the game is a bit easy – or maybe I just got exceptionally lucky, it’s hard to tell.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. This is an early access game, and though the skeleton of a solid deckbuilder is there, there’s a lot of blanks to be filled in. Though there are currently 3 levels, they have no visual distinction, and there’s only one piece of music in the game (it’s a nice tune, but after loop 30 it begins to grate). Many of the enemies after the first level currently have no art ready, meaning that they appear as a generic ‘?’ inside a silhouette. Disappointingly, this even goes for the game’s final boss, who despite being name-dropped in the description on Steam isn’t drawn in the game yet.
Compared to many other more high-budget deckbuilders (like Roguebook), this small-team affair is a bit visually static. Your own ship doesn’t appear on the screen (though it may in the future, as there’s a suspiciously large gap under your health bar) and there isn’t a lot in the way of visual effects for cards. Enemy ships are still drawings, and though the art style is unique and the designs enjoyable I think that Rust Raiders relies on the central card game mechanics to draw in the player much more than visuals. The background (currently singular) is also completely still – I think just something like a few different ocean scenes with wave effects would add sorely needed visual interest. Aesthetically, the game leans heavily on wooden and rusty browns and for its robots, in-keeping with a piratical theme. It pulls this off alright, and the UI is generally attractive and usable, if not stand-out.
I didn’t run into any egregious bugs, and apart from some Relics not working when they should (the one that gives money after winning a fight) and working when they shouldn’t (the aforementioned defense Relic seemed to quite often give defense when it shouldn’t). Most card effects function correctly, despite some slight occasional UI wonkiness I encountered, such as with the Ship of Industry mini-boss which frequently doubles its defense value not displaying correctly. Selecting cards out of your fanned hand can sometimes be a hassle, and maybe it would be a better experience if the size of each card was expanded into the available UI real estate to make each individual card a bit easier to click. It might be my slight colour-blindness playing up again, but the light blue colour used for defense values is quite hard to read at a glance when in combat, though it’s easy enough to see in the deck menus.
The biggest offense the game committed on a technical level was that when I beat the final boss Rust Raiders soft-locked, giving me no option but to alt-tab and close the game manually. Captain LeCrank was defeated, I got a little victory jingle and was left at the level map, only able to click on the deck view menu, with no success message or way to return to the main menu. It was somewhat frustrating and put a damper on the rush of success. Another symptom of its early-access-iness is that the functions to forge cards or build a pre-existing deck are not yet implemented – I imagine these are to be tied to the secondary currency, which you accumulate through play but which currently doesn’t serve a purpose. I’d be keen to revisit the game when those appear.
Rust Raiders is a fun little deckbuilder, offered at a very reasonable price-point. If you’re a deck construction enthusiast looking for a new experience – one that you could probably help to shape with feedback, I imagine – it might be worth the small entry fee and a few hours of your time. It’s definitely a very early-stage Early Access title, but as long as you have a clear understanding of what you’re getting into, it’s got some mechanically satisfying card combat to offer as you learn the mechanics and fight robo-pirates. Despite my reservations, it would be a shame to see quite a well-thought-out deckbuilder sit unplayed in amongst the many games released every day on Steam.
If you like reading about deckbuilders, why not check out George’s thoughts on what makes a real-life deckbuilder so good in Arctic Scavengers? If you want to read something totally unrelated, check out my piece on DNF Duel. Give us a follow on Twitter to hear more from us!