Nestled away in the busy excitement of a Nintendo Direct last January, Bandai Namco first announced Project Treasure; a 4 player co-op title set to release exclusively for Wii U. With famed Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada and a team of young developers on board, their admirable goal was to create a game that anybody could download and play online for free.

One totally edgy name change later, Lost Reavers arrived as a free-to-start title on the eShop in April after whetting our appetites with a brief beta test just weeks earlier. As limited as that beta was, it still showed promise in its concept and garnered notable attention from an audience hungry for a new shooter on Nintendo's console. After delving deeper in eager search of further treasures however, it seems that this may not be such a hidden gem after all.

In Lost Reavers, up to four players work together to retrieve mysterious 'relics' - the only power sources left that can possibly save civilisation from the brink of disaster - and bring them back to the safe zone in one piece. Semi-randomised dungeon environments must be navigated in order to do so, and these are filled with enemies and puzzles to overcome before you can reach the relic chamber and work your way back out with the prize in hand. These multi-roomed environments call for a bit of teamwork and a lot of grinding combat, with enemy mobs constantly sent out in waves like annoyingly persistent mosquitoes. Mostly it's just zombies you'll be slaying, for reasons we wish we could explain.

The game starts off with a ten minute tutorial that runs through all the gameplay mechanics and controls before you start, which is a helpful addition that gets bafflingly repeated each time you first select a new character. It's the exact same tutorial every time with no deviation, but we couldn't find any way to avoid playing it a total of four times in order to try all the characters out - a portent of some grim design choices to come.

That being said, each of the four playable heroes feel relatively distinct from one another due to their unique weapon sets, but still keep a pretty consistent focus on general gun-play with some melee options thrown in for good measure.The walking schoolgirl cliché Sayuri wields a rapidfire SMG and katana for example, allowing her to swat at enemies up close while also picking them out from a distance. Alternatively, macho man Dwayne has a whole arsenal of firearms to choose from, leaving his combat knife feeling more like a last reserve. It's possible for multiples of the same character to play on one team as well, so no one needs to argue over their favourites here.

The controls themselves are clunky, with sluggish movement and a picky camera being particular nuisances, but it's workable enough and there are a few options to tweak if needs be. A very generous aim assist has been added to help effortlessly lock on to enemies, even if it feels more like a crutch used to awkwardly sidestep how frustrating it can be to shoot properly without it. It's worth mentioning that Dwayne's first-person mode actually controls even worse than the usual third person viewpoint, so pulling off accurate headshots feels more like sheer luck than skill. Generally, we found ourselves shifting more and more towards melee combat, and spotted quite a few other players online doing the same.

As you level up in the hub area between missions, character skill trees are straightforward and too barebones for any real customisation, so you won't be able to specialise or adapt your playstyle in any real way. The game's free-to-start nature creeps through with the presence of crates, which hold random gear that can only be accessed if you find enough "analysis chips". Each one adds to a progressive meter that gradually unlocks the crate, revealing what's inside, but if you're willing to spend some real world cash then you can open crates immediately. This is about as intrusive as the paywall gets, so it's very possible to get the full experience without spending any money at all.

Eventually you'll get used to the clunky controls and might get a cheap kick out of the decent combat, and all of this begins to sound pretty decent on paper. A typical play session has you find an open party or create one yourself, retrieve a relic, collect the loot, rinse and repeat. Unfortunately, everything is wrapped up in such a messy, shallow package that this grim repetition sets in quickly, and it sets in deep.

There's only one game mode of course, the aforementioned relic hunt, but this isn't really the issue. It's the elements surrounding it which drag everything down - whether it's the mindless puzzles, bland graphics or the whopping two environments that you'll explore. Everything takes place in either an egyptian crypt or an abandoned research station, where you'll hold 'A' at a computer screen to hack a terminal, hold 'A' at a statue to move it out of the way, or hold 'A' to pick a lock. This is the full extent of the puzzle-solving you'll be required to undertake, and while alternative versions of these levels can be unlocked as you earn experience, it's still the same basic location you've seen a hundred times already.

Somehow, Lost Reavers manages to straddle the line between being totally bonkers and incredibly mundane at the same time. It's almost impressive how this ongoing contradiction permeates the entire experience; as you blast rockets at a crowd of mummies and somehow find yourself yawning instead of grinning. For all its nonsense and cheesy quirks, there isn't enough diversity to keep the game from feeling fresh after only an hour or so.

The story and setting won't catch your attention either, as it never reconciles with the seemingly random environments and enemies that are thrown in without any explanation or attempt to form a cohesive whole. Admittedly an opening text crawl does speed by at the beginning, with just enough time to set up humanity's typical plight and our four 'Lost Reavers' as the heroes du jour, but it's too over-reliant on outdated character designs and stock enemies to stand out. This isn't helped by muddy visuals that wouldn't look too out of place alongside some GameCube titles.

In regards to the online experience as a whole, our impressions are mixed to say the least. Using a wireless connection, we were able to jump in and find games easily enough, but our experience was frequently marred by shaky lag, slow animations and games cut short by sudden disconnections. Other players seemed to drop in and out at random as well, some even hovering motionless along the ground as they glitched out. At times it felt as though our attacks weren't connecting, or that enemies warped around the room at random, and for a fast-paced action title like this, the satisfaction of a clean hit and being able to help teammates in a pinch is absolutely paramount. A wired connection may have helped make things better, but we've never had these kinds of issues with such regularity using Wi-Fi with other online titles such as Splatoon.

We're also left with concerns regarding teammates that go AWOL, as there's currently no way to hurry people along other than to make use of the pre-set chat options. More than once we were left waiting on a player as they stood by a door, or ran in circles instead of joining everyone in the meeting area. It's actually impossible to continue without them, so you're left to cross your fingers and hope they see sense before you die of old-age. In the absence of voice chat, at least no one will have to hear your exasperated groans. Online titles like this live and die by their player-base, so it remains to be seen if finding an open group will be as easy later in the year.

Conclusion

Lost Reavers is bitterly frustrating. Not awful, not unplayable, but frustrating. There's a great idea in here somewhere - at times it even manages to shine through - but there's far too much awkward padding and grinding repetition without the depth of gameplay that keeps players coming back for more. The best thing about it may well be that it's free to download right now on the eShop, so there's every reason to give it a try and maybe even get a few friends together into a group. It's worth a shot, but we can't be the only ones who see the potential here yet mourn the lifeless end result.