Based on the title alone, you’d think that Loot Rascals is all about the loot. (And rascals, if you want to be pedantic about it.) For that much, it’s true, but the game is also difficult, esoteric at times, and damn hard to put down. It combines a lot of odd parts into a surprisingly compelling whole.
Perhaps that’s what you get when you have a man who says he’s not interested in roguelikes design a game that cribs quite a few staples from the revival genre. Ricky Haggett and the rest of the team at Hollow Ponds have created a game that features procedurally generated maps chockfull of enemies that drop color-graded loot—all of which you’ll lose upon death—but it’s everything else that makes it worth playing.
For one, it has personality out the yang. It’s bright and colorful in a way many games simply aren’t, but it’s also quirky to a fault. From the moment the story begins to unfold—which is admittedly light since it can be entirely summed up as “escape an alien planet”—you’re treated to a sardonically Scottish AI, a flagrant disregard for common sense and physics, and a full indulgence in the tone and attitude of a Ren & Stimpy. If there’s one thing you can’t hold against Loot Rascals, it’s its sense of style.
On the gameplay side, it’s shockingly simple, but with the adherence to a stark and unflinching set of rules, it becomes complex and brutal in a way that makes you keep coming back for more. The game takes place on a hex grid, and with each move you make, enemies patrolling the level can also move. Some move one-for-one to you and others only move one spot for every two of yours.
This is important because when you and an opponent occupy the same spot, you two battle it out. When you swing, you hack away HP equivalent to your Attack rating. When they swing, their own Attack rating, your Defense rating, and a dice roll get mixed up into a bucket and determine how much damage you get, if any at all.
At best, you’re going to be able to take five knocks or so, which means if you play recklessly, you’re going to die. Like, a lot. Even if you play smart, you’re probably going to die a lot. You have to position yourself to not get surrounded or cornered into battles you don’t anticipate because with a certain number of moves, enemies change tactics. If they attack first, you’re almost guaranteed to take damage, so you’re going to want to time your moves right so you can one-shot as many aliens as you can.
It conjures a fascinating dance between you and the game. You end up teasing out faster foes into a chokepoint where you can line them up and knock them down while trying to coax stronger, usually slower enemies into amenable positions to not get swarmed and—consequently—dead. And once you mix in map elements like electrical pads that charge up or wholly create new baddies, it becomes even more about managing these chess pieces that are inherently uncontrollable.
And then even if you fight your best, your best may not be good enough. Or rather, quick enough, as demonstrably harder enemies will eventually descend upon the map after a while. These guys don’t fuck around and suddenly turn this tango of opportunity into one of desperation, taking the kills and hits where you can.
The same sort of positioning philosophy comes through in your equipment and inventory. You have ten slots to fill with cards, cards that you’ll pick up along the way for killing aliens or completing side quests. Some are dedicated to Defense, some are dedicated to Attack, and others augment the ones you currently have equipped. The best ones, however, pull double duty, allowing you to switch their utility or giving positional bonuses.
Some, for instance, get bonus points for being in even slots or in the top row. Others will boost the card to their right while negating the card to their left. This interplay between physical alignment and actual card attributes makes for an unexpectedly intriguing and deep loot system. You’ll spend a good amount of time crying out to the gods every time you have to pick between an upgraded helmet card or a weaker one that can be actively switched between Attack and Defense or the like. (But, you know, in a good way.)
It’s almost too obviously not for everyone, despite streamlining the adrenal rush of getting loot and making your rewards’ value immediately apparent. With no team to keep track of and very little in the way of special moves, the focus is entirely on the mechanics and the prizes you get along the way. But the basic loop of embarking upon journey after journey only to smash bow-first into another set of cranky, alien rocks can be exhausting to the point of swearing it off completely as if it were a crazy ex.
Even so, there’s no reason you shouldn’t check it out at least once. You get to hang out with a bunch of oddball, charming spacefaring folk; you get to fight seahorse aliens that are actually half horse; and you get to tickle your pickle over an endless and endlessly joyful deluge of rewards. Get your rascals on the loot that Loot Rascals can offer and it just might hook you.
+ An art style that you wish you could have on your walls
+ Gameplay that is simple but deep and punishes and reward you in equal measure
+ Loot system forces you to make some heartbreaking decisions
– Brutal difficulty can be a real turnoff at times
– Story is charming but isn’t at all compelling
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: Loot Rascals
Release: March 7, 2017
Genre: Turn-based roguelike
Developer: Hollow Ponds
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC