Keeping Score: Loot Rascals

This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I was searching my backlog for something I could play in short sessions without getting too invested in a long story, and I settled on Loot Rascals. I don’t remember when I got it, but I do remember seeing some positive reviews online, praising it as a quirky and light game that sounded like it was exactly what I was looking for. Players explore a procedurally generated hex-based map, generated anew each game, while scrounging for loot and battling the colorful, titular rascals. Everything from the landscape to the bizarre cast of rascals is rendered in a beautiful watercolor style, and there’s even a Scottish robot sidekick with a teapot for a head. What’s not to like?

If anything, Loot Rascals is even lovelier to behold than I imagined. The opening scene shows my character, an astronaut with a badass eye patch and a ponytail that somehow protrudes from her helmet, asleep in her comically small rocket ship. She’s soon awakened by the deadpan Scottish teapot robot, who provides her with a mission recap. And while it is a thin premise with no purpose other than justifying a loot-filled adventure, I still loved it. It’s a routine mission gone wrong, basically, but that routine is so well communicated in such a short time. I can tell that my character and her robot sidekick are old hands at this, fluent in the lingo of their trade, and seeing nothing out of the ordinary in traveling to another planet to repair a self-building outer space holiday camp. That is, until they find it’s been taken over by a horrifying (yet very polite) tentacled eldritch creature who’s using the Liquid Anything that was supposed to go into making the camp to instead create an army of weird creatures to help her conquer the universe. But she hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet, so she doesn’t mind if we kill her creations for the moment, and will even resurrect us by turning back time if we die. Thus begins our many repeated attempts to escape.

Those aforementioned rascally creatures are wonderfully imaginative. There’s the Horse Bros, who appear to be a seahorse wrapped around a regular horse, with their combat stats changing every turn based on which is in front. And who could forget the electrifying Scuzzy Port Witch, or the Egg General, whose shell cracks open and leaks a yolk when defeated? Or the web-spinning Web Jock, the imposing Ratstack, or the formidable Bolas Gal, whose cry of “bolas!” echoes across the map? All of these and more are rendered in a bizarre cartoon style that looks absolutely fantastic, and are only made more endearing through their evocative animations. The menagerie on display in Loot Rascals makes me wonder how other games get away with using the same old goblins and trolls again and again. If other games displayed a fraction of the creativity on display here, we’d live in a much more interesting world.

The gameplay mechanics also feature fresh twists on established systems. Everything centers around the titular loot, which comes in the form of cards. Players can equip these cards in slots arranged in two rows of five cards each. The simplest cards just add to one’s attack or defense rating, but soon cards come with bonuses or detriments based on where they are placed. One might boost the card directly above it, but zero out the card to its left, for example. So best to slot that into the bottom left corner, but then what to place above it? With many cards that affect those around them, it becomes a little puzzle to figure out exactly how to slot everything in order to get the best result. Then there are cards that confer special abilities but no attack or defense bonuses, and enhancements that can be added to specific cards, to add further wrinkles to the card management.

Ultimately, however, those cards are used to do battle with rascals. Each rascal’s health doubles as its attack power, so it’s best to strike first. To do that, players must check whether a given rascal is prone to attack first during the day or night. You see, while players can move their character around freely, Loot Rascals is actually a turn-based game, with a turn elapsing whenever the player moves to a new hex on the map. Every five turns, it changes from day to night, or back again. Since a fight involves exchanging blows with an enemy until either the player’s character or the enemy is dead, the best strategy is to get enough attack power to defeat rascals in one hit, and then wait until the opportune time to eliminate them with a first strike. Technically, there’s no need to defeat rascals, but the cards they drop are the only way to get better loot, so it’s a good idea to take out as many as possible.

The numbers game of optimizing loot, and strategically getting the drop on rascals, makes Loot Rascals feel more like a puzzle game than a traditional roguelike. In fact, I was reminded of Hoplite, a game that has a similar hex-based map and roguelike inspirations but which plays more like a tactical puzzle. But where Hoplite’s presentation is clean and easy to read, Loot Rascals’ lovely art actually gets in the way when trying to navigate a tricky tactical situation. Its slanted viewpoint is great for showing off its crazy creatures, but when surrounded by hostile rascals the map gets obscured, at the precise moment when one’s next move must be pondered and carefully executed. It certainly doesn’t help that death in Loot Rascals is almost always abrupt and shocking. The player character has very little health, which is very difficult to replenish, and all it takes is one wrong move and a rascal can take the little astronaut out with a single strike. I often felt like things were going well, happily collecting and potimizing loot, and then suddenly it’s all over, and I have to start from scratch with boring, basic cards.

The best roguelikes make each death feel like a learning experience, and leave players itching to start again. My personal favorites also give the player a chance to recognize a threat and come up with some way to deal with it, or escape. But death in Loot Rascals tended to be instant and frustrating. The first few times, I was in fact learning how to outsmart my enemies. But soon, I found that I was dying from things I couldn’t see. I walked right into a ranged attack because I couldn’t see its incoming trajectory due to all the rascals crowding me. Or, I opted for what should have been a sure kill but — surprise! — I stepped just one hex too far away from that Night Wurzard, so it switches from night to day, and the rascal actually gets to attack first and kills me. When everything else in the game is nicely telegraphed, including that icon over the rascal’s head that assured me I’ll get first strike, it feels horribly unfair that things like the Night Wurzard’s radius of eternal night are not indicated visually. I also never figured out how to predict rascals’ movements, which meant my careful tactical decisions often ended up being little more than guesses. And when a wrong move can mean instant defeat, that wasn’t very fun.

After several such instances, my enthusiasm for Loot Rascals waned. I wanted to see what would happen to my astronaut and her robot pal, and I was excited to find what bizarre creatures awaited me in later areas, but I kept feeling that my runs were unfairly cut short. The numbers game at the heart of Loot Rascals is diverting enough at first, but after a few sessions it feels at odds with the wonderful art and writing that’s draped over it. So, I decided that I’m done with Loot Rascals. But I’m going to keep an eye on what developers Hollow Ponds do next. I’d love to play something with these lovely characters that feels more satisfying to play.

The Score:

The Loot Rascals’ soundtrack is composed by an entity known as Grandmaster Gareth, who I suspect is one of the developers. And it’s about as eclectic as you might expect. Spanning 36 minutes, it features a mixture of tracks that loop while exploring the various maps in the game, and shorter pieces that accompany cutscenes. The music is mostly relaxing, suitable for wandering around or pondering a tactical maneuver in equal measure, but it manages to span a range of styles and sounds without sounding disjointed or awkward.

While largely synthesized, the music also features traditional instruments like guitars, a small string section, and some floaty background vocal lines. If there’s any stylistic constant, it might be an influence from fairgrounds and carnivals, perhaps inspired by the fact that the game’s characters were trying to build a holiday camp before things went wrong. The opening track sounds like a carnival dub, and there are dub influences elsewhere as well, like in a spaced out waltz complete with tuba and organ. Then there’s a cheerful marimba-driven tune, or a bouncy, swinging number that wouldn’t be out of place on a carnival ride. One track takes a fairground melody and places it over an instrumental hip hop track, and then adds some ethereal vocals for good measure. Even the track which I assume accompanies the game’s final encounter — which I never reached myself — sounds like something you’d hear on a carousel, but infused with static and laid over an ominous orchestral backing reminiscent of any number of film scores. But even this tenuous stylistic thread does not encompass everything. Elsewhere, one can find a jazzy track that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in an espionage thriller, or a string-laden melody over a staccato bassline that could be in a romantic comedy if it were just slightly less weird.

Overall, it’s quite the mix of music, and lends itself especially well to listening on its own. Many soundtracks can sound out of place without the game they were made for; even the soundtrack to Outlaws, which I love, is half made up of tracks that lack melodies and only really work as tension-builders while playing. But I wouldn’t mind if any of the tracks from Loot Rascals popped up while shuffling through my music collection. I suspect they’d be particularly good to work to, as they are energetic enough without being overwhelming, or demanding attention. The soundtrack is a welcome addition to my collection.

Loot Rascals is available for PC from Steam, the Humble Store, or itch.io, as well as for Playstation 4. Its soundtrack is sold separately.

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