Loot River is a top-down action roguelike from straka.studio with a unique sliding puzzle element. You’re a nameless warrior killed in battle and revived by a mysterious woman named Iphis, who tasks you with searching out and destroying a relic that’s seemingly trapped you and several others in a dangerous world.
The world is made up of rafts and platforms floating atop flooded dungeons that change each time you die. The premise is as murky as the water you float across. NPCs you meet on your runs will return to the hub area and offer up new items you can unlock for future tries, as well as tell you more about themselves or the world over time. All the exposition occurs in these interactions, leaving the storytelling feeling a bit disconnected from the exploration.
Gameplay consists of finding the proper path through the labyrinthine dungeons. The right control stick freely moves platforms across the water, but only if there’s space to do so, leading to situations that require some maneuvering to proceed. The interlocking platforms offer small challenges that test your wits while throwing monsters at you that further complicate the path. You have normal and charged attacks, and you can roll, block, and parry with some weapons for defense. Fleeing is also a solid option, as most monsters can’t chase you across disconnected platforms, and using your control over platforms to cheese enemy encounters or skip them entirely feels like a high-level strategy. Though neither the sliding puzzles nor the enemy encounters are particularly engaging.
Defeating enemies lets you level up and find loot. You can equip a couple of stat-altering clothing items and have three charm slots that can provide important effects like a parry that restores health. You can switch between two weapons that can come with magic spells like invisibility or a space-clearing shock wave. The right equipment can drastically improve your chances of survival, but it doesn’t always feel worth the risk of seeking it out, as heavily guarded chests often give you the exact item you are holding. Spending resources earned on runs to expand the item pool helps a bit, but you’re still not guaranteed to find better equipment than what you’re using.
Tougher enemies and bosses sometimes drop world modifiers that can grant sweeping changes like ensuring enemies drop higher-level loot, but they can come with caveats like buffing enemy damage. A number of modifiers seem to smooth out the grind of starting over by providing shortcuts or simplifying later dungeon layouts, but there was little incentive to use ones that had consequences over the ones that didn’t, even with modifiers to curb the difficulty.
Deaths wipe all progress and items aside from modifiers and can feel immensely discouraging as a result. The game’s easy mode does little to alleviate that feeling. One boss deleted a half screen’s worth of health in an instant. The healing system is harsh as well: You start with four consumable health potions, and the only way to get more is to leave a number of them with an NPC, who will double that after you’ve survived a level. But it becomes that much harder to survive when you’ve gambled away some or all of your healing items.
However, I found an exploit that allowed me to take advantage of this NPC for hundreds of potions, and I was able to make it through the game’s five zones, two of which only house boss battles, which I found too repetitive and poorly balanced.
Loot River’s 2D pixel art is astounding though. Its environments, lighting, and water effects are of particular note, but characters and enemies appear to be 3D models rendered with a pixelation filter that doesn’t hit the same level of detail as the surroundings. The music and sound design are also great in their own right.
Overall, I like the idea behind Loot River’s mix of puzzle-solving and exploration, but its execution failed to hook me. Its rogue elements are punishing without providing the catharsis of a well-earned victory. However, players who are looking for the more stringent confines of a traditional roguelike may still want to dive in. The game is out May 3 for $24.99 on PC and Xbox Series X | S.
Watch the Review in 3 Minutes for Loot River.