Ever since the release of the infamous first installment, Dark Souls has cemented itself as both the most challenging and rewarding series you can find on the market. Sure, the effort of needing to learn enemy attack patterns and how to best use your resources at hand may seem daunting, but the payoff makes it worth it. Especially when you finally beat a boss like Malenia in Elden Ring, only to find out you aren’t actually done and cry tears of pain. Jokes aside, the latest in a long line of games following the iconic series’ genre is Loot River, a pixel-art top-down adventure from the team at indie developer Straka Studio. Does it truly bring a canal of carnage worth traversing, though? Find out in my review of Loot River!
A Ravaged Land
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I originally was going to skip over talking about the story due to the focus primarily being on both gameplay and the presentation, though to my surprise, Loot River houses a fair bit of lore under the surface. For those of you who aren’t familiar with how things are traditionally done here, this title opts to not tell a traditional story but rather to show you the story either through the environment or through small hints of text here and there. It’s been used for years in the Dark Souls games and Elden Ring more recently, not to mention most souls likes you can find on the market.
While imperfect, Loot River does a decent job of this as well. Whether you’re exploring a new zone for the first time, speaking to one of many characters, or simply are reading the blurb that shows during loading screens, you’re given a steady stream of lore to help piece together exactly why you find this world the way it is. Admittedly, the lore isn’t quite as strongly presented as some of the legends of its genre, though it doesn’t exactly need to be. These games have always been stronger in other areas, so having the story fail to be as strong is surprisingly minor.
Though the story isn’t as strong as it could be, Loot River thankfully manages to nail that forward humor these games are known for. As just one nod to the series that started it all, one character in the second area can be found slashing away at a wall, being told there was a secret passage “near something red” that simply doesn’t exist. Then, to your surprise, slashing a wall right next to them reveals a secret passageway the character was unaware of, a nod to the countless misleading messages in the Souls series left by other players. That’s just one example of it, though I’ll leave you to find the rest.
While not perfect, my Loot River review finds the story acceptable, even throwing a few surprises here and there. It will not be the next big story innovation, though the humor quickly makes up for that.
Inspired Yet Underivative
Now to talk about the real meat and potatoes of the experience, the combat. See, while I’d never commit the journalistic sin of saying this is the Dark Souls of roguelikes, it’s hard to ignore Loot River’s similarities to the series. Dodge rolling with invulnerability frames, parrying an attack to inflict massive damage, limited healing flasks that can be increased, punishing boss encounters that require knowledge of movesets, numerous weapons, and playstyles, it’s all there. But while this may all make Loot River sound derivative in nature, it somehow manages to run with that inspiration and create something that arguably couldn’t be compared.
Beyond the apparent change in going for 2D over 3D, Loot River’s unique moving platform mechanic adds a lot more nuance to what’d normally be fairly standard enemy fodder. These encounters work similarly to other games, though they are generally more numerous and difficult to take down. When you bring in the moving platforms, though, it becomes a game of deciding how to best use your environment to your advantage. When approaching a large group of enemies, you could do something as simple as slash as many times as possible until brought to low health, then retreat using a platform to heal yourself up and go back in. More skilled players may use the same platform, though to dance around their foes and take them on in small groups at a time until eventually succeeding with far fewer scratches. This extra layer of skill creates much stronger fights and a greater sense of progression as you continue to play.
It naturally goes beyond this massive mechanic, though, as plenty of tweaks to the formula has been made for the sake of being better suited for roguelikes. For one, upgrades to stats are earned through a standard XP system rather than through dropped enemy souls. These souls are instead used though in unlocking new items, weapons, armor, and more to further add variety to your runs. While you won’t score your new items on every run in Loot River, the fact that you can add that variety helps for replayability when it comes to unlocking everything. As they always say, variety is the spice of life.
If you’re the type to unlock everything, that isn’t the only gift you’re given. Like many other games of its kind, there’s even a second ending that can be unlocked through the use of new modifiers, which can unlock new bosses alongside change-up enemies you’ve grown accustomed to. Experimenting with this to find what works best for you can tailor the experience to your interests while also letting you increase the difficulty to possibly discover how else the game may end.
All of this encompasses true labor of love in gameplay from Straka Studio, with Loot River feeling as strong as many of those games in my review. It may be a tighter, more focused experience clocking in at roughly 10 hours, but it uses that focus to sell you on all the refreshing content it’s willing to offer. That’s unheard of even for some AAA studios, further attesting to the strengths the team has.
Beauty in the Small Details
Like gameplay, Loot River opts to keep its art focused on both your character and the immediate ruins surrounding them rather than any sort of grand scale. This gives the team at Straka Studio plenty of room to focus on painting the environments with immaculate detail, despite it being a pixel art game in nature. What results is something that holds its own among the pixel art resurgence we’ve seen over the past few years, thanks to modern technology being thrown into the mix.
Not only are environments great to appreciate, but it’s the fluidity of animation that takes center stage. While its art style may be imitating games of old, Loot River’s fast, fluid animations lend to the gameplay to give a strange sense of realism, particularly towards weapon swings and, of all things, water. Weapon swings may be much easier to telegraph through the increased framerate, but somehow the water’s natural flow helps your platform’s movement feel all the more powerful.
To top it all off, the team at Straka Studio has gone through the painstaking effort of making each of Loot River’s weapon attacks and parries sound all the more distinct in my review. Sure, you can see the difference between a dagger and a longsword simply by looking at your character, but it’s through stabbing sound effects that you can truly attest to weapon power. Admittedly when it comes to the soundtrack, I would’ve liked to see additional music tracks play into particular boss fights, but it at least helps to emphasize your weapons during these difficult encounters.
Verdict: Loot River will easily go down as one of my GOTY contenders, which has only happened rarely through reviews of mine. The game’s developers’ pure craftsmanship and attention to detail shows here, letting its combat and atmosphere shine in a way that’s had its time in the oven. With so much more to do, I’m sure I’ll sink at least another dozen hours in trying to see what new weapons I can pick up for future runs. With only some smaller issues impacting the experience, Loot River sets a nice, carnage-filled home among some of the better indie titles we’ve seen so far this year.
- Plenty of environmental storytelling to uncover
- Great use of forward humor
- Combat feels inspired without being a direct copy
- Moving platform mechanic plays a hand in movement and combat
- Plenty of nice innovations to fit the roguelike mold
- Extra ending for those who put the time and effort in
- Beautiful, focused visuals
- Fast, fluid animations
- Weapons sound appealing and distinct
- Minor polishing issues
- Not every boss has a unique song