There’s no doubt that Portal Studio’s Unknightly could take a page or two from Rogan: A Thief In The Castle.
Smilegate’s VR debut is, simply put, a visual feast the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in VR. Textures carry exhaustive details, the stoic medieval castle is richly littered with authentic extras and character models are inventively designed. Were you to compare the two side-by-side, you couldn’t be blamed for choosing Rogan’s shiny exterior over Unknightly’s relative scruffiness.
Flip that page, though, and you’ll find there’s much more the mighty Smilegate could learn from the more modest Portal Studios.
Rogan has its heart in the right place. It’s got a three-hour narrative-driven campaign and it does tap into the dangerous thrills of VR stealth however lightly. But it’s simply far too rigid in design and too limited in options to inspire anything like the adrenaline-fueled excitement of its contemporaries.
You play as a thief, Rogan, that breaks into a castle, intending to score a big payday but instead stumbling into a murder conspiracy. One of the kingdom’s most prestigious knights, Victoria, has been framed and you’re out to prove her innocence. That means sneaking through halls dutifully patrolled by guards and gathering evidence in her favor over the course of the campaign.
Expected foundations are in place. Rogan is a game about leaning around corners to catch a glimpse of the guards, throwing items to cause distractions and swiping keys from the belts of unsuspecting sentries. Move too fast and guards will hear your footsteps, take cover behind crates and watch through the cracks as they pass right by you. You can even smash bits of wood over heads to stun people. All of this is great fun in isolated use cases, but the individual elements rarely mesh together in a fluid way and the game’s too easy to necessitate many of its mechanics.
The only time I needed to distract a guard, for example, is when the game specifically told me to do it. For the most part, slowly walking behind an enemy until they rounded a corner was all that was needed. Rogan doesn’t have an inventory system, so you can rarely do things on the fly; the game will often give you what you need to get through the next area just before you reach it. More frustratingly you can only pick up specific things in the environment to throw or hit enemies with. Why an apple makes for a better distraction than a metal chalice is beyond me.
Enemy AI, meanwhile, sticks to simplistic patterns and won’t raise much concern when discovering the body of a stunned guard. Get found and, yes, I’m afraid to say it’s the dreaded instant fail. There’s no heart-pounding chases or desperate scraps for survival here.
Rogan’s brand of stealth is a little too streamlined to ever really feel immediate, skilled or dangerous. It’s more like a walking simulator with the occasional roadbump. If Unknightly or Budget Cuts are about throwing yourself to your knees in the last second and wiping the sweat from your brow, this is more calmly dipping your head to one side in relative confidence you weren’t seen.
You can make things a little harder by scouring levels for loot, but all this does is contribute to a seemingly meaningless number. Again, if Rogan had some sort of upgrade system, or indeed just equipment to buy and use, this would have been real incentive to scour every level. As it stands I simply gave up gathering loot about halfway in and never looked back.
Smilegate is undoubtedly trying, though, and I can’t help but wish they’d succeeded. Rogan’s world is genuinely interesting but its lore is locked behind wearisome exposition and stilted dialogue that feels pieced together at the best of times. Rogan’s voice acting, in particular, seems completely removed from the context it’s spoken in.
Rogan appears achingly close to being decent, but it’s far too stripped back to stir up much intrigue, let alone excitement. VR stealth should be about physicality and self-awareness, with weight behind every tiny move you make. Rogan doesn’t have the agency or danger to bring realize those ambitions. In the end, this VR thief is a bit of a forgery; pretty on the outside but the beauty is only skin deep.