Lost in Random tells a story of two sisters, Even and Odd, who inhabit a fantastical storybook world of woollen chess pieces and steampunk teapots and the like. They’re separated by the Queen in accordance with a draconian tradition that sees children roll a dice on their twelfth birthday to determine their station for the rest of their life. When Odd is whisked away, Even sets off to find her, befriending as she goes a magical dice named... Dicey.
The world is structured in six realms — linked to the faces of the dice — from Onecroft, the lowliest of the low, to Sixtopia, representing a fantasy life of luxury with the Queen. Even starts off in Onecroft and set off to find Odd in Sixtopia, passing in turn through Two-Town, Threedom, etc. The gateways between realms can be opened only when you have enough pips on your dice, and those are acquired by completing quests in the world as you explore. In the course of traversing the towns to find and complete these quests, you encounter battles.
This structure is not in any way revolutionary but serves well as a framework to drape the game over. The walking around and chatting to NPCs for quests is all very familiar stuff, relying on the artwork, sound design and writing to lift it all above rote busywork. It’s in the battles, though, that gameplay is distinctive. We’ll come back to those, but the graphics, sound and story are for the most part able to do the heavy lifting that is asked of them.
The obvious reference point here is the work of Tim Burton, but by comparison, Lost in Random is not in any way sinister. It’s straight-up fairytale, not subversive. The story is Alice in Wonderland meets The Dice Man, so there was plenty of room to get dark with it, but developer Zoink went more gently family-friendly.
The aesthetic resembles stop-motion animation in its use of naturalistic and craft-like materials. We see wood, leather, fabric, clay and bone-like substances. It’s these naturalistic finishes that make Lost in Random pop with magical verisimilitude on more powerful hardware. While the Switch may lack the very specialest effects of its contemporaries, the game still looks fantastic and never feels like a compromise. It’s only if you put different versions side-by-side that Switch players will feel left out. Pop-in and frame drops are infrequent and cause no real bother. Handheld players beware, however: there’s a real downgrade once the Switch leaves its dock. On the big screen, though, it looks gorgeous.
It sounds gorgeous, too, with delicious sound design breathing back in any of the life that the Switch’s visuals might have let escape. The materials of the environment are felt through the texture of their sounds, while the dramatic orchestral soundtrack rings timpani and bells for enigma and gravity, with Tom and Jerry-style punctuation on the action in cutscenes further varnishing the production. The voice acting is sometimes hammy but always fun – although it seems lip-sync was not even attempted, unfortunately.
But the battles are where Lost in Random really tries something different, combining real-time action, dice rolls and deck building – and sometimes board games – into one seamless loop. First, Even must aim her slingshot at enemies’ weak points to dislodge crystals, which Dicey then collects. As crystals are collected, cards are turned over from the deck into your hand. When you have a hand of five cards, Even can roll Dicey to determine how many points can be spent, each card costing the number shown on its face. At this point, your enemies all freeze, allowing you to choose your cards and line up your next attack.
The cards grant abilities or modifiers of various kinds, which must be used strategically to defeat your foes. Once action recommences, you’re back to attacking – with any boons from your cards – and into another loop. Between battles, you will have chance to purchase new cards and manage your deck.
There’s a huge amount going on here but, impressively, its far simpler and clearer to play than it is to describe. What looks on paper like a Byzantine process for hitting a robot with a stick plays with an entirely welcoming and accessible air, unburdened by the intricate tables and menus you might expect.
However, while the battles are easy to learn, they’re also a bit too easy to master. The strategy never gets very deep, and although the addictive RNG of drawing cards and rolling dice always tickles the brain, it doesn’t really matter all that much what comes up. On the occasions that you are seeking a particular card – a heal when you’re low on HP, for example – going round another loop until you get it is more irritation than jeopardy.
This is what exposes the limits of the system Zoink has concocted: any more depth of strategy and the randomness would seem unfair; any less randomness and the whole conceit of the game evaporates. In that regard, then, it’s very well balanced – albeit within its own inherent limitations. One tweak that was certainly still on the table, however, is the overall length of combat encounters. Our hearts occasionally sank when the end of a long-winded fight turned out just to be the cue for another wave of enemies.
If there’s an idea no one’s done before, it’s probably because it’s just a bad idea. But Zoink has managed to hit on something original that actually works with Lost in Random. Its audiovisual world-building is tremendous, ably lifting a servicable quest structure and story, and inventive combat plays to its strengths and is taken carefully up to the limits of its potential. However, the layers of interaction during battles make a promise of strategic complexity that isn’t kept, and encounters last too long without the depth to sustain interest. Nevertheless, everything is packaged beautifully and Lost in Random doesn’t outstay its welcome, either, leaving you craving one last roll of the dice.