STAFF REVIEW of Loot River (Xbox One)

Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
by Adam Dileva

Loot River Box art If there’s two genres I’d never think I’d see combined into one, it probably would have been Tetris and a Souls-like. That’s right, somehow developers has managed to meld the challenging gameplay of a Souls-like with the piece moving that many of us grew up with playing Tetris. I know, it’s hard to imagine how they blend together, but it’s quite clever and actually works quite well once you get accustomed to the controls.

To make the game have much more replayabilty, it’s all procedurally generated, so no two runs will ever be the same. Also being a roguelike means you’re going to die, a lot, and every death means a new run with new strategies based on how the levels are laid out in front of you. Combined with decent pixel art and addictive combat once you figure it out, Loot River surprised me with its unique ideas and gameplay.

In most dungeon crawlers you need to explore pathways and kill enemies in your way, but here in Loot River, instead of exploring an underground dungeon on foot, you’re instead tasked with moving platforms across a flooded river filled with tons of challenging enemies from a top down viewpoint. I know that this brief description so far doesn’t really explain its main features and gameplay well, but it will all make sense shortly as you move your floating platforms around the river like they are pieces in Tetris.

I don’t want to say there’s not much of a story within Loot River, but it’s certainly not the primary focus of the overall experience, that’s where the gameplay comes in. You die early on in your adventure but get revived into some sort of other worldly place. You’re tasked with adventuring forth to somehow stop this loop you’re stuck in, as you reappear back in this unfamiliar place with just a handful of characters around after you awaken from each death.

There’s a few characters you’ll meet and talk to along the way, but don’t go in expecting some interesting narrative and simply focus on the unique gameplay. One of the most interesting of these is an alchemist named Soap. You’ll need your limited potions to refill your health when you get low to avoid a death and restart, but what happens when you finally start to get some skill and can dodge and parry when needed and don’t die so often? Well, you can opt to donate some potions to Soap who will double what you gave him after a successful run. So do you risk giving up some of your precious health potions for a chance at more after a successful level?

The most interesting aspect about Loot River is undoubtedly its platform moving mechanics that resemble playing Tetris. Keep in mind that platforms float on a river, so standing on one and using the Right Stick will move that platform in whatever of the four main directions you move the stick. Sliding these platform is really interesting and also has somewhat of a puzzle component to it. These platforms can be small square shaped, long rectangles, weird “C” shapes and others, which makes moving around the confined waterways difficult, sometimes having to move to other platforms to move them out of the way of the specific platform you might need to fit adjacent walkways.

While I generally enjoyed this core part of Loot River, it was also at times the most frustrating aspect as well. Because levels are procedurally generated, it’s randomized how levels are designed, so you won’t be able to look up any help if you get stuck. Making these platform sections even more difficult at times is that there’s sometimes higher platforms that you need stairs to reach up, as some platforms will have a small staircase to reach this upper level. Moving around to a platform you think you need only to realize you’re not using a higher tiered section means you might need to do some backtracking and moving a dozen different pieces around to get the specific platform you need to reach another area or fit within a small hallway. More than once I had to manually end a run prematurely because I simply couldn’t figure out these platform puzzle elements or had to do a ton of backtracking and figuring out to progress. Frustrating at times but cool ideas nonetheless.

While playing Tetris with moveable platforms may be half of the equation, the other half is the combat that tries to resemble something you’d experience in a Souls game. You start with two weapons, a sword and a pike, though both play quite differently. There’s a handful of different weapon types you’ll find and unlock along the way, but I always found my best runs were when I stuck with a basic sword for the majority. Eventually weapons will start to have powers and spells attached to them and usable as well and you can swap between two carried weapons when you want.

Combat itself feels quite clunky at first, and since you often get swarmed and have to deal with plenty of enemies it can be a little overwhelming at first. It wasn’t until I learned how to parry properly that I started to really have much more success. Enemies will give a quick telegraph of their attacks with a small icon above their head for a brief second, allowing you to parry or dodge out of the way. I highly suggest learning to parry properly, as dodging can be useful, but it’s not like what you’re used to in Souls games since there’s no invulnerability that allows you to avoid being hit if you time it right. Instead, it’s somewhat like a short distance teleport, simply moving you out of the range of an attack. This of course becomes confusing during chaotic battles, but you will eventually get used to it with enough practice. Parrying properly will allow you to get a much higher damage hit in for ‘free’, as you’re invulnerable during this animation, something you’ll need to master.

I was honestly expecting to be showered in loot given the game title 'Loot River'. While you will find some loot along the way randomly from weapons, rings and armor, there’s really not all that much given the randomness of enemies and drops. Since runs are reset in this roguelike every time you die, it doesn’t really matter in the end either aside from making you more powerful for that specific run. There was the odd really interesting and unique weapons from bosses and such, but not nearly as much as I expected.

You’ll want to spend the first good amount of runs trying to kill every enemy you can, not only to level up and give you a better chance to survive that run, but increasing your stats and earning skill points. These points can purchase you new weapon, magic and armor unlocks that can make subsequent runs that much easier. This is the persistent progression you’re constantly working towards, even when dying on runs over and over, though it is slow.

I quite enjoyed the retro aesthetic Loot River utilizes, as the animations are done quite well and the water simulation as you constantly move platforms is quite impressive, almost looking like pixelated waves. Where I found the visuals lacking though is the distinction between certain weapons. For example, I usually held two different swords, but had to constantly double check in the menus which one I was equipping because the icons for each were very similar without much distinction.

I normally tend to steer away from Souls-like as it’s not my genre of choice. Coupled with being a roguelike, I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy it in the slightest bit. Loot River surprised me though with its interesting and unique puzzle mechanics, and while not perfect by any means, “Souls Meets Tetris” is something I never thought I would write, but here we are. Factor in that Loot River is also currently available on Game Pass and it’s a hard title to pass up trying to see if it click with your genre preferences.

**Loot River was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 6.5 / 10


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