In my last review, I commented on the difficulty in reviewing certain kinds of games. The case of Retro Machina is how one should rate a game that has an intriguing presentation that fascinates the player, yet the gameplay is monotonous and plain. Little did I know that I would come face to face with this conundrum again, especially so soon. Having to review Lost Ruins immediately afterwards is akin to sketching the same location in the dark as opposed to in light.
On the surface, Lost Ruins and Retro Machina have very little in common. It’s when placed into the context of critical review that their qualities end up almost fitting into one another. Nevertheless, the game under review will no doubt be something of a tricky substance to pin down. How much should be left to the intention of the design? To what extent should players have to suffer from disadvantageous design to make a point? Whatever the case, this is a game best left to those within a niche genre of, well, perhaps too many inspirators.
Lost Ruins is available now on Steam for your regional pricing. Switch, PS4, and Xbox One ports are planned for a later date.
Story – No Thoughts, Head Empty
Tell me if you’ve heard this before: An unnamed protagonist wakes up with no memory in a mysterious place. A sorceress named Beatrice encounters the amnesiac and gives her a goal, which involves killing followers of the “Dark Lady” to regain her lost memories. Comprised of one large map, this central character will have to travel great lengths to kill all six followers, lest she succumb to the environment herself.
While not the most original plot, it’s likely enough to hold people over through the course of the game. With a number of cutscenes along the way, the player is treated to more than enough context to have the goal well in their mind. Various characters (of varying importance) also provide some world-building that ultimately shapes the state of the main setting. Only a few are recurring, though, so if you liked any particular character early on, you may have to go back to visit every now and then.
These cutscenes also provide a collection of dialogue to peruse. Most situations end up pretty straightforward and, overall, not entirely interesting. Characters generally showcase a singular personality—not that the game gives them time to develop or anything. One is a psychotic murderer, another is… a more psychotic murderer. Writing is definitely not a strength here, and the style of the game holds up far more than any narrative substance. The main hero is a sweet girl who doesn’t want to fight, but does. Most of her adversaries are aggressive lunatics. Dialogue conveys this as is demanded, though never past that basic point.
Additional context details also come in the form of journal/smartphone entries found around specific rooms. These generally consist of fifty words or less and, like dialogue, do very little past the bare minimum. Each area tends to have a few journals that relay the inner thoughts of the upcoming boss character (or “follower”). These journals consist of the characters saying things like “Something weird is happening” or “I love this idol group” or “I want to slice into human flesh.” Should that be to your taste, Lost Ruins has plenty of it. Just don’t expect anything deeper.
Tone is also something of a weird metronome here. Generally, it’s trying to be dark and gruesome. Occasionally, it’s also very comedic. In a plot involving dark magic, brutal bloodshed, and twisted maniacs, it also chooses to include a pair of idol-obsessed zombies who want you to retrieve their dakimakura. Aside from these moments of brevity, there also exists a “twist” in the story that anyone with a brain should be able to see coming. It’s hinted at pretty extensively and when the moment finally comes, it’s not shocking whatsoever. Basically, I was not impressed with the game’s writing.
Gameplay – To Grieve or Not to Grieve
Difficulty for Difficulty’s Sake
All right, so, this is the aspect that makes this hard to rate, for a couple reasons. The first is that this is meant to be a difficult survival game. If one were to think of this logically, one plays a young girl (maybe 14-16 years of age) carrying a large assortment of heavy weapons that are unbecoming to her. The manner in which she wields things and fights are indicative of her demeanor and substantial lack in experience. She’s no Simon Belmont—it’s a normal girl in an incompatible setting. Things are going to be a little wonky.
For more clarity, there is a sizeable amount of the community who despise the way Lost Ruins‘ combat operates. It’s slow, heavy-handed, and effectively places the player at a disadvantage. This is further exacerbated considering enemies (and especially bosses) are much faster. They’ve acclimated to this violent world and have the vigor to take the player out quickly. With all sorts of status ailments and hazards to boot, players can expect to die repeatedly, and sometimes at the expense of progress. There is no autosave—only hard save points and autosave points.
Secondly, this focus on difficulty begs the question: How much can Lost Ruins hide behind the guise of “intentionally disadvantageous”? The easy comparison for this would be Dark Souls, because anything difficult is now Dark Souls. For me, I think this is more akin to NES-era Castlevania games, only with some added mechanics for convenience. But where can players draw the line? Players in general seem fine with Souls-like games being difficult, why not here? Not to say I disagree entirely—some parts of this game had me painting a target on my wall for my controller. Yet given the context, I’m willing to forgive, at least to some degree, the design choices of the developer, given its survival roots and heavy hints at its difficulty.
It’s in the Game
These gameplay choices are quite detailed, too, particularly for an indie development team. A large assortment of weapons, weapon types, elemental damage, spells, and hazards are poured throughout. One is capable of equipping two weapons, two spells, and (eventually) up to three items that help aid in combat/traversal. A collection of things so large that I barely had time to register everything happening in combat. My playthrough consisted of sticking to one or two main “gear sets” that I was comfortable with. I found myself fond of the slow, but powerful Zweihander and the quick-damage output of daggers, then switched to ranged weapons later on. Magic was used sparingly; I’ve always preferred practical degrees of combat.
Interestingly enough, this is also billed as a “metroidvania.” I did compare it to Castlevania earlier, though that was mostly in gameplay and overall style/structure. For me, the essence of metroidvania has a figure go from weak to strong, collecting things that make backtracking more convenient and enticing. There is not much of that here, aside from a metroidvania-esque map and some (optional) backtracking. You can backtrack, or you could also just go forward (almost literally) until you beat the game. Because of this, I find it to be a bit misleading. Some qualities of the genre exist, sure, though it doesn’t cover the same addictive beats.
Bosses and Grinding
A heavy indicator of the combat’s cruel design is during boss fights. To my knowledge, seven bosses exist throughout the game, and from the third one onward, they are all incredibly difficult. The first two are pretty straightforward—attack them and avoid their easily-choreographed attacks. They took me two or three times each. Then we have the third boss, which is my personal least favorite. She took me… I don’t even know how many times. Dumb luck prevailed in the end, and some dumb luck will be needed for essentially every boss.
Being immensely fast and health sponges would be one thing, but all of these bosses have at least two forms. Some even have three. This goes above and beyond being needlessly difficult, as each form is more than capable of taking out the player. One could spend numerous tries trying to figure out the pattern of one form, only to be faced with a more daunting challenge in form two. Almost like facing two bosses in one. These big fights end up being where a lot of in-game frustration lies, assuming one didn’t stock up on HP potions. Having to strategize for movesets and movement patterns can be gratifying if done effectively, though also terribly frustrating when unnamed protagonist doesn’t attack the way you want her to.
Again, how much can be written off as “We’re trying to be difficult”? This also comes to pass with grinding for material, particularly money and useful items. Enemies already range in quality between “easy to defeat” and “avoid at all costs.” When one is low on money, best chance is to take out a lot of enemies; only thing is that they rarely drop money. If they do, it’s not nearly enough to cover the expenses of items bought from vendors or vending machines. One would have to grind for quite a while, upwards of even an hour, to get enough for a comfortable amount of supplies. In a game already brutal enough, grinding on top of it would be the final, proverbial dagger of discontent.
Graphics & Sound – Sugoi Slicing and Dicing
Aesthetically, this is a very strong game. This, unlike the game’s difficulty, probably isn’t as widely debated. Pixel artistry is something of a niche appeal (unfortunately) that Lost Ruins takes full advantage of replicating wonderfully. The animations, overall pop, and enemy variety make for some really intriguing set dressing. Adding even further to the niche appeal is the anime aesthetic. While I personally like it, others may find it too much of a conflicting style compared to the gloomy, darkened castle aesthetic. But when you have the type of quality this game has in animation and design, it almost shouldn’t matter.
On the topic of niche appeal, there’s something of a questionable nature to the game’s overall presentation. One will notice playing through this that a large number of characters and enemies are heavily womanized versions of various mythical creatures. While this is nothing too extreme, there are some other instances in the game’s presentation that make one go “Hmm…” A couple bosses, for example, have very noticeable chest physics during their boss fights. Various characters (ranging in perceived age) have incredibly revealing outfits. And crucial rewards from said bosses, though not all, come in the form of “striped panties” and “a bra.” Not so vile that it ended up taking away from much, though it’s something to note for those going in.
Auditory quality is nothing too special. Many tracks suit the mood (however it may be) of the game, though nothing too memorable. Yet there is an undeniable charm to the moodiness of it all, captured through the ominous hum of the backing track. The general grunts and moans of enemies and the unnamed heroine got slightly grating, though this can easily be situated in the settings. Landing hits (and especially crits) was always pretty satisfying, hearing that clang of the weapons. Oh my; I need to be careful not to sound like a psychopath myself.
Lost Ruins was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by DANGEN Entertainment.