Loot Rascals is a turn-based strategy roguelike by the London-based development team Hollow Ponds, which includes developers who worked on titles like Hohokum and Sportsfriends.
Most of Loot Rascals’ story beats are relayed to you through a straightforward cutscene right when you start. You are a cute, chibi space explorer on a mission: travel to a new planet to recover an incommunicado “Big Barry” unit (“that’s a nickname; it’s got a technical name,” your inexplicably Scottish AI companion sidebars) and bring it home.
The Big Barry transports the “Liquid Anything” your cutesy futuristic society uses to build cutesy futuristic dwellings. Upon nearing the planet, however, a mysterious alien force crashes your ship, and you discover hostile aliens swarming over the world’s surface. As the exposition bot in your helmet says, “well, the new mission is: let’s escape.”
A Playable Cartoon
What little story Loot Rascals has does a compelling job of giving the mechanics an in-universe justification. The cards you use to do battle are scans for your spacesuit-mounted printer. You use Liquid Anything to fabricate weapons and armor. When you die and come back, it’s because the “Thing Below” responsible for crashing your ship “rearranges” time. You’re treated to a well-animated scene where The Thing Below uses pink tentacles to reassemble your body Lego-style.
These small but clever world-building touches, along with hyper-stylized art by Swatpaz and Meowza, manage to do a lot with a little. Loot Rascals conveys an unusual and exciting aesthetic confidence. The world is bright and vibrant, the environmental design is engaging, and the enemy variety and creativity is delightful. Loot Rascal’s confidence and purpose of style extends to and elevates every aspect of the game, from relaxing music by Grandmaster Gareth to cutscenes to little touches on each map.
Underscoring how well everything works together, the game runs really well. I never noticed any framerate issues, slowdown, or freezing whatsoever. Swatpaz’ influence is immediately apparent; Loot Rascal’s “cutesy cosmic horror” vibes wouldn’t be out of place in Adventure Time, Steven Universe, or even Rick and Morty. Fans of those shows might get a kick out of Loot Rascals.
The Maths of Combat
Based on its cute visuals and music, you’d be forgiven for thinking Loot Rascals is a simple, easy experience. It’s not. Loot Rascals is a true roguelike. If you die, you start from scratch. You will die a lot. Loot Rascals demands you comprehend rapidly complicating mechanics and adapt your strategy on-the-fly. Non-roguelike fans may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information thrown out from the outset, especially given how it’s presented..
The game’s visual language does a fine job of allowing you to quickly comprehend just what it is you’re dealing with, but the procedurally -generated gridmap levels look busy, and the speed of gameplay, lack of clear explanation, and the number of things to focus on may occasionally lead to a cheap death.
The complexity of the environment extends to combat. You have a “hand” of ten cards, broken into two rows of five. Red attack cards raise your attack stat. Blue defense cards raise your defense. Some enemies attack first during the day, some at night. The basic gameplay consists of maneuvering to attack enemies when they’re vulnerable. Combat occurs automatically in turns; you deal damage equal to your attack stat to the enemy’s HP, the enemy deals damage equal to their HP divided by your defense stat.
Defeated enemies sometimes drop new cards. Becoming stronger means carefully arranging cards to achieve the best possible attack and defense scores. Different cards have different values, such as “+1 to card on the left” or “Card above=0.” Managing your hand effectively is essential. As you get more cards, you’ll make tough choices about which to keep and which to lose.
Trading Card Game
There’s an “asynchronous multiplayer” component that wants to be Loot Rascal’s big selling point, but in my experience, it falls short. Whenever you die, your killer will steal one of your cards. That card and enemy is transported to another player’s game. Should that player kill the enemy, it will drop your card. They can then choose either to send it back to you or to keep it for themselves. If you choose to send a card back, a hologram of the character you sent it to may appear in your game to help you. If you keep the card, that hologram may appear to get revenge.
The cards you collect are most valuable working together; one card will never make-or-break a good strategy. I didn’t run into too many holograms, helpful or vengeful, in my playthroughs, either. When I did group-up with a friendly hologram, they didn’t impact my playthrough substantially. Furthermore, the card-sending “morality system” is the only multiplayer Loot Rascals has. You don’t interact with other players in any other capacity.
Brand New Person, Same Old Mistakes
Loot Rascals is a difficult game. Unless you’re much better at it than I am (which is, admittedly, quite possible), you’re going to lose your cards a lot. This wouldn’t normally be a bad thing. Death is an important part of roguelikes. The trick to making a great roguelike is making death feel like its own kind of progress. Every time you lose in a roguelike, you should feel like you’ve gained or learned something. That enemy may have gotten you this time, but next time you know just how to counter. In the best roguelikes, death never feels like bad luck; it feels like a valuable learning experience. Failure becomes as exciting an element of a roguelike’s loop as anything else.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with Loot Rascals. More often than not, when I died, it wasn’t the result of a tactical error, so much as bad luck, an accident, or a mechanic I didn’t understand. Deaths like these, especially after reaching a high level, can be really demoralizing. Loot Rascals’ main gameplay mode is made to be played in one sitting, similar to FTL’s. Unlike FTL, however, there is no save functionality. If you want to turn off Loot Rascals, you’ll have to abandon all your current progress and the hand you’re using. It’s a particularly baffling choice because, though the gameplay is brisk and fast-paced, a successful run may take upwards of two hours.
Compounding these frustrations, there’s no way to predict which enemies will drop cards. No matter how thoroughly you’ve mastered Loot Rascal’s strategy, you’ll be partially at the mercy of luck. After only a couple hours, I felt as though I’d learned everything about Loot Rascals that I was going to. When I lost, I stopped feeling as though I’d learned anything. I didn’t approach my next game with a different strategy or goal. Instead, I just attacked weak enemies and hoped they dropped good cards. These cards often felt more responsible for success than my strategies, and you can’t retain any great strategic cards gained from previous playthroughs.
Capping off the quirks, Loot Rascal’s movement feels somewhat loose and unresponsive, despite taking place on turn-based grids. Even after hours of play, I found myself wasting a turn because I accidentally stepped onto the wrong tile. Activating an ability outside of combat involves holding multiple buttons and dragging a cursor across the screen with the right stick while carefully avoiding the left. Grids appear as you move towards the edges of the visible map, and sometimes a tough enemy suddenly appears in a position where they can attack you without the same turn cost. In an easier game, problems like these wouldn’t be a big deal, but with the precision and RNG which Loot Rascals is based on, losing a run because you stepped on the wrong grid is infuriating.
Loot Rascals is a lot of fun. It’s great to look at, easy to pick up, and strategically rewarding. It fails to be a great roguelike, however, because it fails to impart a sense of personal progression as you play. The card-based gameplay relies a little too much on luck, and the asynchronous multiplayer doesn’t affect the experience enough. As a light strategy game to play for an hour or two at a time, Loot Rascals is quite a charming and refreshing downloadable title. Fans of roguelikes will probably get a quick kick out of it, but the addictive cycle of losing, improving, and mastering–which led to us spending countless hours playing Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, and FTL–is largely absent here. A great roguelike is a slow burn. Loot Rascals is more of a flash in the pan.