'Lost Sea' Wants to Be a Casual Roguelike

by Nick Dinicola

26 July 2016

Lost Sea is a fun low-impact experience until it remembers that it's a roguelike and rains down swift unmerciful death.
 
cover art

Lost Sea

(Eastasiasoft Limited)
US: 5 Jul 2016

Roguelikes are usually hard games. They’re also usually pretty short, relatively speaking, but that’s because they’re meant to be replayed multiple times. That’s where the difficulty comes in. You’re not supposed to beat a roguelike on your first try. You’re supposed to fail and learn from that failure to hopefully survive longer next time. You’re meant to learn the systems governing the game, become better with its controls, and become more strategic in your decision making. That’s a lot of work, but that’s the appeal.

A casual game is the exact opposite. Its systems are relatively simple, so if you try it for 10 minutes, you’ll immediately know if you want to keep playing for another 10 hours. You can learn these systems and get better at the game, but it’s not usually necessary. The game is just challenging enough to make us work for it, but we’re not meant to die over and over again. It’s a low impact experience, but that’s the appeal.

Lost Sea is a weird game because it’s best described as a casual roguelike. It advertises itself as a “rogue lite”: a game with the repetitive structure of a roguelike but without the heavy demands of skill. It does a fine job straddling this line between two very different audiences at first, but it also prompts one to wonder just who is the intended audience for such a game?

You play as the survivor of a shipwreck in the Bermuda Triangle, tossed off to some other dimension where countless other survivors are hanging out on unique archipelagos based on biomes—forest, desert, swamp, and so on. We meet up with a scientist who already has a ship built and are charged with commanding it to sail these island chains to the extra-dimensional exit. 

Thankfully, we don’t have to visit every island in the chain. Each island hides a number of tablets, and those tablets govern how many islands up the chain that we can hop in a turn. Get to the end of one archipelago and we fight a pirate boss, then move on to the next series of islands. Kill monsters for experience to spend on skills, smash crates for gold to spend on ship upgrades, recruit crew members for additional abilities, then repeat. That’s the general gameplay loop.

As with any roguelike, you’ll be exploring procedurally generated environments. Each island is randomly constructed based on a hex grid, and the tile sets are nicely varied so as to never get repetitive. Hills are used to add a bit of verticality, which increases the number of possible patterns, but the most effective trick in keeping things fresh is our narrow view of the world. Each tile is surprisingly big, so even with the camera pulled back overhead we can’t see the whole tile at once. This makes it harder to identify repeating patterns, and that’s a good thing because the moment that we start to recognize patterns is the moment the repetition starts to grow tiresome.

However, even if the specific layout of each tile remains interesting, the biome-based aesthetic does grow weary. This is especially true for the forest, the first biome in the chain that we’ll repeat every time that we start over. Eventually, you’ll come to hate its lush greenery. This is a danger for any roguelike. it’s integral that the early game hold up under repetition because it’s where players will spend most of their time. Ideally, the gameplay remains dynamic and interesting even if the environment does not, but that’s where Lost Sea has an inherent disadvantage.

As a casual game, Lost Sea is genuinely fun but undeniably shallow. The music is excellent and does its best to suggest a grand adventure ahead, but the controls are simple and the enemies are pretty easy. It’s a great game to relax with, but once you play through the same relaxing biome a few times, you’ll yearn for something different.

On the plus side, when starting a new game you can warp ahead to the latest biome that you’ve unlocked. You don’t have to start at the forest every time. On the negative side, wherever you choose to start, you’ll start there from scratch with no upgrades. While most of your unlockable abilities are extraneous, there are a number of skills essential for survival in later biomes, and skipping ahead means starting without them. They’re essential because by the time that you get halfway through the game it remembers that it’s a roguelike and the difficulty spikes.

The combat in Lost Sea is pretty simple. You can swing a machete by default, and later you can unlock a dash attack and a spin attack. It’s simple but it’s fun. It feels good to cut down bushes and bust open crates, and it’s more than enough to handle the easy enemies that populate the early game.

The mid and late game enemies are a far tougher challenge. They become faster, more nimble, come at you in greater number, and some even gain armor that renders your machete useless. You can buy all of your combat upgrades by the time that you beat the first biome, but there are six in total, which means that the monsters will keep getting stronger and faster long after you’ve stagnated. At this point, it feels like the game has changed genre and starts asking more from you than it can provide. It ceases to be a relaxing casual game and becomes an action game with controls that can’t keep up with its action. It becomes a more traditional roguelike, and the swift unmerciful death that it brings is a jarring change from the earlier casual fun. 

Lost Sea

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