Lost in Random Review
Have you ever played a game and thought, wow, what a cool story, world and characters…but why on earth is this a videogame? If you haven’t wondered that before, you’re fortunate. If you play Lost in Random, I promise you’ll have that revelation.
You see, Zoink!’s Lost in Random has an absolutely singular look, a classic dark fairy-tale-feeling story, excellent music and entertaining voice acting. It weaves an extended narrative through a richly-imagined world and it has a weighty subtext that aims to say something important about life and randomness. But somehow, somewhere, all that goodness got misappropriated into a game with uninteresting mechanics and frustrating, tedious combat. It’s sort of the antithesis of all those terrible action movies based on popular games. Yeah, we’re looking at you, Mortal Kombat.
Lost in Random is a classic hero’s journey, in this case casting a young girl named Even in the starring role, as she embarks on a lengthy quest to rescue her older sibling, Odd. Odd has turned twelve, and the Kingdom of Random’s Queen appears on Odd’s birthday to have the girl throw the magical Dark Dice, the outcome of which will determine where she is to live out her life. Odd rolls a six and is whisked away to the Queen’s own realm, essentially kidnapped. Even sneaks out of her home in the middle of the night, determined to find her way to the land of the sixes and retrieve her sister. Because the hero’s journey demands an ally, Even encounters Dicey, the seemingly last surviving member of a race of enchanted, magical dice, relics of a long-lost happier time before the Queen ruled the land.
Lost in Random’s narrative takes bits and pieces from not only the classic hero’s journey, but other tried-and-true story templates, like the stranger-in-a-strange-land conceit so popular in fantasy. At times reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale at its most macabre, or a trippy Lewis Carroll through-the-looking glass pipe dream, Lost in Random is full of weirdness at every turn. Characters are strange, distortions of organic life and inanimate objects and the world itself is at times literally upside down, with paths leading in circles or nowhere in particular. Lots of people have odd things to say or nonsensical comments to make. Despite the fanciful elements, Even’s journey through the various dice districts is narratively coherent, interrupted at points by dream sequences that amplify the emotional weight of the journey or give Even clues, or at least hope and motivation.
The developers have done a really outstanding job of bringing this vision to life, and the game has many moments of strange beauty. The menagerie of characters and the environments are grotesque and a bit frightening, but always interesting to look at, and the moody lighting leaves lots of intriguing shadows. Blake Robinson has literally underscored Lost in Random with music that is always on the edge of eerie, while simultaneously helping us make sense of the world through use of the repeated motifs.
A Random World Without Chance
Where Lost in Random struggles is making Even’s journey interesting for the player. Although there are some divergent side quests that really don’t amount to much, the story is as linear as a storybook and there isn’t a compelling reason, opportunity or reward to freely explore. With this narrow approach comes the feeling that every action is perfunctory busy work, just there to unlock the next bit of pre-determined narrative, gated artificially to give the player something to do. You know, to make it a game, and not just a movie.
Much too often, that something to do is fight against an endless series of repetitive robotic enemies. Nearly every encounter is the same. Even uses her slingshot to knock blue crystals off an enemy, she or Dicey collect the crystals and after a while she has enough of them to initiate a card battle system. The cards give her temporary powers or buffs or a small amount of healing. Most battles involve two or three waves of enemies but the pace and feel of the combat never changes. After a few hours I absolutely dreaded the next combat section, in part thanks to Even’s slow and limited ability to move during combat and the sometimes small arenas that trapped the camera behind walls, adding to the frustration. Now and then, Even engages in a sort of boss battle that takes place on an oversized game board, where each defeated wave of enemies moves her game piece forward. The boss battles are protracted and more challenging, but they often employ minor variations of the same mechanics and tactics as every other fight. For a game with a central thesis about learning to live with the randomness of life, there is ironically almost nothing left to chance in the gameplay, save perhaps the different builds available in the deck of cards that Even finds, buys or earns.
I think that if you translated Lost in Random’s dark narrative and engagingly strange visual style into a stop-motion animated style film, it would be a powerful exploration of a harrowing and at times poignant journey through an upside down world ruled by disorder. There’s a lot of that conceit in the game, too, but it’s made less impactful by tepid mechanics and tedious, unrewarding combat. The story and setting are absolutely worth experiencing, but there’s probably a chance you’ll be as disappointed by the gameplay as you are enchanted by the tale.
***PS5 code provided by the publisher for review***