Lost in Random makes a poor first impression. The overly dark and dreary opening areas are disjointed, rushing through the setup in a confusing and off-putting manner. It feels like you've been dealt a dud hand. Persist, though, and the cards start falling into place. The deck-building strategic layer gradually settles until it successfully blends with the core action of the combat, and the world eventually reveals a much more interesting, brighter, more colorful and character-filled side. Lost in Random overcomes a rocky start to tell a genuinely affecting tale of friendship, sibling bonds, and the cruelty of inequality.
The world of Random is ruled by a capricious Queen who determines the fates of her subjects with a roll of the dice. Ones are left to labor in the working-class slums while Sixers are whisked off to the Queen's castle in the clouds, their newfound societal elevation relieving them of the burden of ever again interacting with the poor. Even is a young girl living in Onecroft when her older sister, Odd, rolls a six and they become separated. Even is rightly suspicious of the Queen and so sets out to rescue her sister.
Even quickly recruits a companion, Dicey, and learns how to fight by playing cards and rolling a dice--and yes, before you say anything, the game uses "dice" not as a plural but as a singular. Combat is the heart of this action-adventure, and it takes a bit of getting used to. Even can't attack enemies without first playing a card that grants her an ability, but to be able to play a card at all she must first collect enough crystals to be dealt one. When she has cards up to a full hand of five she can roll Dicey and play a number of cards equal to the number on the dice. What at first feels like a lot of unnecessary complications soon comes together to offer plenty of clever tactical and strategic choices.
Throughout combat, there are always different approaches to take. The crystals used to power the dealing of cards can be collected from range by using Even's basic slingshot to shoot clusters attached to enemies, or up close by correctly timing a dodge through an enemy while it attacks. Just this simple distinction fosters two separate play styles.
Cards offer a wide range of abilities that allow you to further tailor your style of play. Some grant weapons, equipping Even with a sword capable of quick slashes, a giant hammer for heftier blows, or a bow and arrow, among others, all of which deal direct damage to enemies while letting you make meaningful choices about whether to do so from range or in melee, fast and light or slow and heavy.
Other cards allow you to deploy various assistants on the battle arena in the shape of what are essentially a range of mobile and stationary turrets, each of which will do their own thing but hit hard when they connect. Here, you're trading the reliability of using your own weapon for the potential to deal much greater damage. You can even turn Dicey into a bomb, but honestly, it feels a bit rude. The poor guy's got enough on his plate as it is.
The selection of cards I found myself drawn to was the slightly more esoteric picks. One lets you deal damage to an attacking enemy when you dodge through it, and another enables you to deal damage to an enemy whenever you shoot a crystal cluster off them. There are loads of others, too, adding poison attacks, slowing down time, several methods of healing and granting additional card uses, and so on. It adds up to a lot to consider and the limits on how and when you can play your cards force you into important tactical decisions throughout every combat encounter.
There's a recurring concern about abiding by or rejecting the rules, and how willing people are to accept their place in life. Or indeed, accepting the idea that there is a place in life to accept
You'll settle on some favorites and discover how certain cards compliment others, but then a new enemy will show up, or a new combination of enemy types will appear together, to confound your planning and force you to reconsider. Your deck is limited to 15 cards, including multiples of the same card if you have them, and during combat the deck is shuffled between each hand, meaning you can't always rely on getting dealt the exact cards you want in any given situation. And even if you get lucky and find yourself dealt the hammer and the healing that you wanted, for example, if Dicey only rolled a 1 then you're only able to play one of them.
Improvisation is vital, and what's impressive is how regularly Lost in Random places you in a tight spot and provides you with the tools to get out of it, even if they weren't the specific tools you had in mind. While every card is useful, there were quite a few occasions where I realized I'd entered a combat encounter with a deck balance ill-suited to the task at hand. That I still managed to struggle through in many of those occasions is a credit to the flexibility of the combat system. And when I didn't, it was simply a case of dying, tweaking my deck, and trying again. There's no punishment for failure.
Outside of combat, Lost in Random is less sure of itself. Even travels the six worlds of Random, each modeled on a different face of the dice, chasing up tenuous leads in pursuit of her sister. Exploring these worlds is cumbersome, with Even's inability to jump (except at certain prescribed locations) and tendency to get snagged on irregular shapes in the environment making basic traversal rather awkward. Although quite distinct from each other, the worlds feel samey within, full of new passageways that look like the one you just visited and mostly absent of truly memorable locations.
True to the oppressive nature of the Queen's rule, the worlds too often feel lifeless, despite the best efforts of the many people Even can stop and talk to and run quests for. Too many areas remain etched in shadow and shrouded in fog, sadly dulling the more eye-catching sights and diminishing an incentive to explore. Offering relief from the relentless gloom elsewhere, later areas are more likely to be brightened by sunlight and provide a superior showcase for the consistently surreal fairytale architecture. It's just a shame that so much of the creativity and imagination of the landscapes finds itself obscured.
Still, it's worth exploring every nook and cranny to chase down every last treasure pot hidden throughout Random, plundering extra loot to allow Even to purchase more cards to take into battle. More cards mean more options to build your deck and more choices to make in combat, further enhancing the game's greatest strength.
And despite the lackluster environments making it tough to truly feel invested in the fate of Random, the city's people will win your heart. Even is such a wonderful central character. She's tenacious and stubborn and fearless, like a kid who has yet to understand the limits of her ability to change the world. But she's also tender and worried and full of doubts about what she's doing and her place in the world. Clever writing of her conversations with Dicey--he speaks only in unintelligible noises, but Even understands him and you can parse what he's just said by the various dialogue options she can choose in response--reveal a strong friendship built on bonds of trust and a shared sense of humor. They both emerge as well-rounded--or perhaps well-cubed--and memorable characters who possess a genuine affection for each other.
Random is full of similarly memorable characters, albeit none as quite so fleshed-out as the two leads, all sending Even on a quest that will at some point tie into her main objective and intersect with the central narrative themes. There's a recurring concern about abiding by or rejecting the rules, and how willing people are to accept their place in life. Or indeed, accepting the idea that there is a place in life to accept. Random is a world ruled by the 1% who decide, on a whim, at the roll of the dice, the life of everyone else. It's a world where that power has so far remained unchallenged because divisions are sewn to pit its people against each other, to distract them from the actual source of their misery and oppression. At one point, Even remarks, "You grow up with it so you think it's normal, but the whole thing is madness." She's talking about dice determining a person's fate, but she could easily be talking about many aspects of our neoliberal capitalist world and the severe inequality it continues to inflict on all of us.
Lost in Random may have the look of a grubby Dickensian child, yet there's a surprising amount of meat on its bones. It may not always do its world justice, but there are charming and stirring stories to find if you can see through the dreary fog. In one memorably witty scene, it even manages to redeem its consistently incorrect use of "dice" to represent the singular. And best of all, there's a great combat engine that smartly implements deck-building mechanics to reward both strategic preparation and tactical invention. Make it past the slow start and you'll be lost in no time.