Loot River is a big ol’ bully of a game, and I can’t stop playing the victim. Every time it paints the walls with my blood, I come back robbed of everything I gained in my previous run, trudge my way through a newly generated parallel universe, prevail over whatever killed me before, and then find five of those waiting patiently to skewer me from across the way. After a few more runs, I’ll stagger wearily up to the boss with just enough health to stage a feeble affront to its power only to be cursed to start all over again after a fatally ill-timed parry.
Of course, except for what I consider uncommonly punishing mechanics, nothing about that sets Loot River apart from any other roguelike. Levels are randomly generated, permadeath means there’s little to no progression between runs, and you use Tetris blocks to move through levels and get the drop on enemies… wait. Oh yeah, it’s that last part that makes Loot River unique, and by and large it’s a miraculous triumph.
At some point in my first hour with Loot River, I realized the Tetris blocks aren’t a gimmick after all, as I had cynically assumed. It’s only when I’m impatiently jamming tetrominos together just to move through a level that I start to feel bored with the game’s Dark Souls meets Tetris premise, but when I’m using the movable blocks to strategically position myself against a swarm of enemies, it’s then that Loot River’s novel formula elevates it from good, visually appealing roguelike to something new and exciting.
My only advice for playing Loot River is to make friends with the Tetris blocks. See them as a tool rather than an obstacle, and a whole new combat meta opens up. Can’t get past a group of enemies? Move against a platform and let a single enemy onto your block, isolating it from its buddies. Having trouble with a particular baddie? Charge up an attack at a safe distance, move your block against the enemy’s platform, and let loose before it has the chance to strike. If it’s not a one-hit kill, just dash back to your block and slide it away from the enemy’s reach and have another go. Or, if possible, just move your tetrad around all that nonsense and get to the boss with less damage to your health bar.
Don’t fear the reaper
I hope that didn’t just make Loot River sound simple or easy, because it is most definitely neither of those things. In fact, it seems to selectively pluck the cruellest elements from its forebears and even invents new ways to bust as many balls as possible. Some enemies will freeze platforms so you can’t progress until you beat them, others will lob explosives, making it hard to kite them from a distance. Mushroom-headed jerks send out plumes of green poison, forcing you to use your spear to jab at them from a distance, and then there are some dudes with really big swords and hammers that take almost half your health in one swing.
You can probably imagine how chaotic Loot River can get when there are several different types of enemies crowded around you at once, but if you’ve played games like Elden Ring, Hades, or even Dead Cells, you’ll go into Loot River fairly well-prepared. Combat is decidedly Soulslike, demanding you understand the precise reach of your weapon, the time it takes to land a hit, and that crucial parry window. Coming from Elden Ring specifically, the control scheme and heavy-weighted action feel intuitive.
Whether you’re a maidenless Tarnished or an Elden Lord, be prepared to die a lot in Loot River. If you’re familiar with roguelikes at all, you’ll know that’s pretty much the name of the game. Die, go back to the beginning, and try again with the help of permanent upgrades you earned in previous runs. But here, it’s much more of a challenge actually getting your hands on permanent upgrades because when you die you lose all of your Knowledge, Loot River’s in-game currency that you use to buy new gear at the home base. I hear the devs are testing an update on PC that would let you keep half of your Knowledge after dying, but right now on Xbox every run is a totally clean wipe. You’ll eventually unlock new weapons and spells, but getting through the first few dungeons until then can be relentlessly difficult.
The natural challenge of Loot River’s brutal grind is compounded by the fact that the game doesn’t put a lot of effort into telling you how to play. For example, as far as I know there’s no clear indication that the big head at the Sanctuary fully heals you if you stand in front of it. Until I learned that, I’d mistakenly assumed the only way to heal was by using your potions. I shudder to think of how many times I needlessly wandered into another level at half-health when I could’ve had a full heal.
It also doesn’t tell you that by using a light attack after a successful parry you’ll perform a riposte with a guaranteed critical hit. Heed my advice and try traversing platforms from their corners diagonally, as that’s another thing that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out, but ultimately saved me from dying on several occasions. There’s plenty more you’ll learn just through trial and error, but when a game like Elden Ring is the current favorite for game of the year, Loot River’s refusal to hold hands shouldn’t be a huge turn-off for most folks.
It’s a long river to roguelike royalty
Loot River’s procedurally generated levels naturally result in some inconsistency, especially in the puzzle-solving sections. I’ve endured many a headache moving blocks around, back and forth, left and right, trying to work my way toward some loot, only to get there and open a chest containing the same exact weapon I already had equipped. For a game called Loot River, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of loot in its river. I’ve mostly found duplicates of the armor and weapons I started with and rings that boost your stats and have unique passive buffs, but again, you’ll run into duplicates often.
Despite these not inconsequential problems, I still recommend giving Loot River a try, especially if you can play for free on Game Pass. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re coming off Elden Ring and need something new to kick your ass, you could do a whole lot worse.
It’s heartening to see that the developers at straka.studio are keeping a keen ear to player feedback, even responding to critical Steam reviews directly. In fact, a lot of the problems I had when I first started writing about Loot River have been fixed in post-launch updates. For example, my first few runs left me discouraged to the point of almost giving up, but more recently I’ve noticed the dash mechanic is a lot less limited and parries are easier to pull off. The devs also boosted the amount of Knowledge you can find in chests and added a feature where you can use Knowledge to make payments on upgrades if you don’t have the full amount, reducing the chance that you lose all of your Knowledge at death and making it easier to afford new gear.
The developers acknowledged a bunch of reported issues, including what I mentioned before about loot, in a Steam update explaining that they’d “messed up” the launch. For the record, I think they’re being a little harsh on themselves, but it’s refreshing to see a developer take ownership like that. It’s clear they’re proud of Loot River, and the way they respond to negative feedback is kind of like when a parent apologizes for their unruly, but deep-down good-natured child.
Even as it currently is, warts and all, there’s a lot to enjoy here. Loot River gets all the big stuff right; the pixel art and particularly the water and fire effects are gorgeous; the story, told gradually through snippets of NPC dialogue, is dark and mysterious; combat is easy to learn and tough to master; and most importantly, the way it lets you shift the ground beneath you makes an already competent roguelike so much more interesting.
Check it out on Steam (opens in new tab) or Xbox via Game Pass.