There have been a lot of permadeath roguelikes released recently. In fact, the only thing more ubiquitous than permadeath roguelikes themselves are tedious and facile declarative sentences about how many permadeath roguelikes have been released recently. This writer should know - he's written a lot of them. They're usually followed by equally tedious and facile declarative sentences about how the particular permadeath roguelike at issue does something to differentiate itself.
And look, we get it. At this point it takes a pretty substantial leap to believe this sort of talk. But trust us when we say that, for both better and worse, Loot Rascals does some genuinely new and interesting stuff with the well-worn genre.
With that said, it starts with a pretty unremarkable core. The game is turn based and played on a hexagonal grid. Each time you move, your enemies also move, making spatial awareness key to developing a strategy. However, the goal of each procedurally generated level isn't defeating all the enemies, but rather finding the escape pod in order to move onto the next level. This is made manageable by enemies that follow strict and learnable movement patterns; as you play more rounds, you'll learn to navigate crowded encounters on your own terms.
However, despite your efforts at avoidance, you will have to fight fairly regularly. Combat begins when you and an enemy bump into each other, and then plays out automatically until either party dies. Your hero has separate attack and defence stats, while your opponents have a single power stat which encompasses both. Thus, some basic math, combined with a dash of luck, determines who will win any given clash. This system combined with the spatial awareness mentioned earlier makes for some tense strategic decision-making.
Your stats themselves are tied to an intriguing card-based inventory management system. Each enemy you encounter has the potential to drop a card that will boost your attack, boost your defence, or grant some other ability. Interestingly, cards give spatial bonuses. For instance, you might find a card which adds three attack points, but also adds one point to the total of the card below it. Similarly, you might find a card which adds three defence points, receives an extra point if it's placed in the top row, but will have its entire power negated if it's placed in the fifth column.
All these quirks combined with the fact that you can only have ten cards equipped at a time mean that you're constantly swapping the placement of your cards in an attempt to maximise stats. There's also the added wrinkle of special cards: cards which can't be moved once they're equipped, cards which stick to other cards and grant the ability to perform long range attacks, and cards which meld all your attack or defence stats into a single card.
It's an interesting system, to be sure, but it isn't without its issues. In the early to mid-game, for instance, there isn't a great deal of strategic variance – you're at the whim of whatever cards you happen to receive. And then when you do finally find more interesting cards, there's rarely any interesting choice to be made about which cards to use, and which to dump. Most disappointing of all, though, is that regardless of which card combination you end up with, the optimal strategy will be roughly the same. Barring a few notable exceptions, even the more bizarre cards don't change up the core mechanics too much.
Unfortunately, these issues pervade the game on a broader level as well. The random card drops can sometimes leave you so powerless that there isn't much point in attempting to finish a round. On the other hand, you'll sometimes play games in which you'll very quickly be able to amass a collection of extremely powerful cards, making the first few levels a breeze.
The procedural generation can sometimes be inconsistent as well. If you don't manage to find the exit within a set number of turns, an army of hyper-aggressive and extraordinarily powerful aliens shows up to force you into heading to the next level. You'll occasionally be dumped in a level which requires you to move back and forth between various areas, making the aliens turn up before you've even close to discovering the exit, and essentially killing your run.
Thankfully, not all of the title's new ideas are so inconsistent. Whenever a player dies, a random card is stolen from their inventory and dropped into the game of another player. When you encounter one of these cards, you can either choose to keep it, or send it back to whoever it was stolen from. If you decide to keep it, a hologram of the player the card belonged to will return to you in a later game and attempt to avenge your misdeed. Conversely, if you send the card back, the hologram will offer to help you. It's as impressive little meta-mechanic, which mitigates some of the card issues referenced above, and also leads to interesting situational decisions.
Similarly impressive is the game's presentation. Floating around at the intersection of 70s sci-fi and an illustrated children's book, the enemy and level design is colourful and expressive. The sound design is also charming, making strong use of unique instrumentation and humorous voice acting.
Loot Rascals is an intriguing and infectiously charming roguelike. Its central mechanics are tense and engaging, and the meta-mechanic surrounding them provide a satisfying gimmick. Unfortunately, its card-based stat system offers little strategic variety, and its procedural generation can be frustrating.