It seems like everybody and their mother is making a roguelike these days. In an effort to stand out, Loot Rascals eschews the usual grim, pixel-art aesthetic for psychedelic colourscapes and oddball humour. Don't let that fool you, though; this is still a hardcore game that takes no prisoners and will put your faith in RNGesus to the test.
As with many a roguelike, Loot Rascals is all about procedurally generated dungeons, randomised loot, and permadeath. Trapped in an alien planet, your goal is to rescue your friend Big Barry and escape, but doing so requires traversing five levels of hostile alien landscape. Along the way, you'll be accosted by strange monsters – a literal stack of rats with inexplicably muscular human arms; a seahorse and a land-horse tied together; a heavily-eyebrowed egg; and a frozen humanoid tongue, to describe but a few.
Fending off these threats involves a simple system of turn-based dungeon crawling. The map is made up of hexagonal tiles, and every step you take costs a turn - prompting enemies to move as well. When you step into a tile with a foe, the two of you automatically exchange blows until there's only one person standing. Automated as the fights are, success comes down to preparation, and a day/night cycle plays a big role in this.
When it's daytime, certain monsters are stronger and will attack first, and vice versa for night. You can see at a glance whether or not an enemy will attack first, allowing you to plan ahead and, if necessary, take a few extra turns to cycle the day. Attacking first often means killing a foe in one hit. Conversely, if an enemy of similar strength gets the first strike, you'll probably lose at least one of your precious hit points, even if you end up winning – and HP are limited, and very difficult to restore.
This game is called Loot Rascals, so loot naturally plays a big role, though it's not what you might expect. Rather than the typical RPG approach of having specific equipment in specific slots - weapons in hands, helmet on head, etc - Loot Rascals’ loot takes the form of cards that can be freely equipped across two rows of five slots each. A strategic element comes into how you set up your cards, as positioning has a big impact. Most cards have a bonus that triggers when certain conditions are met, like being placed in a specific row or column, or having other cards adjacent. Some cards also have negative effects based on similar criteria. The potential benefit from a good card layout is huge; a set that gives you a measly +5 to attack might give you +10 or more, just by rearranging them.
You also have to make tricky decisions about which cards to delete, because that's one of the only ways to restore health. “Decompiling” a card nets you a token, and when you have enough you can spend them to restore your health. Initially, you need only two tokens for a full restore, but this amount increases exponentially each time you use the recovery machine. It doesn't take long at all before you need dozens of tokens for a few measly hit points, and when you get only one token per card – regardless of how rare or strong it is – that means decompiling a lot of loot. There are real tough choices to make between playing it safe at the cost of loot, and gambling on being able to keep yourself alive long enough to get some more disposable drops.
Neither is a great choice, and that's really the crux of any roguelike: making the most of bad situations, adapting to them, and trying to control the randomness as much as you can.
That's where Loot Rascals falls short. It takes the random factor to ridiculous extremes, where death by dice roll isn't just a possibility but is often unavoidable. The simple mechanics mean that when something goes wrong, there's not much you can do to adapt; you just get backed into a corner until you die and have to start again. It's easy to find yourself trapped by crappy drops, unable to fight the monster onslaught and not being able to get better loot as a result. Loot Rascals is perhaps the most RNG-dependent roguelike I've played, and that's not a great crown to wear.
This is, arguably, made worse by permadeath and a lack of any “rogue-lite” meta progression systems. Death comes swiftly and suddenly, and when it does, it's hard to not feel like a big waste of time. There's nothing to gain from death – no trial-and-error learning as you get better at the game, no systematic progression – just death and failure. I know that for many roguelike purists this is a good thing, but to me it just feels like a waste of time, and Loot Rascals does little to balance that.
Early on, the wacky art direction and bizarre monsters are enough to keep you going. Loot Rascals is a game with a very distinct visual style, and that inspires a need to explore and see just what else the game has up its sleeves. But for me, the appeal of that quirkiness was far outweighed by how repetitive and luck-dependent the game becomes.
Matt received a digital copy of Loot Rascals from the developer for review.