Let It Die is as strange as its creator, Suda51. Posited as a free-to-play game, it really has more in common with an arcade machine – something which it also leans into with its presentation. To simply wave your hand at the game’s microtransactions and bare-bones combat, however, is doing it an incredible disservice. Grasshopper’s latest game has style, mixed with an overwhelming sense of dread that isn’t just the culmination of its presentation – but its systems too.
Your main objective is to ascend the Tower of Barbs – a strange, monolithic structure composed of multiple floors. Peppered throughout the Tower’s rotting industrial corridors are an assortment of Hellraiser-meets-Doctor-Who flesh robots, unhinged thugs, and mushrooms. Lots and lots of mushrooms. While seeing the same pre-fab environments appear can be disappointing, the game rotates through different tower layouts on a daily basis, providing a small amount of variability.
Helping you through your journey is a cast of weird and wonderful characters. Your main guide is Uncle Death – a skateboarding skeleton with a fondness for sunglasses. Uncle Death is great, even though his interactions are limited. Having him call you “senpai,” and starting every letter sent with “It’s me!” even after multiple hours-in give him this comedic, carefree nature. He lends the game an irreverent feel, and something it sorely needs to contrast your gore-ridden escapades.
Adding another level of weirdness, is that it’s a game inside a game. You’re playing Let It Die on a machine in a neon-soaked arcade, with the ability to punch out and interact with its patrons. Among them is Uncle Death, but there’s also your disinterested high school student that acts as a quest-giver, and the self-obsessed fighting game freak who’ll give you the occasional gameplay tip.
At its core, Let It Die is a brawler featuring animation-heavy attacks. Players can mix up their combos using weapons in either their left or right hand. Dealing with enemies and reading your surroundings becomes a large part of the game’s challenge, with the only defensive tools at your disposal being a block and dodge. Governing all of this is an opaque stamina system; no meter or bar is visible. Instead you must rely on visual and aural cues from your character’s heartbeat. It lends all the fights a level of unpredictability, and is in keeping with the game’s fever-dream qualities.
Unfortunately, the combat isn’t particularly deep, and it does suffer from some technical flaws. A soft lock-on exists, which allows you to direct attacks towards a target, but the camera won’t follow them. While I appreciate that this is to help you deal with mobs of enemies (which the game will frequently throw your way), swapping between targets is cumbersome; you have to remove your current lock-on, move the camera towards your next target, and initiate a new one – hoping that the game will pick the right target. Mix this with a camera that likes getting stuck on the geometry, and it sometimes feels like you’re fighting poorly implemented controls, instead of axe-wielding murder hobos.
But what the game lacks in mechanical complexity, it makes up for in its breadth of systems – which, at times, are intimidating. If the game’s title wasn’t any indication, death plays a large part in everything you do. You’ll routinely lose characters on runs through the tower, and when you do they’ll be resurrected in other players’ worlds (and sometimes your own) as Haters – AI controlled enemies, carrying that character’s gear and stats. Their encounters break up the monotony of chewing through standard enemies, and the scare chord that accompanies their appearance is a nice touch.
If you’ve become fond of one your characters though, you can side-step death. This comes through the use of Death Metals – a premium currency that can be purchased, or earned through login rewards and the like. Similar to adding continues in an arcade machine by pumping in more coins, you can cash in Death Metals to revive your character. This manages to avoid feeling predatory however, because you really shouldn’t be getting attached to your fighters – death comes swift in Let It Die, and every corpse is an opportunity to learn.
This point is driven home through raids – an asynchronous player-versus-player element tying the game together. At any time, you can try and invade another player’s hub-world and steal their resources and fighters. Successfully grabbing another player’s fighter puts them in your Restroom, where money will slowly siphon from their owner to you. After a set period of time, that fighter will join your roster unless a ransom is paid. It’s all incredibly convoluted, and will take hours to understand, but that’s part of the fun.
One nod should be given to the game’s pop-punk music. Equal parts pulpy and trashy, it fits the game perfectly. Your treks throughout the Tower are accompanied by the stylings of Akira Yamaoka, better known for his work on the Silent Hill soundtracks. Industrial metal groaning is punctuated by synth drums, adding a level of unease.
Let It Die is inscrutable. It’s a black box, covered in punk-rock graffiti, and splattered in blood. It can be cruel and unforgiving, but also immeasurably satisfying. Minor technical faults put some dents on its surface, but Grasshopper’s free-to-play offering is a stylish, violent romp.