The roguelike genre is one that is not only hard to play, but one that is hard to develop for.
Many people have tried to emulate the success of early indie roguelike games such as Faster Than Light, Binding of Isaac and Spelunky, but most fail to create a meaningful dialogue with the player. Lost Sea is a roguelike clone that differentiates itself through theme and mechanic layering in a way that makes it unique, but lacks high design philosophies that stop it from becoming a great game. It places you in the role of a player-chosen survivor within the Bermuda Triangle, stranded on a series of islands, who must fight their way to the boss island at the end of the chain, taking survivors along with them who each possess random skills to help the player in the adventure. Finding one of the many tablets on each island allows the player to chart a course for the next island in the chain, based on the number located on the tablet.
The main goal with a roguelike is to set out randomly generated content in a way which remains fair but still challenging to the player; striking a balance that rests somewhere inbetween ordered design and random chaos. At any time, you could be met with challenges far too easy for your character, or ones that are slightly too hard. It’s then up to you as a player to prove you can overcome these adversaries, and progress regardless of what gets thrown at you. When enemies and hazards are telegraphed successfully, this can lead to a challenging experience that rewards players in a similar style to how the Dark Souls series goes about itself. If done poorly, the game feels unfair, with insurmountable challenges thrown at the player, causing them frustration which places them in a prime state to simply put down the game and never boot it up again.
In case my subtle language hasn’t quite tipped you off, Lost Sea is leaning towards that last description more than being towards the fair but challenging systems found in places such as Dark Souls. Granted, the assumption when walking into a roguelike game is that most people will likely never finish it once, let alone try different approaches on multiple playthroughs like the highly skilled fan of a title. For the longest time, I wasn’t able to beat Faster Than Light because the random nature of the game meant that I was always getting snagged on various obstacles and enemies, and no matter how well I managed my state of play and chose the best outcome each time, it wasn’t enough without some luck involved to propel me further.
In a sense, the unfair randomness/luck is a factor which appeals to many roguelike fans. Not one to hand-hold, the genre places an unfair amount of “life lessons” by simply throwing challenges at the player, with little to no regard of their current skill level or character progression; things will happen whether you are ready or not. This raw approach gives roguelikes a unique texture that forces you to become a good player, or simply fail and start over again. It’s important the dynamic/generated features are in place to give it a unique flavour, which Lost Sea manages in practicality, but fails to pull off with style. Whilst islands are randomly generated, the cells (section of a level) are so similar that most islands end up feeling the same, if not looking the same (despite them all technically being different). Using a hexagonal cell grid, the islands do take on a more natural feel as opposed to using square grid cells/tiles, and the tiling is less noticeable as a result. No matter what environment you end up in however (there are different themed areas from snow/desert/jungle etc.), you always find yourself revisiting similar laid out areas, even though they are technically unique and produced only for that playthrough.
The visuals however elevate the experience from becoming a monotonous and dreary one with repeating patterns of level design and objectives, to a charming and colourful one. Art style is a mixture of cel-shaded cartoon style visuals, closely resembling the visual styles that most android/iOS games of this nature tend to use. Think of games like Temple Run, and you’ve got a similar art style. Keeping the visuals simple and stylised though, means that readability is quite high, which is paramount in a roguelike experience so that the player is able to make quick decisions and avoid death. Unfortunately, readability is weak elsewhere in the game. A lack of explaining what items do on activation means that every new item you encounter requires a trial and error of trying the item out and finding out what it does. Some are self-explanatory such as a bomb or a first-aid kit, but often it means that the first new item after picking up is wasted trying it out. Depending on your opinion though, this lack of explanation in a roguelike could add to the “unknown” factor of the game.
More weak readability is found in some enemies. Whilst some have wind-up attacks that clearly telegraph their next move for the player to react, some are ambiguous and some are lacking completely. A good example of telegraphing done well is with the Yeti enemy, who swings his arms upwards and holds in place to indicate a snowball/iceball throw. A bad example would be the dodos/raptors, who rotate and snap towards the player’s direction, and then after a brief second they will charge at the player. These movements aren’t telegraphed, and the time delay before they charge seems to vary from attack to attack. The delay is most likely frame-based (based on your framerate) and not based off a timer, which means that you can’t time your dodges very effectively.
Most of these uncomfortable positions can be avoided though, as enemy ambushes are signalled by skulls stacked on a pike. If you cross them, you know that you are about to be ambushed by an assortment of enemies. Annoyingly, some tablets are located behind these points, meaning you have to let yourself be exposed to an ambush, in order to progress. This compounds a different problem, which is your survivor cowering mechanic. When a survivor is following you around the island, you’re granted various buffs from their skillset (of four abilities). Some will give your attacks more power, some will grant you a free revive, and some are used to opens chests, build bridges or mine treasure. When an enemy is nearby, they stop exactly where they’re standing, and start to cower. If you hit an enemy, they enter a sort of “flinch” state where they show an animation of being hit. During that animation, your survivor stops cowering and begins to follow you again, stopping once the enemy is no longer flinching and starts to enter normal animation once more.
This is incredibly annoying, as it means an enemy might hit your survivor, and when you hit an enemy that takes more than one hit to kill, your survivor moves closer to you once again, placing them more at risk of being hit. Because of the distance they activate their cower state, it makes it awkward to position yourself in a way around enemies that both lets you dodge their attacks, and place the survivor out of harm’s way. The game is sorely missing the ability to tell your survivors to stay still while you go ahead, or at least increasing the radius they cower at. There’s a perk to stop your survivors taking damage when cowering, but it doesn’t help as it’s one of the more costly upgrades in the game, and ends up delaying acquisition of much more helpful perks early on.
Speaking of upgrades and perks, there are two methods of progression to purchase at the shop: player skills, and ship upgrades. Upgrading the ship opens up abilities to make it easier to explore the island, whilst player skills are linked directly with your character, such as running faster, having more health/stamina, the ability to sprint, new combat moves etc. Combat is simple, where swinging your sword is the only move available to you until you purchase a 360 degree sword swing move, or a charge attack. You can finish the game without these moves, but if your playstyle is focused on a combat-based approach, then these will be useful and give you more options. Player skills are bought with experience points found when defeating enemies, and ship upgrades are bought with coins that are found from chests and barrels around the island.
The gameplay cycle is very repetitive, and doesn’t deviate from the basic formula set out: explore an island, acquire survivors, farm coins from objects, experience from monsters, and find tablets along the way to travel to one of the next islands in the chain. Rinse and repeat. In any other game genre, repetitive gameplay would be frowned upon, but roguelikes are one of the rare exceptions where monotony and repetitive gameplay cycles are part of what makes it work. The regular gameplay cycle keeps player progression steady and smooth. When there are spikes in the difficulty, or something to upset the rhythm of the player’s experience, this creates dissonance, adding to the unexpected and anxious feelings the player feels as they acquire more coins, experience, and survivors. Achieving a sense of flowing progression with no surprises means the player’s achievements are kept safe and not put at risk, so when something out of the norm happens, this creates tension as the player is aware they only have one life (unless a survivor has a revive perk in the case of Lost Sea), and makes for a better roguelike experience. The repetitive and formulaic routine of gameplay is actually a plus in this context. You know what to expect, and when it doesn’t happen, you have an exciting few moments of uncertainty until you can heal up or get yourself back into a safe configuration.
The music is great. One of Lost Sea‘s strongest points, the soundtrack is thematic, and keeps you pushing forward through each island in the chain to reach the boss. The boss (a burly pirate captain) is the same character each time, becoming more and more beaten up as you progress to the next themed series of islands, reaching his boss island once more. Later fights add more attack routines into his move-list, and the octopuses that are laid around the arena shooting projectiles at you grow in numbers and shoot faster as well. Again, the expectation you feel when you fight the same boss each time alongside a repetitive routine means that each fight brings with it only a small change, which plays well into the uncertain gameplay that makes a roguelike so much fun, and without doing it so drastically that it makes the experience unfair and unpredictable.
Overall it’s hard to make out what kind of quality Lost Sea ends up having, because the genre is so reliant on the use of spiked difficulty curves and randomly generated content, it ends up feeling appropriate sometimes, but unwarranted on other occasions. The lack of a save feature means that if you expect to complete the entire game, you’re looking at over three hours of straight game-time, which games of this nature don’t receive very well, as their charm lies in short, multiple playthroughs. The developer says via the community page on Steam that the game is built around short playthroughs, but for the average gamer (and arguably even fans of the genre), the reality is that if you warp to one of the later islands with a new character, don’t expect to make progress very fast. If you choose to try and complete the levels quickly, you’ll end up dying; a more careful approach increases play time drastically.
Lost Sea certainly has a charm; it’s a short and basic premise that opts for clarity and simplicity over length and detail, which for a roguelike, works perfectly. Lost Sea gives you simple controls and simple mechanics, but changes their flavour in each new area, increasing the difficulty slowly over the period of the game. The developer is considering a patch for allowing save game states, meaning you can put the game down after a quick session, and return to your character to continue their quest later, which is my biggest qualm with the game. Otherwise, it’s a reasonably priced roguelike that does some things great, some things not-so great, but holistically levels out to be a worthwhile experience for fans of the genre. If you can overcome some initial frustration with the mechanics to find your own unique way of dealing with them through adapting your playstyle, then you’re going to have a good game you can revisit for some quick fixes when you find yourself in the mood.