Zonk Games’ ‘Nightmare before Christmas’-inspired game harnesses the team’s creativity for maximum effect
Zoink Games just finished “Ghost Giant” and the team was ready for a new project. Coming off a bright and cheery VR game, creative director Olov Redmalm wanted to explore a different subject — a dark fairy tale. They tested out ideas, but it wasn’t until he saw a certain painting that everything crystalized.
He saw an image of a girl and dice in a board game world. It sparked a conflagration of ideas. “It opened up a world of possibilities,” he said. That vision coalesced into “Lost in Random,” a project that won the Best Indie Award at Gamescom 2021.
After previewing the game, the honor should come as no surprise. “Lost in Random” will likely be one of the critical darlings of the holiday season. It has a distinctive art style that’s inspired by stop-motion classics such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, but the more notable part of the project is how it blends rhapsodic creativity with gameplay that meshes seamlessly into the game’s theme.
A TALE OF SISTERHOOD
“Lost in Random” follows two sisters Odd and Even. They’re both citizens of the Kingdom of Random, and in this realm, once a child turns 12, they’re visited by the Queen who lets the youth roll the one true dark dice. The number determines the child’s lot in life. When Even’s older sister, Odd, hits that milestone, she’s accosted by the Queen’s minions and forced to follow tradition.
Odd ends up with a six, and she’s whisked away to live in Sixtopia, which is supposed be a magical paradise. That leaves Even without her best friend for a year. Despondent, she dreams about her sibling, and these visions cause her to worry, so she embarks on a journey to visit Odd. She stows away aboard a ship with a man named Herman who is looking for his son in Fiveopolis.
Unfortunately, the voyage doesn’t go smoothly and Even lands on a strange place full of dice and monsters. It’s apparently the ruins of the No Dice War, which apparently led to the Queen being in power. After being threatened by armored creatures, Even’s adventure looks to be cut short, but then then Dicey, her diminutive companion, arrives on the scene. This is when “Lost in Random” picks up and players figure out the basics of the combat system.
ROLLING THE DICE IN COMBAT
Dicey is the centerpiece and his powers are used with a stack of cards. First off though, Even has to shoot crystals off the adversaries with her slingshot and collect them. If the resource is in the middle of enemies, players can send Dicey to pick them up. The crystals are essential because they power the abilities on the cards. As players draw a hand, they’ll notice numbers on each of the five cards. Players can activate the power on the card by spending the appropriate crystals.
Early on, Even and Dicey have a few low-level abilities, but as Dicey is upgraded with pips and more powerful cards are added, the duo can access more powerful weapons and attacks. I didn’t get far in the demo, but I got a sense of combat.
Once Even gathers the crystals, she can activate him and freeze time. From there, players can choose from the cards on hand. Swords are useful, allowing Even to attack with simple combos or holding the attack button for a stronger and wide-ranging swing. Bows are pricier but they also keep her out of harm’s way.
Other cards produce items such as a healing potion. Another type of card focuses on traps such as a bomb. Even can choose that and set it right in front an enemy, walk away and ignited it with a rock from her slingshot. It takes some planning but it adds depth to the combat.
Because one of the game’s themes is that “Random is fair, random prevails, random rules,” players may not always get the cards they need at the moment. They may get three bombs and two potions, and they’ll have to make do while waiting for the deck to be reshuffled. The randomness forces players to expand their combat strategies so they don’t rely on just one card.
CARD COLLECTING AND EXPLORATION
Of course, players can build the 10-card deck in a way that certain types of cards are more prone to pop up. Redmalm said a deck-building element is in the game, but he doesn’t consider it a card-collecting title. “It’s an action game,” he said. “We want it to be interesting to get into. It’s more fast-paced and action packed.”
The combat system is intriguing, and there’s plenty of room for depth as players find the right mix of weapon, trap and power-up cards. In addition, Even has a defensive maneuver called a Blink Dodge that lets her go through attacks when timed just right. As for other forms of traversal, players won’t encounter much of them. From what I’ve played, Even can’t even jump. “Lost in Random” is more focused on exploration rather than moving from Point to Point B in a slick manner.
In point of fact, Zoink Games created a world that begs to be explored, and it rewards players who venture through every nook and cranny. They’ll find pots that Even can break to grab coins that are spent at shops for new cards and other items. Players will explore the strange realms beyond the starting point of Onecroft.
The developers with help from writer Ryan North (“Adventure Time” comics and “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl”) craft a world that’s delightfully weird and familiar at the same time. The beautiful visuals echoes a “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Coraline” but the world itself reminds me of “Labyrinth” — the 1980s classic with Jennifer Connely and David Bowie — with its strange lands that have been twisted by the Queen.
Two-town is a place where everyone is two-faced. It’s a realm where everyone has a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality that’s determined when the queen rolls her Dice. It’s a place where the character design and architecture cleverly reflect that two-in-one trait. Threedom is a town in a three-way civil war that’s sanctioned by the queen. Players should expect conflicts and drama as siblings fight over control of the kingdom after the old king was murdered.
Fourburg has strayed from its noble origins and become a lawless place. It’s a realm where gambling is widespread but authorities turn a blind eye to some cheaters. Like Las Vegas, it sounds like a place where the house always wins. Fivetroplis has a similar story to the other realms in that it was a thriving city and home to artisans such as the five great card makers. After the No Dice War, the realm fell to ruin as having no dice meant the cards they made were useless. It sounds like a place where Dicey and Even could make a difference and perhaps earn some powerful cards.
Lastly, Sixtopia sounds like a paradise, but like the Queen, things may not be as happy and perfect as they seem in that realm.
OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO
As Even and Dicey journey through each place, players should expect the two to make a difference solving the problems of each area. Each realm acts as a hub and players can tackle side quests and other tasks. Overall, head of development Klaus Lyngeled said the adventure will take 12 hours for most people to complete. It will be eight hours if you’re speed running it and 16 hours for completionists.
Although players will have choices in dialogue and some branching paths, “Lost in Random” is fairly linear with a set ending, Redmalm said. From the few hours I played, the game has a staggering amount of imagination that’s harnessed with an exacting dedication to the motif.
If Zoink can nail the execution, “Lost in Random” has the chance to be one of the best adventure games this year, and that’s saying something with titles such as “Psychonauts 2” coming out recnetly. The project is scheduled for release Sept. 10 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One,PC and Nintendo Switch. It is playable on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S via backward compatibility.[object Object]