Delinquency By Chance

A good player is always lucky, the saying goes. No matter the hand dealt to them, the best players know when to push through and succeed, and Loot Rascals aims to replicate the feeling of surviving in spite of the odds. Facing off against a series of ever-stronger aliens and obstacles as I inched further away from my planetary outpost, a series of good decisions (and a well-arranged deck) can turn tepid luck into a fighting chance. But as often as it gave me just enough to pull through, Loot Rascals threw me into situations where I may as well have folded.

Loot Rascals is a roguelike, turn-based strategy game on a hexagonal grid that also borrows from the survival genre: A day-and-night cycle controls whether monsters attack or defend (determining who lands the first hit in combat), and if you wander around for too long, stronger monsters appear until you meet an unstoppable specter of death.

Combat is simple and quick, letting players focus more on strategy than action. When you and an enemy run into the same tile, you trade hits automatically based on your attack values. Battles take no more than a couple of seconds, but because my chief concern is how I can survive long-term, I never felt the combat needed to be more intricate. The rush of victory came from knowing I’d outsmarted an enemy by pinning them down at the right time, not from watching numbers go down.

Cards dropped by monsters carry attack or defense values, and the ways you can combine these cards gives deck-building a satisfying strategy layer. Most cards have conditional modifiers based on their placement on a five-by-two grid, like a boot that only offers two defense points but boosts the card placed below it by two points. Some cards must be attached to others and offer special powers you can use while exploring, such as teleportation. Finding the optional positioning for my current cards made each run feel personal and rewarding.

But on some runs, early monsters won’t drop new cards as often as they should. This is especially important in a game where monsters scale on a predictable curve. When this happens it’s a struggle to progress past the early parts of a level. This rarely creates impossible situations, but after several hours of play, I now know a bad run when I see it, and when to choose to cut my losses and start over instead of waiting for my luck to improve. Considering the cut-and-dried nature of combat, investing in a poor early hand is simply not worth it.

With a good lead, though, luck recedes into the background. As you get to the second, third, and fourth levels (out of five), decisions matter more, since you likely have a solid foundation to work from by then. And with no way to make permanent progress across playthroughs, the stakes of a great run ramp up more intensely than other roguelikes. Whenever I made it near the end, I carefully judged every move, trying to hold on to what might be my best shot at victory. A few times, though, I would leave one area having as strong a deck as possible, only to be dwarfed by the monsters in the next. Losses like that left me thinking the only way I could have done better was if I had gotten better cards.

Loot Rascals offers a few ways to stem the tide of chance, though. You can find rockets that let you launch a card from one playthrough to another, which can help to salvage a bad run. Similarly, when a monster kills a player, they take one or more cards. Other players can then find these cards and choose to keep them or return them to their owners. It may be tempting to keep a good card you find this way, but be warned: Holographic ghosts of players roam the world, and if you took their owners’ cards, they turn against you. If you were kind, they help you instead. It’s an interesting choice conceptually, but I found it better to simply return every card and not deal with more enemies than I already had.

Each procedural seed also has a number attached to it, and you can replay any seed by punching it in. If you want to play one particularly bountiful seed to completion, you can. You can also turn any deck you’re fond of into a “practice” deck, which lets you use it again but prevents you from reaching the final boss. These concepts warp the roguelike formula in fun ways, but I still frequently had runs I had little to show for, which was discouraging.

Loot Rascals introduces plenty of clever twists to turn-based strategy games. The deck-building is smart, the combat is breezy, and the strategic layer is interesting. But the combination of procedural generation and haphazard difficulty made me feel more like a victim of chance than a mastermind.

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