Though it flew under a lot of radars, Cuddle Monster Games’ Hell is Other Demons was a standout platform shooter of 2019, featuring razor-sharp, ultra-tough action gameplay alongside a delicious neon aesthetic. Considering it was mostly the work of just one man by the name of Hannes Rahm, Hell is Other Demons was an impressive achievement and a great example of a niche classic. Rahm's latest project is Lone Ruin, which feels in a lot of ways like a spiritual successor to that initial release. That same dark atmosphere and intense gameplay are present, but now things play out in 3D. Though Lone Ruin doesn’t feel like it quite meets the bar its predecessor set, it still manages to be a raucously good time while it lasts.
Lone Ruin is all about the gameplay, which is equal parts thrilling and simple. A typical run involves you entering a room, clearing out all waves of enemies, collecting the reward (if you survive), then moving on to the next room. Most enemies go down after just a few shots, but the tricky part comes in with how easily you can get swarmed by them. Some enemies can shoot lasers and projectiles while others may explode on contact, and when things really heat up, there’s scarcely a square inch of space to be found onscreen where your character won’t be hurt. Luckily, your character is pretty light on their feet, and they also have a dash move on a small cooldown that can grant a few i-frames of respite while you reposition.
If you manage to survive a fight, you’ll then be granted a welcome upgrade to give you a bit more of a fighting chance. Sometimes this is just topping off your health, while other times it can be a new weapon or an upgrade to an existing one. None of these upgrades are game-changing, but we appreciated how they give you the ability to pursue a targeted build for your character.
Nearly every room ends with you being given a choice between two rooms to challenge next, with each one having its upgrade listed on the door before you step through. It takes a few runs before you start to get a sense of which weapons and abilities are most preferable, but it feels great once you get some good synergies going and can spot the best upgrades when they pop up. Plus, there are some unmentioned benefits and mechanics that you simply learn through discovery. For example, the scythe is a powerful close-quarters weapon designed around brief bursts of rapid swipes, but the game doesn’t explicitly tell you that each swipe can also delete any enemy projectiles flying your way, which gives it some nice defensive utility that many other weapons lack.
As you can probably guess, it is very easy to die in Lone Ruin, and this isn’t a roguelite akin to Hades or Rogue Legacy where you can carry over progress between runs to make later ones easier. Some may be put off by this high difficulty, but we found it to be quite manageable once you get a better idea of how the mechanics of various weapons work. It also helps that at the start of every run, a few of the weapons will be randomly selected to have an upgrade right off the bat, which encourages you to branch out and try different playstyles on each new attempt. And for those who still can’t manage to find an effective way to cut through the difficulty, there’s an ‘easy’ mode you can select at the start to soften things up quite a bit. We felt that this neutered a lot of what makes Lone Ruin enjoyable, but that difficulty mode can at the very least act as some nice training wheels to get you ready for the developer’s intended experience.
It should only take you a little under an hour or so to see Lone Ruin through to the ‘end’—depending on how often you die, that is—but there are a few other ways you can pad out the playtime a little more. The main draw here is a survival mode that strips away the room-switching progression and just plops you in a single arena for ten minutes while being assaulted by constant waves of increasingly stronger enemies. Collecting enough coins from slain foes will allow you to pick from some randomly selected upgrades, but you’re otherwise locked in and left to fend for yourself. Aside from this, you can get a little more replayability through attempting this or the main mode again on a harder difficulty, not to mention that there will always be ways you can better optimize your play to move up the leaderboards.
Though its simplicity is certainly commendable, it is also Lone Ruin’s greatest shortcoming. This isn’t a game that’s laden with secrets, unlockables, and new enemies around every corner—it doesn’t take too long to beat once you get to grips with it, and then the main reason to do it again is simply to get a better score on the leaderboards or to try it with a different weapon. Those who are motivated by extrinsic rewards in games may struggle a bit here, then, as Lone Ruin’s main appeal is simply the satisfaction of getting better so you can chase higher scores. Of course, not every game needs to have an extensive slate of unlockables and extra content to keep players invested for dozens of hours, but it does feel like Lone Ruin could use a little more fleshing out. It’s the kind of game that’s great for five hours or so, then you put it down and never find a reason to pick it up again.
The simplicity extends beyond just the content offering—Lone Ruin also feels rather shallow in terms of its mechanics. What’s here is fine, but it’s desperately in need of a combo system like the one in Assault Android Cactus or the polarity switching in Ikaruga—something to elevate the action a step above the senseless dodging and shooting that most fights devolve into and to instill a sense of deeper strategy. Without that extra X-factor, it becomes difficult to get very invested in Lone Ruin, because there’s not much to cling to here that you haven’t seen and done before. It has the fundamentals of the genre down and it executes them well, but it never feels any more than the sum of its parts. For better or worse, this is ‘just’ another twin-stick shooter.
As for its presentation, Lone Ruin goes for a cool visual style that utilizes what looks like a cross between voxels and traditional 2D pixel art. Characters and enemies are ostensibly 2D sprites, but a closer look reveals that some parts of the sprites are 3D models that fill them out and add in extra animation potential. Though the dark neon-drenched ruins can look a little samey as you advance through biomes, the action itself looks quite stylish when you have all these quasi-2D sprites zipping about and exploding in bombastic pink fireworks.
The only issue here is that performance isn’t quite up to par. In docked mode, we found that Lone Ruin sticks to its 60 FPS target for most of the time, but there were some instances we observed where the frame rate seemed to dip down a bit to what appeared to be the high 30s. In portable mode, we noted these frame drops were more frequent, but even in this case, 60 FPS was the norm most of the time. While perfect performance would be appreciated here—especially for a game as twitchy as this—the occasional hitches aren’t enough to substantially affect the gameplay experience.
As for its soundtrack, Lone Ruin mostly sticks to a collection of drum ‘n’ bass and darkwave tracks, which have just the right mixture of intensity and tranquility. Despite the high stakes, there can be something oddly zen-like and relaxing about dodging projectiles and just barely staying ahead of certain death, and the music here manages to capture that feeling perfectly.
Those of you who just want a straight, no-nonsense twin-stick shooter will find a lot to love about Lone Ruin, while those looking for a more ambitious project may want to look elsewhere. Tight controls, dark aesthetics, tough-but-fair gameplay, and a diverse collection of weapons and upgrades all come together to make this one a worthwhile purchase, with the caveat that it's also about as basic as a twin-stick shooter can get, which limits its staying power somewhat. We’d give Lone Ruin a light recommendation for anyone who considers themselves a twin-stick fan, though this may perhaps be one to wait for a sale.