Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC
Don’t let its cute exterior fool you, for Loot Rascals is as unpredictable as it is quirky. Beneath those gumball visuals and an eccentric sense of humour lies waiting a relentless game where the only thing more certain than death is the consuming sense of addiction. A dungeon crawler built upon the foundations of a complex card game, this innovative spin on the roguelike genre is, for all intents and purposes, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Developed by Hollow Ponds, the game puts you in the role of a lowly astronaut who embarks on a mission to perform routine maintenance on an off-world theme park, only to wind up with more trouble than they bargained for. The hostile natives have not only infested the park, but have also taken the planet’s terraforming robot Big Barry hostage while they’re at it. If our unwilling hero is to restore balance, he must face off against the alien menace and rescue Barry before they can get their hands on the liquid treasures which he holds.
Right off the bat, the game hypnotizes you with its idiosyncratic charm. A combination of euphoric, cartoony aesthetics and oddball characters introduce you to a world that only promises to get weirder with every step you take. Exposition is delivered by an aloof bionic teapot with a Scottish accent, while the in-game sound effects snap, crackle and pop throughout as you navigate this ever-changing alien world. Imagine the pulp sci-fi of Rick and Morty combined with the kitschy animations of Adventure Time and you’re thinking along the right lines.
Randomly generated each time you play, the game takes place on a board made up of hexagonal tiles. Moving from one tile to the next equates to one turn, each time removing the fog that obscures the road ahead a one piece at a time. Your objective is to navigate from the safe zone of the theme park’s dome, through a critter-infested, trap-riddled maze, to a landing pad that will take you to the next level of the game. Successfully best five maps in a row and you’ll be able to take on the tentacled beast that has Big Barry in its grasp. It may sound like a reasonable enough challenge, but Loot Rascals isn’t going to give up without putting up one heck of a fight.
From the moment you step out of those few glowing hexagons of sanctuary, hordes of enemy aliens will emerge from the shadows eager to take you down. Sure, some of them may look cute, but these beasts are hungry and you’ve arrived just in time for dinner. Thankfully, you have some resources at your disposal in the form of attack and defence points, which will translate accordingly when you and your enemy meet up in the same tile and are forced to do battle. If your attack power is higher than an enemy health stats, then you should be able to win the encounter with only a mere flesh wound.
Each tile movement costs you one turn and while there’s no limit to the amount of turns you can take, the game throws a curveball in the form of a day and night cycle. For every five moves you make, the sun will set and rise accordingly and in turn provide strengthen or weaken enemies in the process. For example, if an enemy is stronger during the daytime, they will get to strike first, while conversely the same applies to you if you encounter the same enemy at night. While initially the key to survival is ensuring you’re always the one who strikes first, the game grows cockier by throwing swarms of enemies into the vicinity that between them could take you out no matter what time of day it is.
Defeating enemies will often reward you with cards which can be placed into your inventory in order to increase your attack and defense stats. Cards can range from simply granting you an additional point here and there, while others will receive additional bonuses and penalties depending on their placement within the ten slots you have at your disposal. One card might grant you two extra hit points, but at the same time could deduct a point or two from another adjacent card. Managing your deck to satisfy both your offensive and defensive attributes is a challenge in itself and more than often will result in a constant reshuffle before you charge head first into battle.
Beyond the standard weapon and shield cards that make up the crux of your deck, there are also some unique cards that grant your weary traveller with some additional perks to help them on their quest. Some cards will grant you projectile powers such as the ability to shoot fire, ice or even teleport, while others can gift you with additional health buffs or an extra life should you die out in the field. Experimenting with card combos and doing the maths in your head is part of what makes this dynamic deck-building approach to gameplay such an exciting challenge every time you play.
Besting enemies with higher levels will generally reward you with more elusive cards that can define your deck for the foreseeable future, or at least until the next prize comes along. However, because both dropped loot and map configurations are completely randomized, no two games are ever going to be the same. One game may see you survive long enough to reach level three, while another may throw everything it’s got at you right out of the gate. At times, Loot Rascals does come across as being rather unbalanced and may put some people off, but for others it’s in keeping with the erratic nature of the games peculiar nature.
Part of what makes Loot Rascals so addictive is the fact that death is not the end. Thanks to a mysterious creature affectionately known as The Thing Below, dying is all part of a learning game that is otherwise irrational by design. Should a high level enemy defeat you in combat, the game resets, you’re stripped of your cards and escorted back to level one to start all over again. It may sound like a harsh punishment, but thanks to an ever-expanding journal of catalogued beasts, you’ll have some knowledge into what makes them tick, should you run afoul of that particular enemy again.
Dying is a case of when, not if, as far as Loot Rascals is concerned, and while it may frustrate and turn off some, this radically severe death mechanic weirdly keeps the game alive. Sure you’re starting from scratch every time, but given how quickly the game moves, don’t be surprised if you spend longer than you initially planned trying to simply progress on to the next stage, just to see what dangers and surprises await you. Should you outstay your welcome and survive a level for longer than two-hundred-and-fifty turns, an alien version of death will turn up and chase you round the map. As grim as it sounds, it’s an entertaining little addition that can’t help but make you smile and very much keeps you focused on the mission.
It comes as no surprise then that death is also the most frustrating element of Loot Rascals. Given the irregular nature of map generation and enemy spawning, there will be rounds where you can’t help but feel like you’re the subject of a twisted experiment, running around like a rat in a maze from which there is no escape. There’s nothing more frustrating than compiling a killer deck only to have it snatched away from you by a high level enemy that pops up out of nowhere and backs you into a corner. It’s enough to make some turn off the game completely and swear off it for good, perhaps only returning to this alien world on the odd occasion to complete the daily challenges or, thanks to the clever multiplayer features, check your inbox for some shred of hope that your quest thus far has not been in vain.
You may lose those well-earned cards when you die, but thanks to Loot Rascals’ innovative multiplayer elements, that doesn’t mean they can’t be recovered by someone else. Just as you loot enemies, so too do they afford the same courtesy to you. The card is then transported into another random player’s game and if they find it, they’re given the option to keep it for themselves or return it to the player who last had it in their deck. Helping other players will see them projected into your game so that they can provide some additional battle points for a few turns, while keeping it will result in angry holograms turning up to give you what for. Not unlike Dark Souls’ multiplayer features, it’s a great way to turn what is mostly a single-player experience into something of a community, depending on whether or not you want to keep or return cards of course. It also reminds you that you’re not the only one alone in the universe embarking on this impossible task, constantly stuck in a loop hoping each time will be the occasion where you break the cycle and make it one step closer to Big Barry.
Loot Rascals sugar-coated visuals may be what catch your eye but sinking your teeth into it reveals the real treat. Bursting with sweet personality and sour gameplay mechanics, this innovative roguelike adventure may not be to everyone's palette but is an experience worth tasting at the very least.