Video game hardware has come a long way over the decades, as have the skill sets of the myriad talented teams making the games. That’s what makes a game like EA Original Lost in Random possible, an action adventure from Zoink Studio that perfectly captures the visual aesthetic of The Nightmare Before Christmas in an interactive setting. We recently had the opportunity to listen to Klaus Lyngeled, CEO & head of development of Zoink, and Olov Redmalm, creative director & lead writer on Lost in Random, discuss the game, and we also got to preview the first few hours of the game on PC. The good news is that it’s shaping up to be a stellar adventure in nearly every respect. There’s just one kind of serious thing I’m not sure about yet.
Lost in Random is a dark fairy tale for all-ish ages
Lost in Random has essentially been in development for a little more than three years, and Zoink settled on creating a dark fairy tale about two sisters early on. But it’s not too dark; the developers say that any child who can handle The Nightmare Before Christmas or the darkest Harry Potter can handle this. The game occurs in the world of Random, where chance governs all things and a “mad Queen” controls the land with a black dice. (The game opts to use “dice” as a singular noun.) Particularly, when someone turns 12 years old, they roll a dice that determines their whole future.
Odd, the older sister of protagonist Even, rolls a 6 on her birthday, meaning she gets to live with the Queen forever in the best of conditions — but Even senses there is something wrong. A year later, Even has a spooky lucid dream, and then she starts seeing what appears to be a ghost (the classic wearing-a-white-sheet variety) in real life. This suddenly inspires Even to chase after the ghost and run away from home on an adventure for the truth about her sister. Along the way, she ends up in the Valley of Dice, where people used to go to find their own specific, perfect dice that fit them because that’s the way the world used to be before the Queen arrived. There she meets her sentient dice, Dicey (voiced by Redmalm), who provides the basis for the game’s card-based action gameplay mechanics.
From what I got to preview, Lost in Random features deeply entertaining writing across the board. The dialogue is funny and whimsical, (Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics, notably contributed to the writing.) and the voice actors really sell it, especially the narrator. Even can offer up some real attitude too if you select such dialogue options, and all in all, the writing succeeds at creating the “modern fairy tale” atmosphere it’s aiming for.
Just as important, the writing works in perfect tandem with the character and world design to enrich the narrative. For instance, realms are based around specific numbers, and the area that is based on the number two features characters who all have two personalities. This manifests in a wide variety of creative ways that take advantage of delightfully bizarre and expressive character designs, such as a colossal mayor whose head is attached to an equally gigantic evil mayor that exists directly above the good mayor on a separate, parallel land mass with its own opposite gravity. (You have to just see it to fully understand it.) The music complements the dark whimsy of it all quite nicely too.
So, in a nutshell, the writing and art I was able to preview in Lost in Random were all just brilliant. And the raw graphics themselves were stellar too in the PC build I played, as all the screenshots included in this article should illustrate. For reference, my three-and-a-half-year-old gaming laptop has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070, which I’m pretty sure trumps what Nintendo Switch is cooking with. (I am clearly not a tech person.) Nonetheless, hopefully the beautiful graphics on my aging laptop bode well for the Switch version of Lost in Random anyway. Additionally, I ran into zero bugs during my playthrough, so it certainly feels like a polished experience.
Action with a cards-and-dice twist
Lost in Random blends narrative-driven exploration, real-time action, and time-stop tactics, and it is “absolutely not a roguelike.” (That’s what I like to hear.) The game world consists of handcrafted realms with relatively linear progression, but there are still little secrets to find, towns that have lots of bendy pathways, and apparently a good assortment of sidequests to pick up from NPCs. I actually noticed rather quickly that, even when the areas gets a little (literally) twisted, the camera and world design do a good job of nudging you in the right direction anyway. I seldom felt lost.
There is not always a clear divide between “town” areas and combat areas, and when the two collide, it only enhances the sense of exciting delirium that permeates Lost in Random. In fact, sometimes the environment even transforms into a pseudo-board game where you need to fight off enemies while rolling dice to get a play piece to a particular destination. The concept felt a little simple in the preview but seemed to offer a lot of potential for complexity down the line.
In general, the way combat works is that you have a customizable small deck of cards with various effects, but which particular cards you have access to at any given moment is random. It’s frankly pretty complicated to explain but relatively straightforward to actually play.
Basically, when combat breaks out, the first thing you do is use your slingshot to break gems that protrude from (and regenerate on) the bodies of your enemies. Collecting those gems allows you to build a hand of upward of five cards to draw from your deck. When you decide you want to do that, you roll Dicey and get a number. (For the beginning hours of the game, you can’t roll a number higher than 2.) Each card has a number in its corner, like 0, 1, 2, or even 3. You can play cards that add up to whatever number you rolled. That means you can play unlimited 0-value cards (which are usually modifier cards that can do things like increase the value of your roll). Or if you roll a 2, it means you can play one 2-value card or two 1-value cards.
Aside from the aforementioned modifier cards, cards have a variety of battle effects that can ostensibly be comboed together for clever strategies. There are cards to summon a sword, a mace, and a bow with arrows that all have good longevity before breaking. There are also healing potions, bombs, a card that slows down enemies within a certain area, and many more effects. Some cards you will win in battle, while many others you can spend currency at an awesomely designed merchant to acquire.
The developers explained that Lost in Random is not an in-depth “deck-builder” game exactly though. This is foremost intended to be a fast-paced action experience where your lovingly illustrated card deck adds an extra wrinkle of strategy, and your dice rolls give you a moment to pause time and think (inspired by the real-time-but-with-pause combat of modern Western RPGs). The default difficulty seems pretty generous with your health too, as I got walloped good sometimes as a result of impatience but still survived. However, there is also a Story difficulty you can switch to if you want to tone the difficulty down further.
The combat all sounds good, and in fact, sometimes it is. The few enemy types I faced were competent and varied, if not overly fearsome, and the boss fight at the end was fun though relatively simplistic. But the combat definitely left me with the greatest feeling of uncertainty in my Lost in Random preview.
For one thing, being restricted by the plot to rolling no higher than a 2 for almost the entire preview left me feeling frustratingly impotent, even if modifier cards did mitigate that somewhat. In turn, I never felt like had many opportunities or reasons to combine cards to create exciting strategies; often, the best thing I could do was just swing my melee weapons until they broke.
Likewise, I found myself frequently having to (figuratively) take a timeout from real combat in order to break and collect more gems, so that I had enough good cards for my next dice roll. Stopping and starting combat so often was tedious and boring. Plus, since I was learning the mechanics as I went, even selecting my cards after a dice roll could take a little while. Combat often felt anything but fast as a result of my limitations — limitations imposed by both the game and my inexperience alike.
I could absolutely believe that, as your powers and knowledge develop, the game could become the action-packed experience it claims to be, where you find just the right strategic rhythm to keep the mayhem going continuously. But my preview of Lost in Random just never showed me that. And so I am left hopeful but ambivalent.
Lost in Random can apparently last between eight and 16 hours, but since the demo took me three hours to complete alone, I suspect it would take me closer to 20 hours to finish. Of course — if the combat can catch up with the quality of the writing, art, and sound though, that could be a very good thing.
Lost in Random launches on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC on September 10, 2021.