Date: May 3, 2022
When I saw the initial Loot River announcement trailer, it felt like someone had looked at my most-played genres on Steam and created a game by mixing them together. Soulsborne style combat? Check. Dark fantasy world? Check. Pixel-graphics, procedurally generated roguelike? Check and check. I tried to keep my expectations low, but I was pretty excited when I booted Loot River up for the first time.
My excitement quickly faded once I got in game and fought my first few enemies. When I hit the dodge-roll button for the first time, it was slowed to the point I had to check and make sure I wasn’t getting FPS drops. Feel is so important for action games, and the roll just felt weird — like a dash, but with a slowdown on landing. It’s hard to say if that’s actually happening, or if it just feels that way because of the animations, but I couldn’t figure out the i-frames on the roll, or if they even had any, and my first few deaths in Loot River were accompanied by shouts of “What?! I dodged!” and various expletives.
The gameplay issues don’t end with the roll, however. Combat in general feels clunky, in large part due to the poor animations and the hard-to-read top-down art style. Enemy attacks lack impact, and even with the attack indicator turned on it’s difficult to tell what your foes are doing (or what the heck they’re even supposed to be). Enemies also get caught on the corners of tiles, and seem to exhibit inconsistent behavior (sometimes attacking when you’re out of range, sometimes waiting until you’ve entered).
The bosses are another area that seems great at first, but ends up less than stellar. They’re very well presented visually, but are more like puzzles than combat challenges, and once you figure out how to deal with them they aren’t much of a challenge. Once you’ve solved the puzzle, the bosses are a chore rather than an exciting fight, and making a mistake and taking damage just feels annoying. Full disclosure: I didn’t finish Loot River — after a couple of deaths on one of these tedious bosses, I put the game down and didn’t pick it back up.
It’s a shame that the combat is such a miss, because the sliding platforms really add an interesting dimension to the typical light attack/heavy attack/dodge gameplay. On a controller (the preferred input method), the right stick will move the platform you’re on, assuming there’s a place for the platform to go — not only are the platforms how you traverse levels, you can use the platforms to avoid or flank enemies.
This is fun at first, but you quickly realize that the optimal gameplay tactic is to stand on the edge of a platform, slide it in and attack once, then slide away before the enemy attack can hit you. As a counter to this strategy, there are enemies that can lock platforms in place until you slay them. Often though, these guys ended up on platform islands with way too many enemies, and ended up being a frustration rather than an interesting way to force the player to change tactics.
You also spend a fair amount of time in Loot River doing platform puzzles, since the platforms vary in size, and so do the path(s) forward. Like the platform combat, these puzzles started out fun, but quickly felt like more of a chore — there isn’t a ton of variety in them, and since they’re procedurally generated they tend to be repetitive and not particularly interesting as far as puzzles go. To add insult to injury, sometimes I’d solve a platform puzzle and begin making my way forward, only to discover that I’d solved my way into a dead end with no loot.
The eponymous loot is yet another aspect of the game with good ideas but that ends up less than satisfying. One of the key elements of a good roguelike is the RNG of getting a build going — finding weapons, armor, and items that synergize or encourage a certain style of play. But despite being part of the game’s name, there isn’t nearly enough loot on the Loot River. Even if you fully clear the first three levels, it’s unlikely that you’ll get to make any significant choices about loadout — instead, you’ll just have to take whatever the game gives you, which rarely end up interacting in a meaningful way.
This problem extends to the game’s unlock system; you can fully clear the first two levels and not have enough currency to unlock anything new, and once you’ve unlocked the first tier of items, you might not be able to unlock anything even after beating the first boss. You can also go many, many runs without seeing your new unlocks, since the game is so stingy with loot (although you do receive your new item or weapon when you initially unlock it).
This issue can be mitigated to an extent by finding and equipping artifacts that can alter the game in a variety of crucial ways, including making enemies drop more loot (with a tradeoff — they do significantly more damage). These artifacts can allow you to face optional bosses, take new routes through the game, or modify the levels to be more or less complex. It’s a really fun mechanic — getting to significantly modify the levels and enemies to suit your playstyle and preferences is satisfying, and I’d love to see it in more roguelikes.
Another area in which Loot River excels is atmosphere. The story is revealed slowly as you populate the game’s hub area with NPCs, and the game’s plot does a good job of explaining why you keep dying and coming back, as well as why the levels are a little different each time you go through them. Despite my frustrations with the game’s combat, I may eventually have to suck it up and beat the game just to see the rest of the story for myself.
I really wanted to like Loot River, and I played for hours after I was no longer having fun — I thought that if I got good enough at the game, maybe it would stop being so frustrating to play. But the game’s early levels became more and more of a chore — I even turned on easy mode, which I never do, and it didn’t help. Eventually, I couldn’t bring myself to boot it up again. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on patch notes, since I see a lot of potential in Loot River, but for the time being it’s hard to imagine hopping back on the platforms.
If the combat clicks for you, it could certainly be an enjoyable experience; the game is lovingly crafted, and there are a lot of things to appreciate. For me though, the issues with balance and pacing, alongside combat that just didn’t feel right, make it hard for me to recommend the game in its current state.