This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Lost in Random.
A lot of games these days start with the story or theme and pick the gameplay elements off the peg, as it were: a nice coat of open-world, a sweater of stealth-action, large, unflattering underpants of crafting bearing the skid marks of, like, fifteen previous wearers. Personally, the games I find more interesting are the ones that started by coming up with some unique gameplay element, and then tailored a story and setting around that; Pokémon would be a good example, the game set in a society that almost completely revolves around cockfighting to the point that even the nurses have trained fighting roosters as personal assistants, which would be like if, in the UK, footballers were employed at every level of society, like they hire a few to hang around hospital corridors, kicking donated organs into operating rooms.
And then there's this week's subject, Lost in Random, a game that clearly started with a combat system based around combining random dice rolls with deck-building and real-time combat along some Hand of Fate-y sort of lines, and then had to contrive a setting and story entirely based around that. For a start, it takes place in the land of Random; as in, that's literally what it's called. Fucking hell; even Pokémon isn't flat-out set in Wounded Poultry-Topia. In the distant past of Random, everyone had a dice, and all conflict was resolved in dice battles, where warriors threw dice to score points and spent the points to use the cards in their hand to make weapons manifest. We aren't told how this whole arrangement came about; seems like a lot of middlemen could've been cut out of this process. What's wrong with just twatting each other with sticks? Or how about this: twat each other with the dice? Line the corner up right, you could probably gouge an eye out.
Anyway, this all changed when an evil queen arrived and destroyed everyone's dice except her own, with which she now rules over all of Random, decreeing that whenever a child comes of age, they must be taken away from their families and forced to live in whichever of the six conveniently-numbered cities her dice decrees. The story focuses on Odd and Even, two young sisters who are lowly peasants living in Onetown, or "Oners", as they're known; I'd have gone with "Wonkas", myself. After Odd rolls a six and is taken away by the queen's minions, Even vows to journey across the land to rescue her from her new position of wealth and high status and resume their happy, carefree lives in the sewer where they belong. On the way, she joins forces with the last of the magical dice, allowing her to fight back against the queen's army of robot enforcers by mastering the art of random fighting, and not in the sense of the thing I always do when forced to play Mortal Kombat.
This is probably one of those reviews where all the comments will be like, "Ugh, why are you playing this game I personally haven't heard of, instead of the latest installment of Broody Anime Swordboy and the Hottie He Persistently Fails to Snog Adventures?" But you should know by now that I'm attracted to quirkiness, and Lost in Random has a lot of that very specific Tim Burton-y, American McGee's Alice-y flavor of quirk where the environment designers have never heard of a straight line, and all the characters look like factory-reject plushies made from stitched-together discarded fish carcasses.
Actually, if I were to summarize Lost in Random's theming, I'd go for, "It's American McGee's Alice if Lewis Carroll's estate sent the frighteners around and told them they had to take out all the references to Alice in Wonderland, and then another set of frighteners from Isaac Newton's estate came around and told them it couldn't have any jumping, either." It does feel weird that the game doesn't have a "Jump" button - yeah, Even's got pipe cleaners for legs, but that never stopped Sonic the Hedgehog - and the lack of vertical movement hamstrings a lot of the environment into corridor mazes which no amount of trapezoidal doorways can make terribly interesting. Nor, indeed, can a terribly quirky, artisanal map screen that's absolutely bloody useless for actually figuring out how to get to places.
On a similar note, while there's a lot of creativity in character design, the characters don't do much. So you'll have a dude with four eyes and a head shaped like a chesterfield sofa, and another that looks like a character from SpongeBob SquarePants recreated in decaying chicken skin, and they're all just standing around, waiting for you to talk to them so they can send you on one of the suffocating wastes of time they call "side-quests", which generally entail going out of your way to talk to another weirdo across town, then reporting back on what they said. Then, you get rewarded with a card you've already got and don't use much anyway. Unrewarding? Lack of movement options? Hard to understand map? Bunch of weirdoes standing around? What is this? The San Francisco bus system?
So in gameplay terms, at least, Lost in Random has gone all in on the combat system; how that works is, you build yourself a deck of cards you've collected, then when you're in the combat arena, you use your harmless slingshot weapon to burst a few of the enemies' protruding blackheads so you can gather enough magic pus to draw a few cards. Then you roll the dice to get a number of points that you can then spend on activating the cards, so you activate a "Big Twatting Stick" card to equip yourself with a twatting stick with which to twat the enemy. Yeah, I know it sounds like an awful lot of unnecessary steps in the way of twatting things with sticks, but it's having to deal with the random element that adds the extra spice, isn't it?
Maybe you needed to spend the points on healing this round; maybe you didn't have enough points for the twatting stick, and had to go back to bursting zits for a few minutes or make do with a castigating tube. Maybe you didn't draw a "Twatting Stick" card this round, so you have to lay down a trap, or that one that makes your dice friend explode after nine seconds. Bitch, I don't know where the fuck I'm going to be in nine seconds; I've lost control of my life! Or maybe you'll draw the card that shoots a laser as powerful as a stream of cold piss between you and your dice friend, that you might be able to politely ask the enemies to stand in the way of if you're lucky. Or maybe you won't, 'cos you didn't put that card in your deck, 'cos you're not a fucking dunce!
Hybrids of turn-based and live-action combat rarely turn out for the best; in this case, all that really matters is damaging the enemy. No method they give you is more efficient than a big twatting stick or some explosive arrows, and while you're waiting for one of those to come up, you can just dodge-roll the enemy attacks; it's not exactly strategic. And you can tell they were struggling to come up with ideas for cards, because there's only about thirty, and a lot of them are useless, and by the end of the game, the fucking card merchant, literally bellend on the kitchen worktop, ran out of cards to sell me, and then, whoops! In-game money and everything I could do to get it suddenly had no purpose!
But I don't hate Lost in Random; there was creativity on display. The story hits in the right places, and it was, after all, an experiment, and that's laudable; experiments are how we learn. This particular mix of injections made the guinea pig's brain die off. No worries; chalk it up, bring in a new guinea pig. What do you mean, "Get out of my pet shop!"?
- Doesn't like the odds: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I mean if you took platforming out of Alice: Madness Returns at least you'd have nothing left but a plastic box containing a piece of Todd McFarlane artwork
- I don't think Lost in Random will attract a Lost in Random fandom