I never once doubted that Hollow Pond, developer of the quirky sci-fi roguelike Loot Rascals, was made up of talent (from projects like Hohokum and Adventure Time) as soon as I laid eyes on it. The bizarre, absurd, and often grotesque design of the environment, characters, and enemies channels the same visual identity as Spongebob Squarepants or Ren and Stimpy, who are easily associatable inspirations for the former. The intro sucked me in like a tractor beam. It channeled the best early moments of games like Katamari Damacy, as this teapot-faced gentlemen described to me that I wouldn’t be going to repair some communication system at a swanky resort planet, but instead will stranded on a lethal hellscape in deep space.
It was a good first impression from an indie title looking to strike gold in a genre several times over-saturated. Several hours later, it reveals itself as a clever attempt to stand out, even if it lacks to ability to beguile players for much longer than that.
In the early hours though, there is a lot to like about this game. A hexagonal grid serves as the game’s play space, and moving in a space consumes a turn. When you move, your enemies move. Some are aggressive and attempting to harm you. Others cower in fear of your presence and run. Others still pretend to run, only to lure you into ambushes. These behaviors always feel dynamic enough to keep you on your toes, especially because they can change once the sun goes down.
Every five turns, night becomes day or vice versa, which marks a shift in how monsters treat you. This is expressed overtly by the color of an attack value number hovering near their names. If it’s red, then they will do their damage to you first, the opposite if blue. Counting turns in anticipation of the next day phase becomes a primary activity when choosing to explore the unknown or tussle with nearby enemies. Combined with each enemy type’s individual behaviors—Whiskas tend to be flaky and cowardly while Ogrons are aggressive no matter the time of day—and navigating the hostile world delivers a challenging experience.
In your new life as Space Chuck Noland, you’ve developed a new hobby outside of just punching strange, new organisms in the face: you also collect loot. Like, a lot of it. Mostly from the bodies of those freshly punched organisms, but sometimes just lurking in the environment. They come in the form of cards that can be equipped to you and do several things, including raising your attack and defence, giving you the ability to light things on fire with your mind, or delaying the turn count for short periods of time.
The shrewd way these cards interact with each other brings a lot of potential depth to your load outs as time goes on and your collection gets bigger. Some cards give bonuses to others based on what type of card they are or where they are in your hand. Some can simply attach to other cards you already have, granting you new abilities. Every pickup requires an analysis of your current gear, and eventually the choice to keep or drop items to cater to your limited inventory can be excruciating. It’s a generally good mix of tension and choice.
If only it lasted longer. The game itself takes plenty of time to see the bottom of—it took me 10 hours to get to the fourth of five levels and it was mostly because of all the dying and restarting I was doing. Through that journey, the enemy types only slightly change, and the equipment gets only slightly more appealing. Generally, the numbers just get bigger, and the ecosystem looks gnarlier. The practice of playing the game stays mostly the same, and that’s it’s most damning conceit. More dramatic shifts in what you fight and how you fight them would be greatly welcome.
A more clear and constructive understanding of progression, equipment wise, would also make the act of getting to the end of this game a more consistent experience. Sometimes, I’d find incredible cards super early, like a Pool Beast that makes all the other Pool Beasts I find more powerful. Sometimes, I’d find nothing that provided any synergy or added and multiplicative effect, and would suffer greatly for it. The randomness of it all makes trying to stick with the game past the first couple of hours a trepidatious labor.
I still think fondly about the early stages of the game, though. It’s funny, it’s colorful, it’s weird, and the mechanics are sound, reliable, and fun. But it’s light-years from perfect, and fails to walk that roguelike line of randomness vs adaptive strategy that makes FTL or Risk of Rain so timeless.