Release Date: June 6, 2022
Developer: Altari Games
Publisher: Dangen Entertainment
As I navigated the dark, sprawling catacombs and trap-filled dungeons of Lost Ruins, I was always deftly aware of the stakes at play. My protagonist – a plucky, somewhat oblivious schoolgirl who had somehow gotten herself transported to this strange land – was almost always a few missteps away from a grisly demise, be that via a hidden environmental trap or by the claws of a fast-moving zombie-like beast. Inevitably, I would falter and reload at my last checkpoint, often frustrated at myself for getting cornered or something similar – but every time, I was eager to jump back into the challenging world of Lost Ruins to explore more of the map and uncover its many secrets.
There’s a high probability that players will notice a game like Lost Ruins and think to themselves, “that looks like something I’ve played before.” And that’s fair – there have been no shortage of nonlinear, side-scrolling action platformers with a pixel art aesthetic in recent years. But the more I played through Lost Ruins, the more I began to appreciate the way in which it takes that classic game structure and melds it with new ideas, namely a very deep and challenging combat system that allows for a surprising selection of options to dispatch foes. It’s also a very high-stakes game – this is a world containing finite resources to help keep you alive, so exploration is both necessary and very dangerous.
Lost Ruins does have a story to tell – although it mostly exists in the background and is little more than an impetus to explore and fight some bosses – at least until the very end. The game’s unnamed heroine finds herself mysteriously transported to another world – with zero memories, of course – and is told by a mysterious being named Beatrice that many others have been summoned to this strange place before her, but none have been able to escape. From there, you’re tasked with finding and eliminating the followers of the Dark Lady who supposedly runs the place. That’s pretty much the extent of the overarching mystery, although there are small bits of lore scattered around the environment that add a small bit of flavor and context as to what might be happening in this strange place. Personally, I generally prefer when games have a little bit more going on in the narrative department as it makes it easier for me to motivate myself to see the experience through to the end. Somehow, though, Lost Ruins managed to evoke that same desire to progress in me despite its lack of focus on the narrative.
I think a big part of that pull, at least for me, was in exploring more of the world of Lost Ruins. The ruins themselves are a series of large, interconnected areas with multiple diverging pathways to check out, and you really never know what will be down the next hallway. It could be a room filled with enemies waiting to try and surround you, or it could be a storage room filled with valuable and hard-to-find weapons or accessories that will make your character more resilient. It could be a small physics-based puzzle, or it could be a massive, room-filling boss that can take you down in a few hits if you enter unprepared. That excitement of never knowing what could be around the next corner felt very real throughout my entire playtime, and always kept me on my toes.
I would hesitate to call this game a full-on Metroidvania – while there are some areas where you must make a choice about which way to proceed, and while the overall structure of the world is fairly interconnected, there’s not a huge need for backtracking in this game unless you want to. Instead of acquiring permanent upgrades that will unlock new traversal options as is tradition, most of what you’ll find scattered around the environment are different types of weapons, equipable accessories, or consumable items that will help restore health or grant temporary status buffs. And although there are multiple endings to discover based on various factors, there’s ultimately one designated route to the game’s ending. So, while replayability is certainly an option here, especially considering you unlock a few alternate game modes after beating the main story, that’s not really something I had any desire to do – I felt like I was able to see enough of this game from a single playthrough.
Lost Ruins is also a gorgeous looking game, thanks mostly to its spectacular lighting system. Light radiates naturally and reflects off every surface in this game – torches cast shadows through the crack of bridges, spells illuminate dark rooms, and sparks fly into the darkness when swords clash against shields. The pixel art is also incredibly detailed and fluidly animated, from the ways that enemies lumber and pounce after you to the smaller environmental details, like the way water splashes around the protagonist’s feet. It’s a beautiful game, one that looks even more impressive on the Switch OLED, to the point where I didn’t ever really consider playing in docked mode.
This also made tolerating my many, many deaths in this game much easier to contend with (it really helps when everything is so detailed!). In addition to a bevy of traps and environmental hazards that can deplete your health very quickly if you fail to notice them – I’m talking hidden spikes, pressure plates that shoot fireballs at you, etc. – combat itself demands a lot from the player on a few fronts. First, you can’t generally just hack-and-slash at enemies – they’ll try and attack you right back when you’re locked in the middle of an attack animation, so timing and playing defensively are very important. Secondly, enemies can very easily apply status effects to you that can give you a huge disadvantage or drain your health in seconds, setting you afire, freezing you, poisoning you, disorienting you, and more. Even getting hit by certain types of very sharp weapons can cause you to bleed out very quickly if you don’t have ointment on-hand. And thirdly, the environment itself can be leveraged both by enemies and by you during combat. If an enemy throws a bottle of acid on the ground, you may not be able to get close enough to attack them unless you can find a way to set the acid ablaze, perhaps by shooting down a nearby torch or casting a fire spell. And while that sounds simple – with the speed at which combat plays out in Lost Ruins, that’s not always as easy to execute in practice as it is on paper.
Fortunately, there are a wide variety of weapons and tools scattered about that let you approach combat from different angles, assuming you can find them. My preferred armament was a heavy, two-handed longsword called the Zweilander, alongside a shield and a few basic offensive spells. There are plenty of ways to be more creative than that – you can use an Invisibility spell to sneak by enemies in short bursts, for example. Or you could focus on a more agile build, arming yourself with lighter weapons that hit faster but deliver less damage, and dodge-rolling out of harm’s way.
The scarcity of weapons and healing items around the world really makes each discovery feel valuable, and most of what you pick up is useful in some way. Any duplicate or unwanted items can be sold for gold to help you purchase different items at the vending machines scattered about the world. I do think that game doesn’t really cater well to players who might prefer a bow and arrow, as arrows and other consumable weapons are scarce and can be pricey if being relied on as your sole offensive strategy – but beyond that, I think the game’s overall economy is fairly well balanced without being overwhelming on the default difficulty.
The enemies you’ll find yourselves up against are formidable, even the small ones – it really does only take a few hits to take your Heroine down (that’s literally her name, by the way.) They’re all wonderfully designed from an artistic perspective, although if you’re not a fan of oversexualized female characters in your video games, you may find some of them a bit over-the-top. The enemies aren’t always the brightest – only a handful of them can defend themselves, so it’s really a matter of finding an opening in which to get an attack or two before getting the hell out. But they’re all very aggressive, and so the pace of combat was very fast, which kept me on my toes throughout the game.
Lost Ruins was a big surprise – it’s mechanically engaging, visually sumptuous and paced perfectly for this type of game. I really loved the dark but offbeat atmosphere of the interconnected ruins, and while the writing was probably the least compelling part of the game, the act of discovering new environments, enemies and characters across the world was a blast. If you’re in the market for a moderately sized, challenging side-scroller with open-ended combat, Lost Ruins is a polished and engaging option.
Lost Ruins copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.