For whatever reason, I just can’t seem to rip myself away from developer Hollow Ponds’ Loot Rascals. In the two months since the game’s release, too many amazing games have come out: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Persona 5, Mass Effect: Andromeda just to name a few. But for two months straight, with no exception, before starting any serious game session I knock out a 15 minute game in Loot Rascals – the weirdest, most hypnotizing game I’ve touched on the PlayStation 4.
Many people likely haven’t heard head or tail about the indie turn-based rouge-lite, so here is your brief primer on Loot Rascals. The game features an unnamed protagonist as she crash lands onto a bizarre planet. After your first game (inevitably dying), the protagonist is immediately brought back from the dead by some crazy alien (the Thing Below) looking to harness the powers of Liquid Anything. With all of this in mind, you are tasked with collecting the Liquid Anything and leaving the planet by escaping or destroying the Thing Below.
And while this itself seems like a strange set up, the gameplay and art direction is what really makes the whole package interesting. Loot Rascals is a grid-based, turn-based, rogue-lite with art direction from an Adventure Time animator (Davey “Swatpaz” Ferguson) – and it shows. Every creature that saunters onto the screen with a strange catchphrase is immediately memorable and equally bizarre to any other creature that came before it.
How Loot Rascalsworks is you control the protagonist as she moves through the world on a hexagonal grid. As you move through the world, you cycle through a day-night rotation every time you switch grids five times. Managing this day-night cycle is crucial; every monster you encounter will have an advantage or disadvantage in combat based on the time of day. Strike when you have the advantage and you get the first blow; strike when they have the advantage and they will get the jump on you.
Combat revolves largely around cards and math. Before you start groaning, hear me out. Everyone starts a new game in Loot Rascals with 5 health, 3 attack and 3 defense – all capable of increasing or decreasing depending on the cards you find. Enemies, meanwhile, will have a fused “power score” that acts as their health, defense and attack.
Attack is, as you would imagine, how much damage you will do against enemies. Meanwhile, defense acts more like the probability of the enemies attack hitting – every time they successfully make contact, players will lose one health.
After players defeat enemies, the aliens will occasionally drop cards which boost attack, defense, or offer special modifiers and abilities. Players can manage and swap which cards they use in a 5×2 grid. Unused cards can be stored until later use or dismantled for coins – frequently used to buy health in the beginning of the level or use certain abilities.
Here is how a typical situation runs: I’m quickly approaching a Bolas Girl (a mesmerizing enemy with the chant “Bolas Bolas!”) who has a red “8” hovering overhead – she has the advantage. Meanwhile, I take stock of my power levels and situation on the grid: I’m still at full health, my attack is 6, my defense is 4, I’m two spaces away and it is three turns away from night. I move a little out of the way and she follows, making it exactly four turns to meet her – because the day/night clock has shifted, I get the first strike.
Because my attack is 6 and her power level is 8, I immediately take away a majority of their health – my attack ends with Bolas Girl now at 2 for attack/defense/health. Bolas Girl gets to attack me now, but her general power score (2) is lower than my defense (4). With that in mind, she has a 50% shot (2/4) chance of landing a successful attack. She misses, and I automatically attack again, killing her.
Now, that all likely sounds complicated, but once you get through the quick tutorial it all just makes sense. Everything about the combat seems effortless, unlike those split-moment decisions of whether you should attack an enemy (leaving some of the decision up to chance) or entirely avoid the area altogether.
It’s a good thing that the combat portion of the gameplay feels so effortless – because you are soon asked to balance a few different components, notably the enemy variety and specific characteristics. Some enemies will leave a trail of ice behind them which you will slide over, others will lock the day/night circle only to night. Another character may shoot projectile or switch between two different power numbers each time they move a grid.
And while this long list of characteristics and different playstyles would make my head swim in nearly any other game, the distinct sound effects, art design, and care put into each individual character makes differentiating them a breeze. It gets to the point where you can identify the enemies coming towards you just on the sounds they make.
As mentioned before, Loot Rascals is a rogue-lite. Every time your health drops to 0, your body will be meticulously ripped to shreds, re-attached together, and placed in a new version of the world. Oh, did I not mention that yet? The worlds are randomly generated and all equally difficult.
There’s a lot of new things that Loot Rascals brings to the table and, while most of it borrows tangentially from other games, everything feels brand new, well balanced, and novel when packaged together so cohesively. Frankly, when you play games as much as I (and most of our readers) do, the feeling of “newness” is a terrific quality.
Beyond the individual characters, Loot Rascals just looks distinct from everything else on the market. Riffing off of Adventure Time, Loot Rascals and the worlds generated are vibrant and colorful. The sound design (beyond a rather uninspiring soundtrack) is top notch when it comes to all of the weird sound effects.
Players have the option of choosing a random game, picking a specific seed in the random generation to play, and playing a daily-selected world where players compete for better scores and quicker times on a leaderboard. And yes, most everyone has and will be better than you as you struggle to even get past the second (of five) worlds.
Now, here’s the thing. While I love Loot Rascals, and the addictive gameplay loop – especially when I’m looking for a quick 15-minute pick-up game – I know it won’t be for everyone. When a game is this out of left field and relies on compounding niche mechanics, people will love it or hate it. I’m in the former category, and can easily recommend this strange title to any fans of the rogue-lite, random-generation, turn-based, or card-based genres.
Also, a fair amount of Loot Rascals does revolve around luck. Thanks to random generation, you can get a game where enemies with 95% chance to hit you (1 Def. vs 20 Power) misses you entirely, while near-instant kills will dock you a substantial amount of health. There is no way of knowing when the cards (figuratively and literally) will fall in your favor, and when they don’t it’s frustrating.
Loot Rascals is bizarre – and not only because the experimental attitude that Hollow Ponds takes in gameplay design. Loot Rascals will take you to a strange but enjoyable place, especially if you consider yourself a “fan of video games” – even if it is only for 15 minutes at a time.