A couple of weeks ago I went hands on with Lost In Random, an upcoming EA Original from Zoink. Zoink have done fun, slightly strange games in the past like Flipping Death and Fe, and usually in a blue-purple colour palette. Having now played several hours from the start of Lost In Random, I'm glad to say it's really quite fabulous.
But let me tell you, you'll have an urge to mark the time when you first fire it up, if only so you can check how long it takes for a character speaking in rhyme to turn up. It is an inevitability. You'll have been clued in by the extremely "Tim Burton makes a video game!" look of the trailers and screenshots, but it's hard to overstate how much Lost In Random does look like that.
It is steampunk-Victoriana-urchin: The Game. The citizens you run into as you explore the world of Random might be big fish or have upside-down faces. The different regions are numerically named after the numbers on six-sided dice and are economically ranked as such, from Onecroft to Threedom to the palace in Sixtopia. There is even one, Two-Town, where everyone has two personalities. The mayor has split entirely into another mayor called Royam, who is attached to him via a long top hat snaking up to the ceiling. Royam speaks in rhyming couplets and- oh! There he is. That took about two hours, I think.
It's not like Zoink are trying to hide this, though. Klaus Lyngeled, Zoink's head of development, and the creative director and lead writer Olov Redmalm, are happy to say during a roundtable Q&A that Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas was an influence, that it is a "favourite" of Lyngeled's and that Redmalm grew up with it. I only labour the point because if you dislike Burtonian-esque goffic whimsy (I also got a real bang of American McGee's Alice off it) then I sense it's going to be very hard for you to see past the veritable mountain of it in Lost In Random in order to enjoy its more objectively great bits.
There is, first, the writing. Every child in Random has to roll the Queen's (evil) die when they turn 12, and the number they get determines where they live for the rest of their lives. Even's sister, Odd, is whisked from Onecroft to Sixtopia, and you step into Even's small shoes in search of Odd, with the help of a giant, sentient (good) die named Dicey. As I explored the lower realms of Random (within reason, naturally - this isn't Skyrim), I discovered a lot of interesting character titbits. A man in Onecroft, for example, turned out to have been born and raised in Fourberg, but was weirdly okay with that. In Two-Town, the market street had vendors selling sticks, and words.
But mainly I was surprised at it being so funny. One fetch quest I had to do involved collecting three of a jelloid critter whose only purpose was to sit and scream. They just shriek every two seconds, in a piercing, high-pitched way so you can locate them. The locals hate them. I also spoke to a couple of jolly twins who finished each other's sentences, and things became decidedly less jolly when one of them said, "We share each other's..." and the other completed it with "Husbands!". Many characters have what I can only assume are deliberately groan-inducing pun names, like the vendor who sells you cards who is a cockernee called Mannie Dex. This may be down to the involvement of Ryan North as a writer, he of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Adventure Time, and Dinosaur Comics comics, among other things. Redmalm says North did "all the dialogue" and has been "a blast to work with."
Then there is the combat, which was really the stand-out for me. The tabletop-style battles I got to play were really exceptional, and I was impressed at how well the devs have blended their mix of dice-rolling, card-playing, and live action smashing styles together. The idea of Random, Redmalm explains, is that it's a world run by dice and boardgames. "It wasn't until a painting of a girl and a dice in this giant board game world - when that image came up, we knew that there was something there."
Even doesn't have weapons apart from a small sling. When clockwork monsters and haunted suits of armour start advancing, you can use the slingshot to knock special energy crystals from them, which Dicey then gobbles up. Energy allows Dicey to draw cards from the deck he keeps inside himself (is he hollow? I do not know), which each have a point cost to play. A magic sword might cost one, for example, while a bow might cost two, and a big smashing axe might cost three. At any time you can roll Dicey to play your hand, with whatever number he lands on providing the points you have to work with. Dice time pauses everything, so after you roll Dicey you can play trap cards and place bombs at your leisure, use a card to hoof a potion, play the axe card and position yourself behind an enemy to prep a heavy hit. Unpause time, and start the process again.
Look, explaining the constituent processes that are simultaneously at work when you ride a bike would probably make a bike sound convoluted as well. Just, trust me. It was really fun. It also plays into what Zoink intend the story to really be about, beyond a girl saving her sister. "There's so much randomness in the world, there's so much randomness in life," says Lyngeled. "If you roll a two but you need a six, then you have to live with that, and you have to learn how to roll with the punches!"
You can build and rebuild different decks, buying new cards from Mannie and unlocking new sets to pick from the more you spend. This offers you a bit of flexibility in approach - as with many deckbuilders - depending on if you prefer playing defensively, aggressively, or sneak-fucky. The combination of playing strategically based on the cards in your hand, with picking different weapon cards or dodging and jinking in the hope of the one you really want coming up next, made it all seem fast even though it was frenquently paused.
I wasn't in love with everything I saw during my Lost In Random preview session, though. Outside the combat, the world can feel a bit empty at times - staged, almost, like a fake village in a play. This is probably partly because there are big spaces built for when you're going to have a big fight, but it still feels odd to only have two or three people hanging around a wide open town square. The side quests I played were fun, but navigating the world felt a bit inelegant, with slightly finicky button promps to jump down some ledges or climb ladders, and faint and very distant quest markers. And after a while the weirdo voices and horribly long limbs did begin to grate a tad. I'm not sure how many hours of Lost In Random I could play in a row without starting to get a bit crotchety at it.
But there is a lasting point in its favour, which is Dicey himself. He is, and I do not say this lightly, adorable. He talks exclusively in fast chirps and whistles (provided by Redmalm, and Lyngeled says that "he always talks Dicey around the office. Makes other people crazy."). There is no character in recent memory that I have wanted a plushie of more. I want a signed poster of Dicey. I want a Dicey biscuit jar that chatters when I open the lid. His conversations with Even aren't one sided, either even though only half of it is in a language I understand. Her reponses are written well enough, and Dicey's so personable, that you immediately get the sense of what they're talking about. Sure, the fact that he has one single dark eye in the middle of his die face is quite alarming, but Timbo, eat your heart out.