What do you get when someone who describes himself as not interested in roguelikes designs a roguelike-like? Who really knows, but I imagine it would be something like Hollow Ponds’ Loot Rascals, a colorful and personality-infused game all about loot and rascals spread out across a mysterious planet.
On the surface, Loot Rascals is kind of a complicated situation. It’s both real-time but also turn-based; combat is defined by cards you loot and equip and arrange in your inventory in puzzle-like fashion; and levels are procedurally generated around tile sets à la Spelunky. As you play, though, it breaks down rather simply.
You start out in an odd little dome after crash landing on an alien world. There is, almost inexplicably, a chef asking for things you’ll find strewn about the level. There’s a strange stage production featuring gigantic pink…things. And you can talk to your quirky and delightfully sardonic Scottish AI buddy.
You’ll return here rather often. So often, in fact, there’s a button dedicated to warping you back to this dome so you can cash in side quests, talk to people, and top up your health in exchange for tokens. Whenever you do that, though, you expend a sizable portion of a day-night countdown cycles, a rather innocuous number that lingers in the corner of the screen but threatens something greater.
As you explore the planet, you’ll come across different enemies. There are the skittish, mouselike Whiskas and the inscrutable Horsebros—literally a seahorse intertwined with a musclebound horse—which are fairly manageable even in larger quantities if you play your cards right (badum, chssh!). But when that countdown reaches zero, a much stronger and deadlier threat descends upon you. If you can find the exit of each fog-of-war-covered map by then, you had better be jacked on powerful cards or you’re probably never going to find it.
Those cards are a fascinating component to the fighting system. When you kill an enemy, it might drop a card, and each card can either help you bump up your offensive abilities or bolster your defense. Some space shorts, for instance, might give you +2 to your defense while a putter will give you +1 to offense. But the card might also have bonus attributes that will affect how your arrange your equipment.
A card might, for example, boost whatever is to its left by one point, or drop the one below it directly to zero. And then you can lay certain cards over others to add more attributes, creating even more powerful gear. The interplay between position and boosts turns your loot and equipment screen into a puzzle-like experience, adding depth to something that would otherwise be just seeing what has a bigger number.
It might be worth creating a single beefy card, though. When you die, you lose just about everything (and are resurrected by being pulled through your own nostril by an eerily powerful and enigmatic being tied to the planet), but the enemy that kills you loots your best cards and goes off into other players’ games. If those players kill that enemy, then they get to loot that card and either keep it or return it to you, each choice sending a holographic copy of yourself to either help or hunt them.
It’s a fascinating practice, providing players asynchronous interactions with meaningful consequences. Tackling a powerful transplanted enemy at the right time could turn the tides or completely ruin an otherwise flawless run. And the added value of having an AI buddy isn’t worthless, either. The combat is based a lot on understanding the current state of an enemy. Regardless of their power or defense, their state determines if they attack first or defend first, a binary flip that relies on movements across hex grids.
This ends up with you indulging in a strange but intriguing tango, trying to kite bad guys into a line where you’ll attack first over and over again. And once you get cards that give you real-time powers like deploying decoy copies of yourself, you’ll be setting off different abilities to manipulate those that would try to manipulate you like time-controlling wizards and robot manufacturing platforms.
There’s a lot of unpack in what seems at first to be a rather svelte game. What it has presented so far is fascinating, bundling together wildly varying mechanics into a cohesive and compelling collection. Hopefully the rest of it is just as interesting.
Loot Rascals comes out for the PlayStation 4 and PC on March 7.