As the genre’s exploded in popularity, roguelikes continue to branch out in different, but exciting, directions. There are certain elements found in all games of the genre (permadeath, procedurally generated levels), but there are major differences between the likes of The Binding of Isaac and Darkest Dungeon. Hollow Ponds, a development team comprised of people who’ve worked on the likes of Hohokum and Adventure Time, are now putting their own spin on the genre with Loot Rascals, and unfortunately, the results are mixed.
Loot Rascals takes the aforementioned conventions of the genre and melds them with the basics of a collectible card game. Upon defeating an enemy, players will be able to loot a card from the corpse. Cards fall into four different categories: defense, offense, ability and special. Defensive and offensive cards are self-explanatory, with the number on the card increasing either your blocking ability or offensive power. You can only equip 10 cards at a time (5 on top, 5 on bottom), though, and most of them come with modifiers you need to be aware of. For example, you may acquire a Spikepan card that adds an additional two points if placed in an odd slot, but subtracts two points from any card placed below it. Proper management of your hand is a game in and of itself.
Adding another layer to the hand-building strategy are the presence of ability and special cards. Ability cards can be grafted onto any offensive or defensive card you have, and as the name implies, grant you a new trick to use. One may allow you to heal yourself one point, while another lets you entrap an enemy in a block of ice. Different enemies are vulnerable to different attacks, so if you do pick one up, it’s good to test it out on different subjects. However, once you combine an ability card with a regular card, you cannot separate them, so choose wisely.
Special cards is a bit of a catch-all term for any other card that doesn’t fall into the other three types. Some of these are incredibly helpful (combine all defensive/offensive cards into one mega-card, delay enemy reinforcements), while others are less so (teleport to a random part of the map, replace your hand with a random collection of cards). However, these cards can typically only be used by spending coins, which are acquired through scrapping cards you have no use for. Coins can also be used to refill your health, and considering you only have 5 points per game, you’ll probably need to take advantage of this.
Certain cards can also be given away to either the chef who hangs out in your home base, or to other players of Loot Rascals who have been killed during a run. Returning a missing item to the chef can unlock a nice upgrade for yourself, such as additional inventory slots, but you can also just hold onto the card for your own use. Same goes for whether or not you wish to return a card to another player. If you give the card back, the ghost of that player can join up with you if you find them. If you don’t return the card, however and you stumble upon their ghost, they’ll attack you instead.
Loot Rascals throws a lot at you right away, but despite the fact that I spent 400+ words describing it, it’s pretty easy to learn. The modifiers for every card are clearly explained, and considering the amount of rules often placed upon you, it’s easy to make a hand that matches your style. You can try and play it evenly on both offense and defense, but I had more success by focusing on one side over the other. I preferred to ramp up my defensive stats first, since stronger enemies appear quicker, but either option could conceivably be fine. The amount of ways you can approach each run is impressive.
Adding another layer to survival in Loot Rascals is that you have a limited amount of time in each level. At the start, you’re given a set amount of turns to make it to the exit. The levels are made up of hexagonal pieces, and moving to a piece constitutes a single turn. Picking up cards and fighting enemies, which play out in turn-based format, also count as turns. At the end of the first set of turns, enemies begin to appear in the bodies of the enemies you previously defeated. If you don’t make it to the exit by the conclusion of these additional turns, then a stronger group of enemy reinforcements arrive, followed by Space Death if you really drag your feet.
This is probably a good time for me to say that I hate the practice of putting gamers on a time limit. I hated the use of it in Dead Rising, and while this isn’t exactly the same, I hate the use of it here. By limiting you to a certain amount of steps, the game restricts you from potentially being able to properly equip yourself for the following stage. You can still survive once reinforcements arrive, but you’re most likely going to take damage, particularly in the early-goings of the game due to your limited level on defense. I understand why the title restricts your turn limit, particularly in regards to the day/night cycle all enemies are on, but I think the game may have been more enjoyable without it.
The turn limit also helps raise the already difficult Loot Rascals to absolutely frustrating levels. And maybe this arbitrary limitation wouldn’t be so annoying if it didn’t feel like your chances of success relied so heavily on luck. To be fair, pretty much every roguelike has an element of luck to it, but it feels especially weighted here. I’ve had runs where it took beating several different enemies before I got a single offensive card, as well as runs where I’ve been met right away with enemies with double digit attack abilities. And unlike other games in the genre, you can’t really take your knowledge from one run and use it on another. You may have found a winning strategy at one point, but if you don’t get the necessary cards, you’re pretty much screwed.
I eventually reached a point where Loot Rascals stopped being creative and fun, and instead just became taxing to play. The amount of enjoyment I got from crafting the perfect deck or exploring the title’s charming, weird world couldn’t make up for the fact that I was frequently getting stuck on later levels due to simply just not getting strong-enough cards. And with little plot development outside of the intro, it got to the point where the only reason I kept playing was basically because I had to. Of course, my qualms with the game may just stem from the fact that I (apparently) suck at it, so your mileage may vary.
The fact that I didn’t really enjoy my time though really stinks because I love the look of Loot Rascals. The design of the game is a cross between Little Golden Books and retro sci-fi films. The protagonist wears a gaudy spacesuit, and his/her allies have eye-catching visual touches. The enemies are especially great, with the hybrid Seahorse/Horse Horse Bros being a particular highlight. The electronic soundtrack does a great job of adding life to each area, as well.
There are interesting, creative ideas found in Loot Rascals, make no mistake about it, but they’re unfortunately overshadowed by some frustrating choices. The card-building gameplay is a neat spin on the genre, and the goofy charm of the game is inspired. It’s unfortunate, though, that Hollow Ponds emphasizes the most frustrating aspects of roguelikes so much that it makes playing the game an absolute chore. Maybe I’m just getting too old to enjoy tedious frustration, but I was ready to leave this alien world quicker than I would’ve liked.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version, which was provided for us.
Loot Rascals is a neat variation of roguelikes with a charming, oddball style that's unfortunately marred by an over-reliance on luck and frustrating difficulty spikes.