Originally published at: https://xboxera.com/2022/05/03/review-loot-river/
What happens if you combine Tetris, Dark Souls, and the Roguelike genre? Why you get Loot River of course! This brand new title from straka.studio is available day one on Game Pass and after a bit of early trepidation, I ended up greatly enjoying my time with it. It is a run-based action-platformer full of puzzles, combat, and more water than you’ll know what to do with. Featuring a plethora of clever mechanics and “good enough” combat, is this one worth trying out? Let’s find out together, on this never-ending path to world salvation.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The first time I saw Loot River back in the ID@Xbox twitch showcase in March of 2021 I was immediately interested by its look. This tiny, pixelated character controlling wooden platforms floating freely in a dark, mysterious world with the words “roguelike” being thrown around? A little over a year later here we are, and Loot River is everything its initial reveal trailer promised. You have awoken in a broken, rotting world and you are recruited to help save it (among many other duties you’ll find out as the game progresses). Immediately though, things are far deeper than they appear. I try to keep these reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but you will quickly learn just why the roguelike setup here works so well.
Whether you defeat the first boss or not you will quickly meet your end, and that’s when the run-based nature of things takes hold. Central to this game is the Sanctuary, a hub world where you will find and recruit new members to help you with the overall metagame of things. The mysterious figure who recruits you can offer up modifiers for your runs that change things up a lot, and the master at arms can slowly (very slow to start) unlock various weaponry that has a chance of dropping at random during your adventures. There is a potion master who doesn’t enhance them, instead if you “lend” him a number and clear a level he’ll hand you back twice as much. Runs would start with 4 potions, and I would hand 2 of them to him, finish a level, then get 4 back. It’s an interesting gambling mechanic that rewards you for keeping your armor clean.
You’ll find a spell crafter, hat vendor, and more as you work your way through the game’s surprisingly small number of environments as you attempt to cleanse “this world” of its evil inhabitants. At first, progression felt incredibly slow, but after 4 or 5 hours in, seemingly out of nowhere, I had my first Victory. I had, without realizing it, been improving on the game’s systems so much on my own that I not only made it to two areas I had never been to before, but I killed the boss in each and had a fully successful run. It felt incredible and was thanks in large part to one of the more forgiving and satisfying parry mechanics in a game to date.
Deliberate Combat That Rewards Patience
Loot River’s combat is inspired by Dark Souls, but its straight-down view necessitates a few major caveats. The A button is your dodge, which is handy but limited in how far you move and how much you can use it. There is a very short internal timer that keeps it from being spammable. X changes between your two equipped weapons, Y is your interact button, right bumper is your light chainable attack, and right trigger is your heavy move which can be charged up. The most important button in the game though is B which is for parrying. The timing and animation for parrying change for each weapon, but in general it is an extremely generous and massively powerful ability. A successful parry opens most enemies up for a devastating (again different per weapon) counter which features you teleporting in and dealing major damage while you are in an invincibility window yourself.
It took me a while to realize just how important parrying is and when used alongside the game’s unique and utterly fabulous traversal system it can make short work of most opponents. When facing a large group though parrying isn’t always your best option, and that’s where your powerful charged heavy attacks can put in some real work. The early few weapons on hand are not the most satisfying to use though, and I didn’t really start enjoying the combat until I had unlocked the first 4 or 5 I could which took a surprisingly long amount of time. It is worth it though because the new weapons and gear you unlock as you progress through the game changes things up fantastically and took a mediocre combat system and turned it into something I think is damned fun.
The main attraction here for anyone watching footage of the game though must be the traversal. Your character carries with them a relic that allows full control over the various types of material that float atop this endless river. Each piece has a procedurally generated shape set in a procedurally generated map layout. This endless game of Tetris allows control over the environment that enhances everything. Your right stick can move Up, Down, Left, and Right for as long as you are unobstructed. Figuring out just how each piece needs to be moved to advance at times makes up the majority of the game’s puzzles and they’re very well done. There is a mob type that can lock all the floor pieces in place though, so you’ll want to kill that annoying sob as quickly as possible.
This movement mechanic is key to the combat of the game as well. Using it to separate large packs of enemies helps keep your health from being chipped away at as you power up your character.
The Build Part of any Good Roguelike
A key component of any good roguelike is how your build works each run. Growth only occurs mid-run, much like in Dead Cells. Only one currency is needed for most things, Memories. Dropped seemingly at random from enemies, contained in various chests, and dropped in abundance by bosses, Memories are used at each vendor in Sanctuary to permanently unlock their offerings. Early on it felt impossible to ever gain the twenty memories I needed to unlock a new weapon, and I spent hours in frustration as each death meant losing everything I had on hand. After finally mastering the combat though I started to quickly unlock new weapons, spells, and armor (in the form of hats) which allowed me to start tinkering with my builds which are highly dictated by both the drops you get during a run and the stats you choose whenever you level up.
Utilizing a tried-and-true experience-based system each enemy you kill will fill your XP meter until you tick over and gain a point. These points can then go into various stats. Strength and Dexterity are weapon damage modifiers, with certain weapons benefiting more from one or the other. Vitality ups your life bar by a large amount per point. Endurance gives you a longer parry window, and Intelligence adds to your spell and critical hit damage. The spell system seems interesting but even after 4 or 5 successful runs I only have a small number of them unlocked because I find the weapon and parry systems more enjoyable, at least to start with.
The other main component of your build is your three ring slots which can offer up a large variety of either stat or condition-based buffs. Most early rings offer up 1 or 2 to a certain stat, but one of my favorites is an “every fifth hit is a guaranteed crit” ring. Much like the memories, they drop at random from enemies with a higher chance to drop from bosses and only lasts for as long as your current run is active. It’s not as deep as Dead Cells but it’s deep enough that I felt satisfied overall in making a build that best suited my style of gameplay.
Another Grim Dark World with Damned Good Music
Graphically it’s an interesting-looking game. Sadly it is not Series X enhanced however so there are no high framerate modes on offer. Everything is from that far-off top-down view and it ran, on average, well over 200fps on my PC and I can’t imagine that a proper Series version could hold a steady 120fps as well. The soundtrack is damned good if a bit limited and there is no voice acting on offer. Writing is well done though again quite limited and the interaction system lacks clarity on when a conversation is over. You find out by pressing Y and being greeted with the same short line repeatedly.
I had a few progression and loading bugs while playing on both Steam and Series X, but each was solved with client-side patches before launch. Other than that things ran well, looked nice, and sounded great the majority of the time. With the way the hub world interacts with the game in each run, I am interested to see where DLC could go in the future, as well. I hope they add in a bit more variety to the bosses as I found myself able to cheese them quite easily once I figured out their movement/attacks.
Accessibility wise the game features an easy mode that lowers your damage taken and ups the damage you dish out alongside many language options. PC had very little in the way of graphical options with the main one being focused on the quality of the water. As this is not a native Series title it does not feature Quick Resume at the time of review, though hopefully this is patched in later (we just never know if it will be or not).
After a slow start Loot River really grew on me. It took longer than I would have liked to start progressing but once I did things felt good enough combat-wise, incredible enough movement-wise, and intriguing enough roguelike-wise that I put in a lot of time (mostly on PC) before launch. It is available day one on Game Pass and is exclusive to Xbox and PC at launch. If you have the patience, you will be rewarded with one of the more unique takes on the genre, and I think that it is well worth checking out.